How to succeed with mobile gifting

This is a part of a series of stories from a cultural exploration Doberman did in Seoul in 2016, one of the most connected cities in the world.

Kakao Talk is the most popular mobile messaging app in Korea. 8 in 10 users are using it.

Isn’t it funny how we react to mobile transactions? Some people would never pay $2 for an app, but gladly spend double the amount on a cup of coffee.

Yep, mobile transactions are tricky.

Especially when you’re not purchasing something for yourself but for someone else.

For example, in real life, I get to carefully pick out a gift in the store. Wrap it. Hand it over in person. In exchange, I see a smile on my friend’s face. This creates a feeling of fulfillment that makes me want to do it again.

That must mean that my willingness to make a mobile transaction depends heavily on the feelings I get when I use it.

Can an online counterpart make me feel anything resembling the emotions I get IRL?

Cue Kakao Talk.

You won’t believe how easy it is

The South Korean messenger app Kakao Talk has built an impressive multi-million dollar industry out of mobile gifting. It allows friends to send virtually anything to each other with a couple of clicks. The lucky person who receives the gift on the other end goes to the designated store and scans a barcode at the register to receive the item. Last year (2016), sales of gifts and merchandise from the app jumped 246%. So they must do be doing something right.

But what?

Well, for starters they nailed the joy of wrapping. When I pick a gift for a friend (did I mention there are several thousand items to choose from?), I get to customize a card.

Browsing through the full menu at Starbucks

I can pick a colorful background and frame, edit the text and choose a character. The animal characters are well known and already popular stickers from Kakao’s chat features. Some are happy, but some look sad or confused, or even sick. The sick one is a yellow duck wrapped up in blankets with a thermometer hanging out of his mouth. Our tour guide in Seoul tells us she wants to send a small gift to a friend who is sick. She chooses the duck in blankets, quickly writes “get well” and sends a cold ice latte from Starbucks to him. Boom. Sent. Ka-ching. He instantly replies with a heart emoji.

Finding the right character is crucial

The experience is fully focused on picking the item, wrapping the gift and receiving a reply.

Will this help you become a better friend?

A vital part of the gifting success of Kakao is that they manage to tap into the “emotional damage control” situations of friendships and relationships.

Our guide tells us she sends coffees to friends she promised to meet with but didn’t have the time to.

The coffee symbolizes a convenient “sorry” for any big city person with too many things to attend to or take care of. The gifts can symbolize a heartfelt greeting just in time for someone’s birthday. Want to make sure your friend in another city knows you are thinking about her? Gift her a birthday cake that she can pick up at her closest Baskin-Robbins or a fancier boutique bakery.

Picking up a gift is easy — just scan the barcode

Kakao Talk has managed to make gifting an everyday necessity to maintain and nurture relationships. Of course, in this context the importance of gifts is contextual and heavily linked to social etiquette. South Korea has a history of gifting as a way to show you care. In other social contexts, this might be seen as a bad excuse to not have to care.

A service to soon be taken for granted

However, with our global culture and social etiquettes melting together — I would be surprised if mobile gifting is not something my friends and I will take for granted in a year or two.