You know the word manga, but do you know “manhwa”, the term for comic books in South Korea? If you don’t you should – the word was officially entered into the Oxford English Dictionary last year. Hot on the tails of K-pop and TV shows like Squid Game, manhwa is quietly gathering momentum and is on its way to being the next global craze, by way of webtoons.
For the uninitiated, a webtoon is an online comic book. Ten of the world’s biggest webtoon companies come from South Korea. And global hit movies like Extraordinary Attorney Woo are being adapted into webtoons as yet another new way of monetizing popular Korean IP. Besides inspiring properties that generate high box office returns and viewership, webtoons have become the latest model for exporting Korean culture and are making the country’s name as synonymous with comic books as that of Japan or the US.
Korean webtoons are designed to be read by vertically scrolling on a smartphone, which is helping them to cultivate a large audience of readers who don’t typically read comic books. This format also allows them to scale and expand their reach in a way traditional print comic books can’t.
The two major webtoon platforms are Naver Webtoon and Kakao Page, which offer their content on a pay-to-read system. Add onto that online advertising revenue, and the platforms are doing a great job of turning traffic into profits. They are also demonstrating the global business potential of webtoons, with Naver Webtoon supporting ten different language formats including English, Chinese, and Thai. The platform’s combined global audience amounts to over 80 million, with 75% of traffic coming from outside of South Korea.
Meanwhile, Kakao Page has set its sights on developing the Japanese market – the transaction value of its Japanese webtoon subscription service, Piccoma hit approximately 70 billion yen(about $ 480 million USD) in 2021, a YoY growth of 85%. What’s more, Piccoma was the third highest earning non-gaming app in 2021, second only to TikTok and YouTube. Korean e-reader platform RIDI is also expanding into webcomics, the potential for growth bringing RIDI’s valuation to $1.3 billion USD, making it Korea’s first unicorn in the content platform space.
Whether you look at user numbers or revenue, the webtoon market’s potential is not to be underestimated.
Adapting comic books to the scrolling format that the smartphone-native generation is used to has other advantages. With every part of the process from editing and design to sales and marketing databased, webtoon companies have a 360-degree view of every book’s performance to help them optimize new content, versus traditional comic books that rely on sales figures as their only metric.
Webtoons have kicked off a new trend not just in Korea but across Asia and beyond. Even Marvel in the US launched its vertical scrolling Infinity Comics series in 2021 using a similar concept. Interestingly, though, Japan has yet to introduce its own representative webtoon platform in the way Korea has. This might have to do with the country’s longstanding weekly serialization system. Also, changing to a webtoon format would not only impact the artistic style but would demand the re-conditioning of the country’s entire readership, most of which still sit in the traditional print manga camp. Besides, with the amount of capital it would require to overhaul the industry, it’s not surprising that Japan is moving more slowly on webtoons.
As I watch Korean webtoons shaking up the traditionally unshakeable comic book industry, it brings me to realize that they are not so much a new product as just an example of changing a user behavior. This kind of thinking can actually be applied to any type of innovation. As long as you pay close attention to which parts of our everyday lives can be improved, you’ll always have unlimited business opportunities at your fingers.