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What Are The Best Apps to Market On in Korea?

What kind of mobile apps come to mind when you think of Korea? You might instantly think of ‘Kakao’ and ‘Naver’, for example. But there are many more besides. Thanks to Covid-19, Korean native OTT services such as ‘Watcha’ and ‘Wavve’ are also booming, for example. In this article we’ll take a look at the latest popular Korean apps to give you more insight into the country.

According to Statista, internet browsers, e-commerce apps, video services, weather apps, and messenger apps are the top five most used mobile apps in Korea. The digital ecosystem in Korea is dominated by local players. Let’s break down these categories to go deeper into the most popular apps in Korea.

Messenger Apps: KakaoTalk, the Most Used App in Korea

‘KakaoTalk’ is the first app to be used by a large number of people in South Korea. According to Kakao’s Earnings Results, KakaoTalk saw its monthly active users (MAU) grow by 699,000 YoY, reaching a total of 48.3 million by the third quarter of 2023.

Launched in 2010, KakaoTalk gained attention through free messaging service over Wi-Fi or 3G networks instead of through paid messages. Since then, it has updated its group chat, open chat, and also a PC version, making it possible for family, friends, colleagues, and team members to communicate through KakaoTalk in various ways. In the early days of smartphones in Korea, this app was the No. 1 contributor to smartphone penetration, as many users bought a smartphone just to use KakaoTalk.

The company was also focused on developing characters that could be used as messenger emoticons. With cute characters such as Apeach and Ryan, they created “Kakao Friends”. It may have started as a small emoticon, but now this friendly mascot is a service ambassador, selling various goods, operating online and offline shops, and collaborating with various companies as an independent corporation. The company is expanding this approach by using Kakao Friends across its other businesses to boost its revenue.

(Image source: KakaoTalk)

KakaoTalk began as a messenger app but evolved into areas like finance and shopping, becoming deeply embedded in Korean users’ lives. It has integrated Kakao Pay, allowing users to send money to friends as well as manage personal finances within the app. KakaoTalk also incorporates the music streaming service “Melon”, webtoon and web fiction platform service “Page”, and gaming platform “Kakao Games” into the platform, creating a comprehensive online ecosystem.

Kakao’s competitor, Naver, has also built a group communication app called Band, which offers features including private chat rooms, shared group schedules, and a space for archiving photos and files. As of 2022, Band has an MAU count of 18.7 million, and the majority of the users are in their 50s. Band has now become an active site that provides club meeting services for the culture/hobbies of middle-aged users.

Band is also growing rapidly in the US market. Due to the spread of Covid-19, the number of new users has increased, especially for groups that require private and restricted communication among members, such as schools and religious group meetings. By the end of 2023, Band has an MAU count of around 5 million in the U.S., compared to just 700,000 in 2017.

E-commerce Apps: The Domination of ‘Coupang’, the Logistics Revolution, and the Rapid Growth of ‘Market Kurly’

‘Coupang’ is known as the Amazon of Korea. It is the No. 1 app in the shopping category in the country. Coupang started as a group buying platform similar to Groupon at the beginning, yet it has expanded to a wide range of product categories including daily necessities, electronics, household goods, and more. As of January 2024, the number of monthly users on Coupang amounted to around 150.1 million, double the amount compared to Naver Shopping (74 million) in second place, establishing itself as a dominating shopping app.

(Image source: Coupang)

The growth engine of ‘Coupang’ is its logistics, especially its ‘Rocket delivery’ service where products ordered before midnight are delivered by 7 am the following morning; this was considered so revolutionary that even Amazon could not achieve it.

According to Coupang, 70% of Koreans live within 10 minutes of a Coupang Rocket Delivery logistics center, allowing 99.6% of orders to be delivered within 24 hours. Other companies have been copying the ‘overnight delivery’ service from Coupang, and now this type of early morning delivery and next-day delivery service has become common in Korea. This end-to-end integration of the entire e-commerce experience positioned Coupang on Fast Company’s annual list of the World’s Most Innovative Companies for 2020.

