Unlike most countries in the world, where Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon reign supreme, Koreans have developed their own digital economy giants. What is it that sets Korean social networks apart?
South Korea is extremely well connected!
South Korea is the only country in the world to have achieved complete 3G/4G coverage, with no corner of the nation left behind. Whether you are on the metro, in the middle of the countryside, or on board a high-speed train, it is always possible to connect to social media.
Today, 86% of South Koreans have already started using 4G. And in order to stay one step ahead, the country plans to roll out its 5G network in time for the 2018 Winter Olympics. This will make it the first country in the world with full 5G coverage.
In addition to this highly developed network, the country also benefits from ultra-fast connection speeds. For several years now, South Korea has ranked first globally in terms of internet connection speed.
A nation of constant connections and intense social network use
Out of a population of 51.25 million, South Korea has more than 45 million internet users, as well as 38.4 million active users on social networks, i.e. 83% of all active users of social networks. This places South Korea in the top 2 for the use of social networking globally (just ahead of Singapore with a rate of 77%). These two countries are way ahead of the US (7th), where 66% of the online population are active users of social networks, and the United Kingdom (10th) with 64% of its internet surfers actively using social networks.
An appetite for social networks that has enabled the development of domestic companies alongside the American giants
The Daum/KakaoTalk universe, a merger of two major Korean digital service providers, has managed to carve out a sizeable chunk in the market. According to StatCounter, Daum is the 3rd biggest search engine in South Korea with a market share of approximately 6.5% (behind Google and Naver, with market share rates of approximately 66% and 25%, respectively). KakaoTalk, on the other hand, is a WhatsApp-style messaging service, which is actively used by 97% of all smartphone users in Korea and serves 41 million monthly active users.
KakaoStory, with its plethora of services, is the equivalent of Facebook. Launched in 2012 by Kakao Corp, it is the preferred network among Koreans. Both, KakaoTalk and KakaoStory, are the most widely used Korean social networks despite the presence of their Western and Chinese competitors locally.
Similarly to the Chinese WeChat, Kakao has since engaged in a diversification strategy, for example offering online banking and taxi services. Kakao users are also able to send each other gifts. For instance, a Kakao user can easily treat his friend a pizza by sending a bar code to his account, which then can be redeemed online or in store.
However, it is clearly to Cyworld that Koreans owe their enthusiasm for social networks. Cyworld created the first major social network back in 1999, well before Facebook or Twitter, and it rapidly became a hit. One unique feature is that it allows its users to organise, manage and prioritise their relationships according to a hierarchy consisting of three different ‘ranks’, thus matching the structure of Korean society. For a long time, the company resisted the inexorable rise of Facebook, but Cyworld recently experienced a sharp decline in use.
Despite the arrival of American social networks, South Koreans are continuing to use their country's domestic networks actively, with specific usages that vary according to the user's age in particular. For instance, users in their 40s and 50s mostly use KakaoStory.
Enduring national characteristics
Mobility is everything, and it is in the world of apps that the supremacy and uniqueness of South Korean offerings are most apparent. Leaders in this area are Band and KakaoStory with 14.8 million and 13.6 million unique Android users respectively, surpassing Facebook with its 10.1 million unique users.
South Korea is unarguably an ultra-technological nation. Even more so than in other countries, it is virtually impossible for Korean millennials to go about their daily lives without using social media platforms—hinting at the potential for new players on the market.