LINE—Japan’s Favorite Mobile Messenger App

Posted By Caylon Neely

このブログは英語表記のみです。

Since its inception in 2011, Naver Corp’s LINE app has grown to be one of Japan’s most popular mobile apps. It’s found on over 90% of all smartphones in Japan, with just under half of the entire population signed up. We’d say it’s virtually impossible to have a social life in Japan without using LINE to connect with friends.

new-line-japan-MAU-infographic

This is the first of two articles that will focus on LINE in Japan. First we will go over how LINE became so popular and how it is used among Japanese people. In part two, we will elaborate more about how companies use LINE in Japan for marketing and advertising.

LINE’s Rise to Popularity

Total LINE Monthly Active Users (MAU) in Japan (in millions)

*Tap or hover over the graph for more information

Statista

LINE began as a project in the Japanese office of Naver, a Korean tech firm, as a solution to communication problems that Japanese people experienced after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. The outcome of that project was a mobile messaging app that was more reliable than standard SMS text messaging, and more enjoyable to its users as well.

In its initial popularity surge, LINE Stickers became one of the biggest draws to the app and a huge factor to its success in Japan. LINE stickers played on Japan’s long history of using text-based emojis, such as this happy guy (^▽^), which have been a staple of Japanese text conversations since the early 90’s. LINE stickers feature characters such as Brown the Bear, Cony the Rabbit, James, and more. They are all depicted in various situations to express emotions and sometimes give animated reactions in ways that are much more fun than their plain text predecessors. The popularity of LINE stickers is one of the main reasons the app became so successful (•̀ᴗ•́)൬༉.

Globally, LINE has grown to have over 215 million monthly active users (MAU). Currently, LINE is largely an Asian phenomenon, with over 60% of LINE’s MAUs coming from Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, and Thailand. A mid 2016 IPO on the New York Stock Exchange has brought LINE further into the international spotlight, and will help its hopes to expand further out of Asia in the coming years.

Services have also expanded for LINE, and they go way beyond just messaging. Through stickers, games, and a multitude of other services and additional apps, LINE has diversified its offerings in an attempt to gain more smartphone real estate from its users. Subsequently, LINE has also become a powerful tool for many companies to connect with its large base of users. We’ll go in depth about how companies are using LINE in our next LINE article, sign up for our newsletter below for the latest updates.

How People Interact on LINE in Japan

Many people and publications refer to LINE as a social networking service (SNS) similar to Twitter and Facebook. While this is true, there is a big distinction to be made about LINE’s primary use. Japanese people use LINE primarily as a direct social network, being that its main function is direct messaging between users. We refer to more traditional interactions on social networks like Facebook and Twitter as group social networks, because their main functions are to share content among large audiences. There is definitely overlap between the distinctions, and we have already detailed the use of group social networks in our article about Japan’s top social media networks for 2016. For LINE, we will be talking a lot more about direct social.

LINE as a Direct Social Network—Messaging and Private Group Chat

white-cups-on-green-table

First and foremost, LINE is a mobile messaging app. Sending and receiving messages one to one, or in a private group chat, is the app’s main function for users. As Japanese people hold privacy in high regard, especially when interacting online, communicating and sharing content through private channels on LINE is much easier for them. A Japanese user would be more likely to share an interesting link or a thought via direct message or in a private group chat than on Facebook or Twitter. Communicating on LINE limits the content from being spread widely due to the limited reach of each share, which is more comfortable for Japanese people.

What separates LINE from other messenger apps is the fun that it adds to the messaging experience. Stickers are LINE’s larger spin on Emojis, and they are one of the biggest factors to the app’s success. The sticker marketplace is gigantic, and is constantly being updated with free and paid stickers to use. LINE users use stickers to show their feelings, react to comments, and even just to show them off with their friends on the app. Sponsored stickers featuring company mascots and spokespeople are constantly offered for users to download and use in their everyday LINE messages. Stickers serve as a major income stream for LINE via sponsored stickers, and are widely popular among Japanese LINE users.

Beyond stickers, LINE is constantly adding more features to monetize and enhance the messaging experience. Users can directly connect with one another by sharing photos and links, creating events, and even giving digital gifts within the LINE messenger app.

These functions all serve to enhance the usability of LINE as a direct social network, and also allow companies and marketers to become a part of daily conversations among LINE users. We will delve further into the role of using promotions in LINE conversations in our next article, sign up for our newsletter below to stay informed.

LINE as a Group Social Network—Timeline and Social Sharing

line-timline-sns-image

LINE also has a timeline feature built into its app, allowing users to share content that can be seen by all of their LINE friends. The LINE timeline reads like a traditional group social media stream, similar to Facebook or Twitter on mobile. Users can share text, photos, videos, and links on the timeline. Once posted on the timeline, friends can interact by sharing, commenting on, or “liking” the post. The “like” function works similar to Facebook’s, with set emojis that express emotions from sad to happy to mad, but it uses characters from LINE stickers. Overall, LINE timeline is quite similar to other group social networks, in terms of use, purpose, and functionality.

What makes LINE unique as a group social network is that it is only accessible within the LINE app, and not visible in a web browser. This creates a much smaller social footprint than other social networks, a factor that is important to privacy conscious users in Japan.

It also should be noted that LINE timeline is not the primary function of the app, and many Japanese users see it as a secondary function. That is why we consider LINE to be a mobile messaging app first, and a group social networking app second.

Still, there are many opportunities for companies to connect with LINE users via the timeline feed. Though it must be noted that traditional social media tactics might not work the same on LINE, as the user mindset is more private, and different from other social networks.

LINE as a Bit of Everything Else

As LINE is growing and expanding, they are creating many more services outside of their core app. LINE is currently in the business of creating mobile games, photography apps, music/video streaming, and even job hunting services. All of these external LINE apps are integrated with users’ LINE accounts, and data can be shared between them to make the user experience seamless. Many of these additional services provide platforms for companies to connect with LINE users in new and unique ways as well. Stay tuned for our next article, where we will look deeper into the ways that companies are using LINE to connect with Japanese people.

Want More?

Get up-to-date on the Japanese market with our monthly newsletter.

Nearly done, one more thing