The Korea Herald


[KH Explains] KakaoTalk reigns at home, but falters overseas

Korea's No. 1 messaging app lost 2.25 million users abroad over past decade

By Jie Ye-eun

Published : July 24, 2023 - 15:33

    • Link copied

Kakao's Pangyo headquarters in Gyeonggi Province (Herald DB) Kakao's Pangyo headquarters in Gyeonggi Province (Herald DB)

KakaoTalk has dominated South Korea’s messenger app market, as it connects people and offers numerous services affiliated from taxi-hailing to banking. While an increasing number of local users heavily rely on the messaging app, about 2.25 million people abroad, which take up over 4.2 percent of all users, fled from the messaging app in the past decade, according to the latest data from its operator Kakao.

Launched in March 2010 as a free mobile messenger, the number of KakaoTalk’s monthly active users has been on the rise in Korea, but the overseas user figures have showed a steady decline. Kakao started unveiling the MAU figures in the first quarter of 2013.

As of the first quarter of this year, the number of KakaoTalk’s MAUs exceeded 48 million here, jumping a whopping 47.8 percent from the 32.5 million recorded in the first quarter of 2013. The number of messenger users abroad, on the other hand, plummeted 29.5 percent to 5.36 million over the same period.

Experts called the divergent trend the outcome of Kakao’s domestic-centric expansion strategy based on its dominance at home. With multiple credible rivals on the rise over a decade, global users felt less of a need to stick with the Korea-focused messaging app and left the service, they said.

“Looking at the past 10 years, only the number of overseas users decreased. Either KakaoTalk did not suit the tastes of overseas users or provided services that were too focused on domestic users,” Hwang Yong-sik, a professor at Sejong University's College of Business Administration, told The Korea Herald.

He warned that Kakao has to take the phenomenon seriously since the number of users inevitably decreases exponentially from one or two users due to the nature of the messenger app.

“So far, it has seen a 30 percent reduction in overseas users, but the same situation may happen in the domestic market," the professor said.

Some experts said the monopoly or oligopoly of messenger apps enabled Kakao to quickly dominate the local industry, at the same time, created a hostile condition in expanding its presence in the overseas market.

Jeon Seong-min, a business administration professor at Gachon University, said Chinese tech giant Tencent, one of the major shareholders of Kakao, learned KakaoTalk's operating know-how and launched its mobile messenger WeChat in China in 2011 and expanded its services to make it a "super app."

“Naver's messaging app Line solidified its position in Japan and Southeast Asia markets. In North America and Europe regions, the mobile messenger culture has not yet developed much, so KakakoTalk is not being used much,” said Jeon.

An industry source close to the matter said KakaoTalk's biggest drop in the overseas MAUs came after the Chinese government blocked the service in 2014. The emergence of other social network services such as Meta, the parent company behind Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram, affected the overall messenger apps’ popularity, a Kakao official added.

“Despite all the difficulties (we’ve faced) and a first-mover effect in the messenger app market, we have been working very hard to establish our foothold and keep our position in the competitive industry,” the Kakao official said.

To widen KakaoTalk's services from a communication tool to a community platform, the firm has been preparing the launch of OpenLink, a service where users with the same interests, such as hobbies, places and characters, to gather to communicate.

OpenLink, which the firm sees as a future growth engine, is slated for a global release within this year. It is based on the Open Chat feature in KakaoTalk, in which users can share posts and messages via an invite link without adding friends on the app. OpenLink will also allow a chat room admin on the service to generate profit by providing subscription-based services, according to Kakao.

While introducing the OpenLink feature at a press event held in June last year, Kakao’s ex-CEO Namkoong Whon said, “We realized that there was a limit to global expansion with acquaintance-based services of about 50 million local users, who account for only 1 percent of the world. We are targeting 5 billion users globally.”

Yet a majority of experts forecast that it is uncertain whether OpenLink will be able to rapidly attract global users, as Kakao has failed to advance in the overseas markets with the exodus. Some said more could continue to leave even with the new service.

Professor Hwang of Sejong University suggested that Kakao has to be in a “battle of decisions and focus." He said the company has to focus on certain regions or countries with specific business strategies, rather than targeting them all with the same business models.

“There has been no meaningful result despite Kakao’s continuous attempts to allure overseas users,” said professor Jeon of Gachon University.

“When a majority of people use a service, users follow in the messenger app industry, Kakao has to find a way to directly launch a service that will captivate global users or acquire a business that can be actively combined with its services there, if necessary.”