How messengers got chat stickers wrong

In June 2011 the Korean company Naver launched a new messaging app in Japan called Line, introducing the first chat stickers — supersized character-driven emoticons. This feature was hugely popular, is believed to be responsible for Line becoming the largest social network in Japan in 2013. Stickers also brought in hefty revenues — currently around 20% of Line’s total — as users patronized the online store, and brands paid for the promotion of their themed sticker packs. Stickers soon took the rest of Asia by storm and became a standard feature in popular chat apps like KakaoTalk and Line.

In 2013, Facebook messenger adopted chat stickers by creating their own set of stickers and Google Hangout followed the chat sticker model in 2014 , yet the usage of stickers in those apps remain as a marginal feature compared to Line’s stickers ( 400 million users, 1.8billion stickers out of 10 billion messages per day) — link. What makes the difference?Are there any hidden secret sauce on Line stickers?


They look alike, but are they?

KakaoTalk on the left, Hangouts on the right. Any noticeable difference?

In general, non-Asian messaging app-makers seem to misunderstand what makes stickers so successful in Asian markets. People brought up outside Asia may think of stickers as frivolous or childish, but I’ll explain how in Line and KakaoTalk they serve to give users rich, subtle and effective ways to express themselves. Stickers are about much more than cuteness.


Webtoons: The cultural touchstone behind chat stickers

Webtoons on Naver

Why are stickers so much more meaningful in Line and KakaoTalk, even though their Hangouts equivalents seem on the surface to be similar? The key is that the Asian stickers are based on popular characters from webtoons (web cartoons), serialized graphic stories that are published daily or weekly on the Webtoon platform, designed for web browsing. Webtoons started in South Korea in 2003, and today there are around 6m daily readers, a significant number for a country of 50m people.


Characters in stories

A webtoon called The Existence of Eating

Webtoons are populated by the kinds of rich and complex characters you might find in a TV drama.They have complicated emotions and histories forged in long story arcs. A single sticker may be imbued with a multifaceted context not easily expressed by a single adjective or emotion. There are approximately 150 webtoons on Naver (Line’s owner) that are published weekly. It’s easy to find a handful of characters that resonate with your personality or particular circumstance, avatars that represent in a nuanced way how you feel.


A story, not an adjective

With so many stickers to choose from, why does a user use a specific one? The sticker set above is about a rabbit called Cony, an original character created by Line. Cony works a white collar job in a big company, suffering through the typical dramas that millions of office workers can relate to. These stickers are a natural choice for a female working professional. Browsing through random Hangouts stickers can be something of a chore, but searching through Cony stickers for the target audience is a compelling and poignant experience.

Look at the blind man and elephant cartoon at the top of this article. What would happen if the blind man try to depict what an elephant is based on what they touched? That would be anything but an elephant. Likewise, this ‘sticker’ expresses much more than a single adjective or a simple action. Imitating the appearance of stickers wouldn’t appeal to its users since it’s missing the essence of it, story.


What are the key takeaways?

  • Beware cargo cultism: Don’t blindly imitate a successful phenomenon from another culture. Dig deep to understand the background and social mechanics.
  • Stickers are not just about cute pictures. They can provide a rich and original way to interact with others. It’s too early to conclude that stickers don’t suit western culture since we haven’t explored the possibilities fully.