Korean Digital Marketing Landscape

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This article was co-authored by Marcus Pentzek and HoGeon Kim. Based in South Korea, HoGeon is an SEO Specialist, Korean Digital specialist and copywriter who assists his clients in Digital Marketing strategies and execution for Korea. You can connect with HoGeon on LinkedIn where he shares his expertise on digital marketing in Asia.

online marketing landscape korea

South Korea’s embrace of Internet and mobile technology has catapulted the country to the forefront of the online marketing landscape in Asia.

Despite being a relatively small nation of 51 million people, South Korea punches well above its weight when it comes to technological adoption and innovation. Three factors have combined to create this perfect storm:

Population of South Korea; Source: https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/south-korea-population/
Age Distribution in South Korea; Source: https://kosis.kr/visual/populationKorea/PopulationDashBoardMain.do
  • First, South Koreans – especially the youth – have shown an insatiable appetite for the latest tech devices. Today, an astonishing 95% of adults own smartphones, by far the highest rate in the world.
95% of Korea’s adults own a smartphone in the year 2019; Source: https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2019/02/05/smartphone-ownership-is-growing-rapidly-around-the-world-but-not-always-equally/
  • Second, South Korea boasts one of the most advanced Internet infrastructures globally. Fast and reliable connectivity is taken for granted, allowing for widespread use of data-hungry apps and services.
  • Finally, the government has long supported technology as a driver of economic growth. South Korea’s massive investment in electronics and Internet technology over the past decades is now paying huge dividends.

The average monthly salary in South Korea varies by age group. For those in their 20s, the average monthly wage is around 2 million won or $1,700 USD. This gives young Koreans limited disposable income for discretionary spending.

However, wages rise significantly with age and experience. Those in their 30s earn an average of 3 million won or $2,250 monthly, while those in their 40s make an average of 4 million won or around $3,150 per month.

While not among the highest salaries globally, these wages go further in South Korea’s relatively affordable consumer market. The average wages in the 30s and 40s age groups provide a decent amount of spending power for Korean consumers, who are known for their love of shopping, dining out and travel. (Source: https://kosis.kr/index/index.do)

E-commerce and mobile commerce have also made it easier for Koreans to spend their money. Despite lower starting salaries, the rising wages as Koreans progress in their careers, coupled with Korea’s digital shopping culture, contribute to a sizable consumer market fueled by the spending power of the country’s workers.

The result is that South Korea has emerged as nothing short of a mobile marketing powerhouse. While other Asian countries are still catching up, South Korea has been at the forefront of trends like mobile e-commerce, location-based apps, and AR/VR marketing. Major conglomerates like Samsung, LG and Hyundai lead the charge, but an army of local startups are hot on their heels.

In many ways, South Korea’s tech-savvy population and thriving Internet ecosystem represent a glimpse into the future of online marketing in a mobile-first world. Marketers looking to tap into Asia’s tremendous growth potential would do well to keep a close eye on Korea’s vibrant and innovative digital marketing landscape.

Search Engines in South Korea

For the last decade, Naver has been the dominant search engine in South Korea. However, Google has been quickly gaining ground in recent years.

Screenshot Naver Search Engine homepage; Source: https://www.naver.com/

Since 2017 Google’s market share has grown from less than 1% to over 34% today, while Naver’s share has fallen from over 85% to just 58%. This shift can be attributed to two main reasons:

First, Naver has become more closed and focused on maximizing ad revenue. This has reduced search quality as content has become dominated by ads instead of authentic information.

Secondly, many Korean content creators have moved to Google due to its better revenue sharing policies. This has further contributed to Naver’s deteriorating search results.

While Naver remains the biggest player currently, marketers can no longer focus solely on Naver to be successful. Younger Koreans, in particular, tend to use Google services like YouTube from the start. Rapid adoption in the tech industry also favors Google.

However, Naver is now working to improve its algorithms and become more like Google. This more competitive search landscape presents opportunities for those who apply ethical SEO practices.

