Cyworld: Unique social networking revenue model

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[Guest post by Sangeet Paul – he handles corporate development and strategy at Intuit.]

Social networking is at a point where a lot of us are almost bored to death with the daily launch of new networks. Strangely enough, not many of these social networks, boasting enviable usage and engagement metrics, can really claim to be running on a revenue model which really monetizes off the user engagement on the product. Many have taken the advertising path and it’s clearly not been the best. In the middle of all this, Cyworld from South Korea stands out as an important example of how one can make money off a social network.

South Korea boasts the highest household penetration of broadband internet in the world and online shopping is a huge fad out there with nearly 80% of internet users having shopped online. Cyworld seems to have united the best of both trends by combining social networking with online shopping and emerging as a highly profitable business in a field where Facebook, as the leader, is struggling to break even.

More than 90% of South Koreans in their 20s and more than one-third of the entire population of South Korea are registered users of Cyworld with more than 25 Mn unique users per month. Great stats but not out of the world as far as social networks are concerned. What absolutely bowls one over, though, is the degree to which they’ve monetized this user base.

Cyworld is a lot richer on features than many social networks. Somehow feature-rich seems to have worked for them. Interestingly, Google doesn’t have any significant market share in South Korea and it’s possible that users actually prefer feature-rich and heavy websites, what with the top notch broadband infrastructure that all Koreans have.
On Cyworld, every member has a homepage, referred to as a mini-hompy in the Korean Internet world. Basic services on the site are free (as with most social networks) but the site generates close to $250 Mn in annual revenues following a very unique revenue model and makes nearly $10 per user per year (MySpace makes $2-3 per user per year, largely from advertising).
Most of these revenues come from the sale of Cyworld’s virtual currency (dotori) which then users use to buy virtual objects to decorate their homepage and accessorize their avatars. Since these digital goods are micro-priced, there are a lot of transactions happening on the site, and given the huge user base, a lot of revenues flowing in.

The craze for virtual goods has resulted in a lot of online vendors setting shop on Cyworld to sell virtual goods. Given the richness of content that the mini-hompy service offers, Cyworld also has a sister service called Cyworld Town where SOHO (Small Office Home Office) owners display their offline goods through videos and graphics on their mini-hompy resulting in online order and offline conversions.

Given low online shopping outside the travel category and low connectivity (thus ruling out feature-rich sites), the model might not necessarily be directly relevant to the Indian scene. There are, however, pertinent points that one can note form Cyworld’s success:

  1. A revenue model that monetizes actual actions that user must do to interact with the community can provide a more steady stream of revenues than one where the user has to perform a non-central action (like clicking on an advertisement) for the site to make money
  2. Value added services like accessorizing one’s page etc. can be used to good effect on social networks. There is an inherent tendency to go one-up on friends on a social network, especially in showing off popularity, and if a value added service can help users do that, it could prove catchy

What’s your opinion?

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