iKorea: Why Korea is Saying No to Programmatic

iKorea is a column by Soyoon Bach, a Digital Marketing professional in Seoul, covering developments in the Korean digital ecosystem.

Programmatic media buying is a powerful infant. While the technology itself is fairly new, it’s making strides globally. According to eMarketer, the programmatic market in the United States is projected to reach an estimated amount of 26.78 billion USD by the end of this year.

While North America is still by far the biggest programmatic market to date, Asia is quickly catching up and experiencing fast growth rates. Japan, Singapore, and Australia are leading the way as more mature programmatic markets in APAC. Korea is a big digital ad spender – the sixth largest in the world. However, programmatic buying is struggling to get its footing in the nation.

The estimated programmatic spend in Korea as of 2016 was around 141 million USD, which is far behind the billions spent in North America. Also, the definition of “programmatic transactions” is still murky; therefore, it’s unclear how much of that 141 million is truly programmatic. So why is this the case? How could one of the leaders of digital ad spending in Asia have resisted the strong programmatic current taking over the industry?

To understand this phenomenon, it’s important to take a look back through the history of Korea’s digital landscape. Since Yahoo! entered the domestic market in 1997, the digital ecosystem has largely been shaped and influenced by web portals, whereas web portals became fatally disrupted with the introduction of Google in North America. 1999 saw the birth of two web portals that still remain local titans – Daum and Naver. Dozens of other web portals competed for market share but Naver solidified its place at the top in 2003 and has maintained the position ever since. Daum come as a not-so-close second (the Bing to its Google if you may).

Naver is a formidable giant. The key difference between Google and Naver is that Google is a launching-off point. You start on Google and use it as a tool to help you get to where you need to go. Naver is different. It’s its own fully functioning ecosystem, equipped with search functions, blogs, cafes (communities), maps, ask sections, news, shopping, webtoons, music, real estate, finance, etc. You could access a mind-boggling amount of content without ever having to truly leave the platform. The experience is enclosed in comparison to Google’s openness.

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This is probably the biggest reason why programmatic is stunted in Korea. One of the reasons why programmatic is such a hit is because it makes it so much easier to sell and buy ad inventory. There were an estimated 1.82 billion active websites in the US in April 2017. Imagine advertisers having to shift through that many websites to decide which publisher’s inventory they want to purchase. It also makes it that much harder for publishers to manually sell their inventory. But when you put it into an automated system, such as programmatic media buying, it relieves the pressures of manually selling and buying.

However, Naver never has this problem. Many Koreans go to Naver to start web surfing and usually will stay within the platform for most, if not all, of their internet journey. Thus, advertisers will always go to Naver to buy inventory because they know that it’s guaranteed to be shown to a wide audience. Unlike Google, that has famously refused any form of disruptive ads on its search engine (e.g. banners and pop-ups), Naver allows ads to be shown on a variety of placements all throughout their portal. And it’s always in high demand.

Advertisers have to go through booking processes for most of the inventory, possibly facing hefty penalties for booking cancellations. They also have to adhere to strict rules set by Naver, be satisfied with simplistic reports that don’t reveal much, deal with the strict forbiddance of third-party tracking, etc. For Naver Timeboard, which guarantees your ads will be shown in the spot right under the main search engine for one hour, advertisers can pay up to 30,000 USD. FOR ONE HOUR.

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Advertisers grumble and moan but continually go back to Naver because that’s where their customers are. They can’t help but use it the way that most advertisers can’t avoid using Google for their search campaigns. You’re giving up too many impressions when you do. And because there’s such a high demand for their advertising space, sometimes requiring advertisers to book months in advance, they have absolutely no incentive to put their inventory out in a competitive marketplace. Daum has also followed in Naver’s footsteps.

So without Naver and Daum inventory, the marketplace for programmatic media buying just shrunk drastically, to a point where most advertisers don’t see the appeal of even bothering. Even with the appeal of more granular targeting options, more competitive pricing, and the ability to derive great insights about customer behavior, the lack of inventory is a huge barrier to entry.

However, Korea can’t stay this way forever. Global trends push for more transparency, more data, more precision and efficiency. High-tech Korean users are gravitating towards Google products and Korean branches of global agencies continue to feel pressure from abroad to start implementing programmatic practices. Programmatic technology platforms are arriving domestically in bulk. DCM, MediaMath, Adjust, Turn, Criteo, DataXu, and Rocket Fuel are just a couple of the players that are aiming to get in the market early.

It’s only a matter of time before the wall collapses and programmatic infiltrates the domestic market with full force. This leads to interesting questions that cannot yet be answered. How will powerhouses Naver and Daum react to this threat to their dominance? How will this change the Korean digital landscape and its heavy reliance on web portals to direct their internet activity? What strategies will Google utilize to take advantage of this situation? How will this push for transparency and an open web have ripple effects across other industries that have benefited from this enclosed ecosystem?

I think we’ll find out sooner than we think.

 

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