Properly optimizing content for both Naver and Google from the start, especially at a local level, can give businesses a big head start over competitors as overall SEO maturity remains relatively low compared to global standards.

In summary, while Naver still dominates Korean search today, Google’s ascension highlights the importance of a multi-search engine strategy for Korean marketers. Focusing on high-quality SEO targeted at both Naver and Google could provide first-mover advantages for those able to execute properly.

Korean languages in SEO

Korean is a critical language for online marketing success in South Korea. With over 51 million speakers, it dominates the digital space in the country.

Standard Korean, based on the dialect spoken in Seoul, is the official language used in education, government and media. It is therefore the most important for websites, content and digital campaigns.

However, regional dialects do exist and could be useful for certain local marketing initiatives. While unintelligible to other Koreans at times, dialects can add an authentic touch and foster closer connections with audiences in specific locations.

For SEO, standard Korean is a must to maximize search traffic. Websites, page titles, descriptions and all on-page content should be in standard Korean to be properly indexed by search engines.

For targeting local audiences, incorporating some dialect words could work – especially for businesses with a physical store front. However, this needs to be balanced against search engine optimization requirements.

In e-commerce, product descriptions in standard Korean give customers a shared language to evaluate products objectively. But personalized recommendations or promotional copy in dialect form could help create an emotional connection.

In social media marketing, a mix of standard Korean and carefully selected dialect words may perform best. It allows one to communicate broadly while expressing regional authenticity that can be appreciated by local followers.

In summary, while standard Korean is fundamental for online marketing foundations like SEO and e-commerce product pages, including some targeted dialect elements in copy, posts and promotional materials can strengthen connections with local audiences – especially for businesses with a physical presence.

However, these dialect elements must be used judiciously and in balance with readability and consistency requirements. A bit of regional flavor can enhance digital campaigns, but the main dish should still be served in standard Korean for the widest possible reach.

Online Publishing industry

The online news and information landscape in South Korea is dominated by large portal sites like Naver and Daum. These act as search engines, news aggregators and content providers, centralizing much of the country’s digital consumption. (Source: https://www.mk.co.kr/news/culture/9927357)

When it comes to official news publishers, major news outlets like Yonhap News Agency, Chosun Ilbo, Joongang Ilbo, Donga Ilbo and the Korea Times are important. However, their influence online pales in comparison to the portal sites.

According to a Reuters Institute survey, 72% of Koreans access news online through portal sites like Naver and Daum, while just 5% use the websites or apps of official news publishers. This shows the dominance of the portals as primary gateways for news consumption.

YouTube also plays a major role in Korea, with 44% of respondents saying they access news through the video platform. This is twice the global average and highlights the preference of Koreans, especially younger generations, for video over traditional articles.

The heavy reliance on portal sites does pose challenges for official news publishers. As mere content suppliers, they have limited control over how their news is framed and ranked among other content. This can diminish the context and nuances of their reporting.

However, major outlets are working to strengthen their own apps and websites to provide a more premium news experience. Some have also started offering subscriptions and memberships to generate more direct reader revenue.

Social Media Channels in South Korea

When it comes to social media, South Korea is quite unique compared to other countries. While global platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are popular among younger Koreans in their 10s to 30s, native Korean platforms dominate the social media landscape, especially for the 40s age group and above.

Kakao Page, owned by Kakao – South Korea’s largest internet company, and Naver Band, from popular portal Naver, are the top social media platforms for older Koreans. Kakao owns South Korea’s most used messaging app, KakaoTalk, while Naver is the country’s largest search engine and content provider. (Source: https://www.wowtv.co.kr/NewsCenter/News/Read?articleId=A202106160022)

Screenshot: Kakao Page homepage; Source: https://page.kakao.com/

This split in social media usage based on age groups presents unique opportunities and challenges for marketers in South Korea. Younger Koreans are on global platforms that marketers are already familiar with, while those in their 40s and above prefer localized Korean platforms. To reach the widest possible audience, marketers will likely need a multi-platform strategy, utilizing both international and Korean native social media.

