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[Yang Sung-jin] Creativity counts, even for cat videos

Naver, the biggest online portal site in South Korea, has long dominated the country’s digital market, from online advertising to news aggregation services to e-commerce. Of course, Facebook is still the king of the increasingly crowded social media realm, and KakaoTalk is the invincible mobile messenger that Koreans are dying to turn off whenever possible but cannot do so for various reasons, one of which is the possibility your boss might send an urgent message to you at night with a mysterious link to, well, a cute cat video on YouTube.

By the way, YouTube has emerged as the country’s top mobile app. According to the latest data, Korean users spent 25.7 billion minutes on the YouTube app in February 2018, exceeding the total time spent on competing apps from KakaoTalk (17.9 billion minutes), Naver (12.6 billion minutes) and Facebook (4.2 billion minutes) during the same period.

Remarkable is the speed at which YouTube is expanding its user base here. The whopping 25.7 billion minutes spent watching YouTube last month mark threefold growth from the level seen two years prior.

I strongly believe the soaring growth of YouTube is largely thanks to the incredible popularity of super cute cat videos that have flooded the global video platform. If you’re skeptical, just check out South Korea’s No. 1 cat channel: “CreamHeroes.”

The YouTube channel, featuring seven adorable cats and their mysterious owner, was launched in January 2017. In about four months, the number of cat lovers subscribing to the channel surpassed 100,000, a crucial threshold that suggests the commercial potential of the video content in question. The figure quickly doubled, then tripled, breaking one record after another, as cat lovers addicted to binge-watching the cutest cat videos spread the good news about the channel by word of mouth or sharing the clips on KakaoTalk, Naver and Facebook.

CreamHeroes now boasts more than 810,000 subscribers and converts some 100,000 unsuspecting YouTube users into cat lovers each month.

It was around January this year that I got sucked into the sweeping swirl of CreamHeroes cat videos. It was a sort of “meant-to-be” moment, since I could “indirectly” experience all the joys of raising a cat (or in CreamHeroes’ case, seven cats, to be exact) by simply turning on my smartphone and clicking the YouTube app.

I especially love the way the mysterious host of the channel, whose face always remains hidden, takes care of TT, DD, LuLu, CoCo, LaLa, MoMo and ChuChu, in a playful yet considerate manner with plenty of impromptu self-dramatization and voice acting for imaginary situations.

My favorite cat is LuLu, who is curious and playful enough to invite all kinds of trouble. But his surging popularity among subscribers is driven by the unparalleled voice acting of the host.

When I first heard the host voicing LuLu in a video, I thought there was another person nearby, possibly a professional voice actor who has devoted her entire life to mastering cat-speak.

Any-meow, some might argue that there are greater YouTube channels with a bigger fan base. Indeed, YouTube added 601 channels with more than 100,000 subscribers and 39 channels with 1 million subscribers last year. In addition, it welcomed three new channels with a whopping 10 million subscribers.

In all fairness, YouTube’s breathtaking advance should be viewed as part of a broader digital trend in which Korean users favor watching not only cat videos, but also videos on nearly any subject they could want to explore, ranging from gaming to beauty to cooking.

Instead of typing in a keyword on Naver to grab text-based information, a growing number of Koreans are flocking to YouTube to get video content to watch and learn. It is now estimated that YouTube controls more than 80 percent of the country’s video service market. No wonder, then, Naver is deeply concerned about its still-nascent video platform amid the gloomy prospect that its text-based business model might hit a limit in the foreseeable future.

While Naver and Kakao, which runs KakaoTalk, are scrambling to find a way to catch up with YouTube in video services, more and more Koreans are entering the YouTube battleground with the hopes of discovering a fresh source of income or hitting it big as a new star creator with millions of subscribers, a flurry of sponsorship deals and snowballing advertising revenue.

Staying visible in the YouTube fray, however, is easier said than done. Even in the cutest cat video segment of YouTube, competition is cutthroat. The success of the CreamHeroes channel offers a couple of hints for those who are brave enough to launch a new cat video channel.

Unlike other cat channels with limited topics, CreamHeroes throws out a daily stream of content in diverse genres, including a live talk show, nail care, breathless cat bathing, toy making and comic skits. Just like popular K-pop groups, each of the seven cats has amassed its own die-hard fans, and, most importantly, the host wields overwhelming star power over viewers.

In short, YouTube promises a fresh digital market where talented creators can make money, but as with other business ventures, you’ve got to have the creativity and star power to succeed -- or bravery to raise seven cats and make videos out of them on a daily basis.

The writer is the multimedia editor of The Korea Herald. He can be reached at - Ed.

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