Siva Ganeshanandan, Director, Digital Marketing Suite, Adobe APAC – @sivagatwork

The first time I looked at Alexa it was 2000. I was living in London and I got a bit of a shock that the number one website in the world was not Yahoo!, but in fact Daum. I was already looking at moving to the APAC region, so had heard about South Korea’s online penetration but this really shocked me.

After I moved to the region, I was in South Korea a fair bit to visit customers and learn more about the market. It was immediately obvious that the internet industry there was a true global leader. Fast forward by 12 years and, while South Korea leads the world in many areas, much of that early promise at the turn of the millennium was not fulfilled.

First let’s look at the positives.  South Korea continues to have the highest broadband penetration of any country in the world.  With its population, it was never going to be the biggest in terms of size for very long, but in sophistication it has led in some areas. The culture of online commerce is woven into the fabric of society more than anywhere else, with over 90% of the population having bought something online. According to a recent IPSOS survey, 65% of South Koreans actually prefer buying things online to buying them from a physical shop, which makes them the direct opposite of the global average, which sits at around 35%.

Donald Trump

But in many areas the country’s online industry missed several significant opportunities to continue leadership in areas such as digital advertising. It was almost as if the industry grew complacent, as the amount of business available through digital channels was significant enough for innovation to decline.  So while South Korea was third behind only Sweden and the UK in terms of the Internet’s contribution (4.6% of GDP in 2009 according to a McKinsey study) it fell to 7th place on McKinsey’s Internet Leadership supply index – letting the likes of Japan, USA and even China take leadership positions.

It’s important to note that it’s still well ahead of some developed markets like France and Germany, which is impressive. However, when I was asked last year to characterise each of the APAC digital markets by comparing them to a celebrity, I decided South Korea was the national equivalent of Donald Trump. Why? Clearly Mr.Trump has a lot of traits that can make this analogy inaccurate, but on a very basic level here is a man who is established – he has been at the top of his game and very successful for quite some time. However, he is also widely considered to be unsophisticated. So, the analogy has nothing to do with gaudiness or reality TV shows, but rather: Established, yet Unsophisticated.

Sean Connery 

Since joining Adobe last year, I have had the opportunity to spend more time in South Korea, meeting with Adobe’s customers, which include some of the big digital publishers as well as the country’s biggest brands.  In this time I’ve come to realise some interesting statistics – like the fact that despite being so mature, South Korea’s digital marketing spend is set to increase by 20.8% this year according to the Korea Online Advertising Association. This will be the first time digital crosses the 20% mark in terms of increase in overall ad spend.

Last week I spoke at IDG Korea’s Digital Marketing 2012 event, attended by over 500 digital marketers. There, I realized the conversations we were having were far more “Sean Connery” (in other words, mature and sophisticated), than Donald Trump.

No Room for Apprentices

For brands targeting South Korea, digital just got more important.  Actually, it was always important, but the bad news is that it’s just got more difficult. The competition keeps raising the bar. Moreover, given the maturity of the market, I see South Korean brands using these technologies in remarkably innovative ways that challenge the market.

When marketing to the South Korean digital audience, you will need the fullest possible range of tools to maintain competitive advantage along with the ability to understand local nuances and innovate specifically for that geographic market. Everything from real-time bidding on display advertising, to portfolio bid management on search will be needed for campaign optimisation. Your competitors are offering personalised engagement across their owned media and getting results from Multi-variate testing, behavioral targeting, automated recommendations and more – and these approaches are working.

We are seeing the results of these initiatives. CPAs are being driven down through better post-click analysis of ad effectiveness. We are also seeing our customers increase conversion rates by double digits by better engaging their audience. But this is not China or India, where such increases can be sustained by the overall growth of the market.  To get these results, they are growing market share, and they are growing at the expense of their competitors. In fact, what I’m seeing may mean I need to come up with an entirely different celebrity comparison for the South Korean digital market in the years ahead. Watch this space ….