South Korea’s webtoon companies target global takeover

As the author of a series that has attracted 1.2 billion readers, Rachel Smythe is one of the world’s leading webtoon creators. But in her native New Zealand, almost no one seems to know what she’s doing.

“If I go to a party, people will be like, ‘I don’t know what that is,'” said Smythe, whose graphic novel based on her Lore Olympus series hit the pinnacle New York Times bestseller list of the last year. “And when I tell them I got a job on an app that was founded in Korea, they’re like, ‘Rachel, that sounds like a scam — are you alright?'”

Webtoons, comic strips intended to be read on a smartphone, are South Korea’s latest cultural export from Asia following the worldwide success of K-pop superstars BTS and Netflix sensation Squid Game.

They are already big business in Japan. In January last year, Piccoma, the Japanese webtoon subsidiary of Korea’s Kakao Entertainment, raked in $96 million in monthly revenue, making it the world’s second highest-grossing non-gaming app. It was second only to TikTok, beating out the YouTube app and Tinder.

Now webtoons are breaking into the mainstream. All of Us Are Dead, a South Korean zombie apocalypse coming-of-age drama that began as a digital comic on the Naver Webtoon platform, was the most watched non-English language show on Netflix at the end of February. The Kakao webtoons Itaewon Class, Moving, and Dr Brain have been successfully transformed into TV series on Netflix, Disney+, and Apple TV+, respectively.

But Smythe’s experience shows how many webtoons are still unknown outside of East Asia, even as they gather a burgeoning army of young non-Asian fans and target the American market.

One of the pioneers in the industry is Kim Jun-koo, a software developer who was frustrated by the slow death of traditional Korean manhwa Comics in the wake of the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s.

His webtoon platform Naver Webtoon, which he founded in 2004, is now the largest in the world with 750,000 creators and 82 million monthly active users. Gross merchandise volume, a measure of the amount of money spent by users within the app, grew from $492 million in 2019 to $900 million in 2021.

“A webtoon is not a digital version of a comic. It’s a comic that was created digitally,” Kim said. “In Korea, the comics disappeared, it was an example of a dire situation that led to innovation.”

Leading platforms such as Naver Webtoon and Kakao Webtoon provide creators with tools to create and upload webtoons for free, providing audiences with an almost limitless choice of content.

“With webtoons, there is no genre limitation, and the genres are very diverse,” said Jang Min-gi, professor of media communications at Kyungnam University. “Users can see them on the go, access them very quickly, and view them in a very short amount of time.”

Column chart by Won tn showing South Korea's webtoon earnings

With hundreds of thousands of creators and tens of millions of monthly readers, webtoon companies are able to employ a range of monetization strategies. Some use a YouTube-like model to attract large audiences with free content, others use a Netflix-like model to attract paid subscribers to the most popular series or a “Microtransaction” payment model favored by gaming apps.

“The business model has now evolved more in the sense that readers pay for the next episodes if they want to read them immediately. . . If the story is fun and engaging, readers won’t want to wait,” said Song Jin-woo, head of platform operations management at Kakao Entertainment, which operates Kakao Webtoon.

A 'Dr. The Brain cartoonist at Kakao Webtoon draws in a company studio in South Korea
A ‘Dr. Brain cartoonist at Kakao Webtoon draws in a company studio in South Korea © Heo Ran/Reuters

Analysts and industry leaders describe a “virtuous cycle” whereby successful adaptations into other media attract legions of international fans, who then turn to webtoons as they seek the source of their favorite stories and characters.

“It costs a lot to produce films and soap operas, especially fantasy films, while creating comics requires little money but can have beautiful visual effects,” said Park Jeong-seo, head of webtoon business at Kakao Entertainment.

In addition to exporting their own audiences to foreign platforms, Korean platforms have also taken to “importing” foreign audiences through deals that give them access to what Kim Jun-koo calls “super IP.”

In 2019, Kakao Entertainment entered into a collaboration with the American comic book publisher DC Comics. Naver Webtoon has partnered with DC, its rival Marvel, Archie Comics and Hybe, the South Korean company behind BTS.

Both platforms have built loyal audiences in Europe, Latin America and Southeast Asia. Naver Webtoon, which offers services in French, Spanish and German, is launching its own European company, while Kakao Webtoon launched in Thailand and Taiwan last year.

An image of a webtoon showing someone looking stressed while looking at their phone
Image from “Hellbound”. Created by Yeon Sangho, art by Choi Gyuseok. Courtesy of Naver Webtoon © Naver Webtoon

“We are now focused on expanding into the US, the world’s largest content market. To be successful there, we need to develop webtoons that cater to American tastes,” said Park Jeong-seo of Kakao Entertainment, which last year acquired Los Angeles-based webtoon publisher Tapas Media for $510 million. dollars has taken over.

Naver Webtoon’s 14 million American users accounted for 17 percent of its global readership, compared to 25 percent in South Korea, 15 percent in Southeast Asia, 8 percent in Japan and 4 percent in Europe.

Last year, the company completed the $600 million acquisition of Canadian company Wattpad, a user-generated written content platform with 94 million owned users.

Executives believe that the purchase will not only give the company access to new users in foreign markets, but will also help increase the quality of their creations by partnering with promising illustrators.

“There are two methods of telling stories – one visual and one written – so bringing these together only makes it stronger,” said Aron Levitz, President of Wattpad.

Kim Jun-koo, CEO of Naver Webtoon, said that while his company’s ambitions are supported by its well-funded parent, Korean web portal Naver, “we plan to make more aggressive acquisitions and if we need bigger investments, we plan.” a review an IPO or debt financing.”

With webtoon platforms targeting the US, analysts have questioned whether Korea’s “digital snack culture” will resonate with an American audience.

But executives and developers are putting their faith in a group of consumers they think are routinely overlooked: young women and teenage girls. Over 70 percent of US users of Naver Webtoons are under the age of 24. Young women make up 80 percent of Wattpad’s readership.

It was this demographic that propelled Rachel Smythe’s “Lore of Olympus” webtoon, based on the Greek myth of the romance of Persephone and Hades, to the top of the digital and physical bestseller charts.

“Young women are so passionate and just have so much to give, but often the things they like are insulted and looked down on,” Smythe said.

“But this is an app where the things they enjoy are celebrated and treated with respect. I think that’s why it’s going so well.”

Additional reporting by Kang Buseong

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