Snow freezes out Snapchat in Asia

US phone apps face competition from those developed in Asia and targeted at the regional market

HONG KONG • It sends short, self-destructing messages. It has a place to share videos called stories. It has camera filters that transform a person into a koala, a fried egg, a police officer or any number of foods, animals and figures.

But this is not Snapchat. This is Snow, a popular South Korean Snapchat clone that shows how even the most popular American smartphone apps face an uphill battle in fast-growing Asian countries.

Snow focuses on Asian consumers. Like Snapchat, it offers users an array of filters that can add dog ears, glowing eyes and bulbous foreheads to selfies. But Snow also lets users add bottles of soju, the Korean liquor, or images of Korean pop stars. Another filter adds a rain of fried chicken, a favourite South Korean snack. For Japan, there are a sumo wrestler and sushi filters.

As a result, a significant part of Snow's roughly 30 million downloads has been from Asia since the app's introduction in September last year, according to Mr Han Dong Keun, a spokesman for its parent, South Korean Internet company Naver. Notably, it is also gaining traction in China, where the country's 700 million users make up the world's largest Internet market. There, Snow has a major advantage: Snapchat is blocked in China.

"We usually use Snow when drinking tea together or eating a meal together to take pictures together because the app is really truly interesting," said Ms Sun Yuying, a Shanghai university student who said she discovered Snow a month ago when she saw on social media that a number of Chinese celebrities were using it.

For the Japanese market, Snow develops filters such as a sumo wrestler. PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

Snow's popularity in Asia underscores a new reality for American app makers. Previously, popularity in the United States often led to corresponding growth overseas. Today, well-established Internet firms in China, Japan and South Korea can move quickly into those niches.

For Snapchat, the biggest social network success out of the US in recent years, the success of Snow shows that any original advantage Snapchat may have had in East Asia's vast and lucrative markets is fading.

"A lot of start-ups are thinking if they build a product, they'll be able to go global, but that's just not the case anymore," said Mr Tim Chae, a partner at 500 Startups, who heads a venture capital fund focused on South Korean start-ups.

Snapchat does not list any Asian offices on its website, but the company is advertising for freelancers to help it develop local- language versions in South Korea and Japan as part of a "language ambassador programme".

Mr Han, the spokesman for Snow, acknowledged it was similar to Snapchat, but said Snow had unique features such as video chat. Like Snapchat, its primary user demographics comprise teenagers and young adults.

East Asian countries have provided a ready market for new social networks centred on video, selfies, animations and entertainment. The new social networks are largely used on smartphones - a transition that established social networks such as Facebook are trying to make. Japan has Line, which, like Snow, is owned by Naver. China has WeChat, a messaging and social media app that has become ubiquitous on Chinese smartphones.

Ms Ivy Zhou, another Snow user, attends university in Hong Kong, which does not have China's Internet censorship and where she is free to use Snapchat. Snapchat's social network is far more vibrant than Snow's, she said, but in China, Snow could fill a fun niche.

"In mainland China, because they can't use Snapchat, I'm sure people will use Snow more," she said. "Whereas WeChat is really a communication tool, Snow has a lot more of an entertainment element, and more young people use it."

Snow's initial success could offer a road map for Asian social media networks, many of which have struggled to break out of their home markets. While South Korea has a mobile market comfortable with tech, its Internet companies suffer from doing business in a relatively small market.

Even the success of Line, Naver's biggest international success, with a major presence in Japan and Thailand, has ultimately fallen short of other chat apps such as WeChat and Snapchat, in part because it does not have a large home market.

Naver has plans to take Line to the US, according to the company, but Mr Chae, the venture capital investor, said South Korean companies were now looking at China instead.

"For the longest time, the holy grail for a lot of Korean founders was to get US market share," he said. "They all failed, and failed because there were so many issues. There was no American working culture, they didn't have a network in America, they didn't speak English."

He added: "With the rise of China and China's infatuation with Korean culture, it's breathed new life into Korean start-ups and founders. This is a market that happens to be a lot bigger than the US, that seems to be more welcoming towards Korean technology and culture than the Western world ever was."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 07, 2016, with the headline 'Snow freezes out Snapchat in Asia'. Print Edition | Subscribe