UGC / Wikipedia

While international platforms like Wikipedia and Reddit have a foothold in Korea, numerous unique Korean user-generated content (UGC) websites dominate knowledge sharing in the country. These platforms offer marketers access to massive local audiences and user insights.

Namu wiki, Korea’s version of Wikipedia, allows users to freely create and edit articles on any topic. Starting in 2014, it has grown to over 4.1 million articles covering a wide range of subjects. Namu wiki demonstrates the appetite for collaboratively building knowledge among Korean web users.

Screenhot of Namu Wiki homepage; Source: https://namu.wiki/

But an even more dominant player is D.C Inside, often called “Korean Reddit.” With 120 million daily visits, D.C Inside hosts discussions on over 60,000 forums covering topics from games to entertainment to hobbies.

The scale of D.C Inside is astonishing: on any given day, over 905,000 new posts and 2.5 million comments are published across its communities. This demonstrates the Korean web population’s enthusiasm for generating and sharing user-created content.

Screenshot of dcinside homepage; Source: https://www.dcinside.com/

The homegrown UGC websites offer a wealth of insight into what Korean web users are interested in discussing, what problems they seek solutions for, and which emerging trends they find fascinating. Marketers can tap into this treasure trove of user-generated insight to identify fresh marketing strategies tailored for the Korean market.

Korean E-Commerce

South Korea’s e-commerce market has seen tremendous growth in recent years and is now one of the largest in the world. Domestic platforms like Coupang and Naver Smart Store dominate the Korean e-commerce landscape.

Coupang, often referred to as the “Amazon of Korea,” has rapidly grown to become the largest Korean e-commerce player. Funded by Masayoshi Son, who also invested early in Alibaba, Coupang is valued at over $50 billion (Source: https://www.cnbc.com/2021/03/11/coupang-ipo-cpng-begins-trading-on-the-nyse.html). What sets Coupang apart is its fast delivery service – promising delivery within 24 hours for most orders.

Screenshot of Coupang homepage; Source: https://www.coupang.com/

Naver Smart Store, part of Korea’s largest web portal Naver, has also seen strong growth. The platform caters to small businesses and retailers by providing them with an online shop. Naver’s large user base has helped boost Smart Store’s popularity.

Naver Smartstore is available as website and App; Source: https://sell.smartstore.naver.com/#/home/about

Though eBay and Amazon have a presence in Korea, they have largely failed to compete with the dominant local players. Shinsegae bought eBay Korea in 2011 and Amazon struggles with the country’s complicated delivery system.

Korean consumers are increasingly interested in e-commerce and luxury goods. The popularity of single-person households and advanced IT infrastructure have fueled Korea’s e-commerce boom. Mobile payment options are also readily available.

Korea is one of the fastest growing Ecommerce markets $530B commerce market, being the 5th largest in the world right now. Moreover, by 2023, it’s expected to jump to 3rd place as it’s growing at a much faster rate than the UK and Japan – there’s a huge opportunity here.

3 Reasons why E-commerce is so big in Korea

  • Single-person household – 30% and growing
  • Well-developed IT infrastructure
    • mobile first, simple payment available
  • Well structured logic system
    • Small country – set up logistics quicker and easier

Source: https://www.oberlo.com/statistics/ecommerce-sales-by-country

Some Korean e-commerce companies are now expanding into the B2B market, seeing an opportunity to serve the country’s estimated 7 million retailers. Subscription-based software-as-a-service (SaaS) tools are also gaining ground and are expected to become a $34 billion market. (Sources: http://biz.newdaily.co.kr/site/data/html/2021/10/06/2021100600081.html / https://platum.kr/archives/166082)

While Korean consumers show interest in foreign brands, domestic e-commerce platforms still dominate the market. For foreign brands and businesses looking to enter Korea, focusing on the B2B segment by providing customized SaaS solutions seems a promising avenue.

