I remember waiting for my bus home when I noticed an Asian person next to me reading a Japanese book on his smartphone. We ended up talking about Japanology and moments later my bus arrived. I wanted to talk more with him, so I blurted out if I could add him on LINE. Sure, he said and quickly opened up the app on his phone and showed his QR code, I added him within seconds before jumping on my bus and heading home. Another one using that unknown social network, or so I thought.
I continue to be amazed that this messaging service offering free texts and calls is so popular in Japan. It’s the most used social network crossing over 500 million users and somehow everyone in Japan knows it and loves it. I wanted to find out more about LINE and what makes it so popular.
LINE was developed as a reaction to the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake. The earthquake and resulting tsunami, aside from a great many casualties, destroyed a large portion of the Japanese phone system. Survivors had to rely on internet to contact family and loved ones. The company NHN Japan started developing an app to offer free calls and messages for everyone, and three months later LINE was born.
A big draw for teenagers worldwide is that LINE users can send “stickers”: big emoji that look like LINE’s mascot characters (pictured above). People can buy various other stickers to express their emotions in messages, as well as different themes to give the app a new look. Stickers (Stamps [スタンプ] as called in Japanese) are especially popular with teenagers as they allow them to express much more that they can't say with words.
LINE isn’t just about messaging individual people. LINE promotes the ability to do group chat and stay connected with multiple people too, something which Japanese people love because of cultural reasons.
Similar to “Like us on Facebook” we see in some stores in Belgium, Japanese stores share their updates on LINE, even promising store discounts if someone adds them. LINE also has plenty of official accounts for users to follow, ranging from companies to artists to news websites. Sending out a message to users individually feels very personal and makes people feel connected.
During the first year of its launch, LINE gained 50 million users (a staggering amount compared to Facebook which took 3 years to achieve a total of 58 million users). With LINE’s popularity growing, becoming available on more platforms and in more countries (over 230 countries worldwide!), the app now features over 600 million users worldwide.
LINE is also a popular platform for business such as Coca-Cola and Japanese convenience stores as they can keep their customers updated and even offer coupons through the app. One such success story is of Matsumoto Kiyoshi stores in Japan, who wanted to attract more teenagers to their store. They offered 10% off coupons through LINE and within days 10.000 customers had used one and an additional 300.000 users started following the store on LINE.
LINE Out is a more recent feature of the app, and similar to Skype allows users to call people that don’t have LINE installed at a low-cost worldwide. With its increased popularity, LINE also introduced additional apps, including games, LINE Manga and many more to keep users invested. Similarly, selling stickers to use in the app is a big business too, making over $268 million in revenue last year.
LINE also quickly expands into fields outside of the messaging app. The LINE mascot characters come to life in the LINE FRIENDS stores spread across Japan, China and recently New York. In these stores people can buy goods featuring these mascots as well as food. LINE also has its own music streaming website, LINE Music. or its own taxi service in Tokyo. LINE has become a part of the daily landscape in Japan and is quickly growing.
Do you already use LINE?
I'm amazed at how quickly LINE grew in a matter of years, and how it keeps expanding into new territories and new countries. It's mainly popular in Asia, but it's gaining popularity in Europe and North America too. I think the core reason why the app is so popular is the wide range of stickers that you can collect and buy to express yourself in more ways. Thailand saw a LINE boom recently, becoming one of the main social networks over there because of the popularity of these stickers (and not always in a good way).
I also really like how easy it is to add people or find popular brands or people to follow in the app. Aside from sharing your username, you can quickly generate a QR code for someone else to scan, or you can even shake 2 phones to share contact details. It's a small detail which matters, as in the end communication is key, not the struggle of finding people and adding them.
Japanese people have embraced LINE as a daily part of their lives. I'm curious to see how LINE will evolve and grow (both the app as its services) outside of Japan. It might just be the messaging app you use next.