While Coupang has conquered Korea’s e-commerce industry through its large-scale logistics, Market Kurly has also shown a sharp growth curve. Market Kurly is the top app in the fresh food category. It started as a premium strategy startup that prioritized healthy, quality food along with trendy food ingredients, and recently, companies with large distribution networks such as Coupang, Shinsegae, and Lotte.

(Image source: Market Kurly)

Finance Apps: ‘Samsung Pay’ takes the place of credit cards, ‘Toss’ goes from convenient transfers to stocks

In the finance sector, the leading offline mobile payment service Samsung Pay integrated with the leading online payment service Naver Pay in 2023. This partnership enables Naver Pay users to utilize their mobile devices at stores accepting credit cards through Samsung Pay’s Magnetic Secure Transmission (MST) technology. At the same time, Samsung Pay users can make transactions at any online store affiliated with Naver Pay, enhancing the convenience and reach of both payment services.

The FinTech service app Toss is another popular payment method in Korea. According to TechCrunch, Toss has 24 million registered users, securing the highest number of monthly active users. Toss has started with its convenient payment service and is a rapidly growing FinTech service with its current internet banking and securities company being pre-approved. As Toss is partnered with nearly all banks in Korea, it is accessible to 98% of banked customers in the country.

Meanwhile, Kakao Bank, which started financial services in 2017 as an online bank, has now become one of the leading digital banks in Asia. When it was first launched, the service experienced server connection issues due to overwhelming demand from users eager to open accounts and receive their debit card featuring Kakao Friends characters.

As of the first quarter of 2023, Kakao Bank has approximately 21.2 million users thanks to its commitment to intuitive, user-friendly technology and a range of distinctive services such as group accounts, mortgage loans, loan referrals, and a variety of financial products.

The launch of digital banks, such as Kakao Bank and Toss Bank, marked an important step toward digital banking in South Korea. In the first half of 2022, Korea has 1.5 billion registered online and mobile banking users, with a daily online transaction of about 75 trillion won ($5.7 billion).

Other Popular Categories: Gaming, Video, Webtoon, and News

In addition to the previously mentioned categories, gaming is also a primary area of interest in South Korea, with the current market favoring mobile gaming over console and PC gaming. The top three game publishers, Nexon, NCSoft, and Netmarble, have established dominance in the Korean gaming landscape.

In the video sector, YouTube and TikTok take the lead. Among the top 10 free apps in the video players & editors category, Kollus Players is the only Korean app. Besides video streaming platforms, editing apps are also rising in popularity, driven by the short video trend and an increasing number of Koreans interested in creating vlogs.

Webtoons captured significant popularity, with platforms like Naver Webtoon and Kakao Page leading the Korean market. These storytech platforms offer a wide selection of comics, games, and animations, allowing readers to enjoy brief moments of entertainment without the commitment of longer reads. Naver Webtoon now has approximately 8.23 million users, and it actively acquires prominent IPs and supports creators in publishing their stories, enriching its content library while also fostering a community of shared interests.

Finally, the news and information sector plays a crucial role for Koreans in accessing daily information. Despite the availability of Google, the majority of Koreans favor Naver as their default search engine, with Daum by Kakao serving as another popular web portal. The preference for these local services is due to Naver and Kakao’s extensive accumulation of Korean content, which optimizes its algorithm for more relevant search results compared to Google. Furthermore, Koreans started using Naver since 1998 and they have become accustomed to Naver’s interface. In other words, Koreans know Naver better, and Naver knows Koreans better — and this is the same for Kakao.

What is the Future of the Korean Mobile Market?

As we transition into the post-corona era, the concept of contactless interaction in daily lives through comprehensive apps such as Kakao and Naver has become increasingly prevalent. In addition, the rising popularity of Korean culture such as K-pop, Korean dramas, and mukbangs (eating shows), through YouTube or Netflix, has further propelled the mobile subscription economy.

If you’re looking to achieve success in Korea’s mobile market, then make sure you contact the Nativex team today. With a wide range of mobile marketing solutions available, our team can help global brands and advertisers reach their audiences in Korea and other key markets around the world.

Want to learn more about different social media app marketing in China? Take your pick from our “what is” series on BIGO, LINE, Zhihu, Dianping, and Xiaohongshu. You can also keep your eye on the blog for more updates.

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