However, during Covid time, unlike as in other countries, there was an increased interest in Luxury goods (Source: https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/tech/2021/10/694_317083.html)

SEO in South Korea: Riding the Wave of Change

Many Western marketers have had experiences with low-quality SEO practices from Korea, like cheap link building and guest blogging. However, these tactics do not represent the norm for serious Korean businesses seeking long-term success.

For years, Naver dominated Korean search, focusing mainly on local content within its own ecosystem. This led many businesses to rely on ineffective SEO tactics. However, Google’s growing share of the Korean search market is now changing the SEO landscape.

Most Koreans still primarily blog on Naver, so they do not own domains. As a result, there are no serious link building trends originating from Korean blogs.

The shift to Google Search indicates Korean businesses are recognizing the need for an effective Google SEO strategy to reach these users. The lack of domain ownership and established link building practices in Korea also mean foreign companies with a strong Google SEO approach have an advantage entering the market.

There are no major current SEO trends in Korea like WDF*IDF or Semantic Latent Optimization. This again shows the opportunity for foreign businesses with advanced techniques to make headway before local competitors catch up.

Naver Keyword Tool and Google Keyword Planner are commonly used free tools by Korean SEOs. There is not much use of paid SEO tools.

Additionally, there are no major Korean SEO blogs currently that foreign businesses should follow.

To succeed, foreign businesses should optimize for Korean searches, conduct keyword research relevant to Korean customers and hire a Korean-speaking SEO expert familiar with local practices. Demonstrating effective SEO techniques will help businesses establish themselves early to take advantage of Korea’s large and growing ecommerce market.

This transition provides an opportunity for foreign businesses with a data-driven SEO approach to enter Korea and educate local businesses on best practices. Those who do so successfully will be well positioned to capitalize on Korea’s ecommerce boom.

Digital Marketing Beyond SEO in South Korea

While SEO and other digital marketing methods have grown in South Korea, paid search advertising (PPC) has emerged as the most important online marketing tactic for Korean businesses.

PPC has seen unprecedented growth in South Korea, with digital ad spend now surpassing offline advertising and doubling in just the last three years. Korean companies are allocating more budgets to PPC campaigns on search platforms like Naver and Daum, as it provides one of the most effective ways to reach customers searching for specific products or services.

Korean marketers consider PPC invaluable for generating leads, driving sales and competing against rivals online. The high competition for keywords and rapid growth of the Korean ecommerce market has made optimizing PPC campaigns a top priority for businesses.

Other digital marketing trends like content marketing on YouTube and creative social media strategies have gained momentum in South Korea. However, they remain secondary to PPC advertising for most Korean companies due to its unparalleled impact on business metrics and ability to be finely optimized.

While SEO remains a foundational strategy, PPC has emerged as the primary driver of traffic and sales in South Korea’s hyper competitive online marketplace. Foreign businesses looking to succeed in Korea should view PPC as the central pillar of their digital strategies, allocating significant budgets and hiring local PPC experts to optimize campaigns for Korean customers.

Integrating SEO, content marketing and social media in a way that supports optimized PPC campaigns will likely yield the greatest returns for foreign companies tapping into South Korea’s $530 billion ecommerce market. PPC has rightfully claimed its throne as the king of digital marketing trends in Korea – and marketers who acknowledge this will be best positioned for success.

  1. Anything else you think could be interesting (be it the same as in the rest in the world – while we “western” people might suspect it is different … or be it different while we don’t know much about the differences)? 

PPC Advertising in South Korea: Navigating Multiple Platforms

Paid search advertising (PPC) is an important marketing tactic for businesses seeking to reach customers in South Korea’s online marketplaces. With the country’s ecommerce sales projected to reach $300 billion by 2024, PPC campaigns on major search platforms offer a valuable means for businesses to get in front of Korean consumers.

While Google Search is growing in popularity, Naver remains the dominant search engine in South Korea with over 70% market share. This means Korean PPC campaigns often involve advertising on both Google Ads and Naver Ads.

