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In Korea, Culture Matters in the Social Media Landscape

Updated: May 21, 2019

As social media networking sites continue to become a global phenomenon, the ways and whys of how people use them will inevitably vary depending on their social, digital, mobile and cultural environments. Even with the explosive growth of US-based giants such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, marketers looking to attract a global audience cannot expect digital communication technology to be used around the world in a standardized way.

By way of example, South Korea is a hyper-connected nation with nearly 89% of the population owning a smartphone, major cities such as Seoul offering free WiFi in public places, 4G coverage nationwide, and 5G commercial coverage soon to be available in March 2019. In addition, from elementary school students to seniors, South Koreans are some of the most active social media users in the world. According to a recent study on cultural differences, Korean college-aged SNS users use social media to seek social support from existing social relationships rather than entertainment, convenience, and social interaction. Another study reveals that seniors in Korea, one of the fastest ageing countries in the world, have a higher adoption rate of information and communication technology products and services than other countries. Thanks to TV shows and offline classes offered in the early 2000s dedicated to teaching seniors how to use smartphones, many are agile users of mobile group communication apps such as Naver Band and Daum Cafe.

According to Korea’s app popularity analysis company Wiseapp, Koreans routinely turn to YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram. However, they are also intensely loyal to homegrown social media sites such as Kakaotalk, KakaoStory, Melon (an online streaming music app that rivals Spotify and Apple Music), and Naver Band (a private group sharing app). Notably, Cyworld, Korea’s first social media site and one of the earliest examples of monetization of virtual goods, gradually lost market share to Facebook and is currently trying to gain back its popularity with a news curation app called Que.

Turning from social media apps to search engines, we find that local search engines dominate in Korea. In fact, Korea is one of the few countries where Google does not dominate as the place to go when searching the web. Naver, which owns Band, Naver Cafe, and LINE, captures more than 70% of the Korean search engine market share.

Naver thrives in a Google-dominated world because it innovated with various search types (i.e., Naver’s Blog Search, News Search, and Q&A database etc) to establish itself as an essential tool among social-centric Koreans. Naver’s Knowledge In (think Yahoo Answers), and its Q&A database are immensely popular and Naver’s competitive advantage lies in its ability to humanize information (think Google’s Universal Search) by combining information on popular topics that users generate through blogs and Q&A searches rather than relying on its algorithm alone. Furthermore, Naver's search algorithm is built around Hangul. Lastly, Naver started out as a social search engine while Google is still on its way.

Another contributing factor to Naver's dominance is its ecosystem. Unlike Google, Naver offers almost every service in-house and prioritizes the search results from those services. For example, Google sources news articles from the NYT, the Telegraph, etc and blog posts from Wordpress and Medium, but Naver sources news articles from its own Naver News service and it sources blog posts from Naver Blog. What makes Naver’s ecosystem unique is that it is a world unto itself. Google can not query Naver Blog posts and put them on their search results, and Naver does not search outside their platform.

The implication for marketers is that they cannot assume that the motives for using social media are shaped by the same cultural factors or that the same sites will be popular.