While the fundamentals of PPC are the same on both platforms, there are some differences to consider:

• Competition: Naver Ads has significantly more competition due to its larger user base. This can drive up costs and make it harder to secure top ad placements.

• Targeting: Naver Ads offers more granular targeting options, based on specific demographics and interests of Naver users. Google’s advanced AI-based targeting is not as developed.

• Display Network: Google’s large display network allows ads to appear on millions of non-search sites. Naver’s limited display network delivers ads only on affiliated properties.

• Bidding: Both platforms use similar cost-per-click bidding options. However, Google’s automated bidding strategies tend to be more advanced.

To be effective in South Korea, many businesses run PPC campaigns on both Naver and Google Ads, targeting each platform based on their relative strengths. Naver Ads tends to work better for consumer products while Google Ads performs better for B2B and display advertising.

South Korea’s sophisticated ecommerce market and tech-savvy consumers make optimization crucial for success. Local experts familiar with both platforms can help foreign businesses maximize their PPC spend in Korea across Naver, Google and other search engines like Daum.

With the right strategy and optimization, PPC can be a powerful tool for businesses seeking to gain a foothold in South Korea’s increasingly digital economy.

Localization is Essential for Success in South Korea’s Digital Marketplace

While translation is important, merely translating content from English to Korean is often not enough for foreign businesses to succeed in South Korea’s sophisticated digital economy. Localization – contextualizing strategies for Korean culture, preferences and behaviors – is essential.

Costco in Korea demonstrates the power of localization:

  • Strategic locations in dense cities and a localized product assortment of Korean brands helped Costco stores in Korea generate more revenue than anywhere else.
  • Customized services like accepting Korean credit cards and an innovative mobile app launched Costco’s entry into South Korea’s competitive retail landscape.

Notion also saw success in Korea through localization:

  • An intuitive UX tailored to Korean workflow preferences helped Notion gain huge traction.
  • Localized Korean content and templates resonated with knowledge workers.
  • An emphasis on productivity and practical features valued by Korean workers fueled Notion’s growth.

(Source: https://www.theinvestor.co.kr/view.php?ud=20200811000864)

More broadly for foreign businesses:

  • Localized concepts that match Korean tastes and lifestyles are critical.
  • Content addressing issues relevant to Korean audiences encourages engagement.
  • Optimization for Korea’s advanced IT infrastructure and high smartphone usage removes barriers.

True localization extends beyond translation – encompassing visual design, product features, promotions and customer support optimized for the Korean market.

The Costco and Notion case studies illustrate that localization is essential for success in South Korea’s digitally savvy marketplace. Foreign businesses must deeply understand Korean preferences and behaviors to communicate effectively and connect emotionally with Korean customers.

Korea Leads the New Wave of Online Content Creation, Supported by Local Platforms

South Korea is truly a unique digital market, fueling the massive global spread of Korean content known as the Korean Wave or Hallyu. Local platforms like Naver and Kakao dominate alongside US giants, making it essential for marketers to understand key websites.

South Korean culture has taken the world by storm in recent years:

  • “Squid Game” became Netflix’s biggest series ever in 2021.
  • “Parasite” won Best Picture at the 2020 Oscars, the first foreign film to do so.
  • K-pop groups like BTS and Blackpink enjoy massive global popularity.

Important local websites to promote content in South Korea include:

  • Naver and Daum: Dominant search/portals with over 70% search market share.
  • Kakao: Leading messaging, social media and content platform with apps like KakaoTalk, KakaoStory and KakaoPage for businesses.
  • Nate and Daum Cafe: Major blogging platforms with niche interest communities.
  • Webtoons and Naver TV: Platforms fueling the spread of Korean dramas, K-pop and movies worldwide.

While global sites like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have sizable user bases, localizing content for Korean platforms will be critical to reach Korean audiences and ride the wave of Korea’s content boom.

South Korea’s emergence as a content creation powerhouse makes understanding Korean media consumption habits and targeting platforms like Naver, Kakao and Webtoons essential for non-Korean businesses seeking to engage Korean creative professionals and audiences.

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