Is LINE taking over the almighty Facebook!?

LINE may not be well-known in the US, but it has been exploding in Asia, Middle East and Europe since its launch in 2011. LINE is a messenger app with 300 million users worldwide and its growth is accelerating. The last 100 million users were added in mere 4 months. Some argue that LINE may replace Facebook or Twitter as the most popular social platform. LINE is expected to go public next year with an estimated valuation of over $10bn.

What is LINE?

LINE is somewhat similar to other messaging applications, including WhatsApp, KakaoTalk, or Facebook messenger. LINE allows users to send text, share photos/videos, and make phone calls/video calls to another LINE account(s) for absolutely free.

What’s different is that LINE also has a huge library of “stamps” – a small picture of a character that describes emotion, thoughts, actions, and objects. Stamps act as a way to mimic real human interaction by communicating very subtle points. Some of these stamps are sold for a price (usually $1 for a set of 30 stamps) and LINE shares revenue with its media partners. This has been the major source of revenue ($132M for 2013 Q2) since its launch.

Another difference is that LINE is quickly moving towards platform strategy. The initial version of LINE was only able to handle messaging, but now that LINE is installed in virtually everybody’s smartphone, LINE started to expand its offerings. LINE Mall offers online shopping, LINE Game is consistently topping ITunes rankings, LINE Camera competes against Instagram, and LINE Card is a dominant e-card service in Japan. All these services that be accessed thru LINE application and more and more people are using them.

Birth of LINE and its mobilization strategy

The birth of LINE is somewhat interesting. NAVER Japan, a subsidiary of Korean internet company, was in the midst of developing a photo sharing application when a big earthquake hit Japan in March 11th, 2011. As mobile network was disrupted, people formed lines in front of public phone booth (public phone act as emergency line in Japan and never gets interrupted).  Realizing there is a strong need for efficient and easy communication; the development team switched their focus and started developing messaging application. LINE was launched 3 months after the earthquake.

LINE faced a classic chicken-and-egg problem and tackled to solve the problem in two ways; technical and marketing. LINE has an auto-sync function that allows user’s existing phone book to automatically sync to LINE contact list. Even if I was the only one using LINE, I could still text my friends using LINE (my text would appear as a regular text on their screen). As I don’t have to bother importing phone book to my LINE account, once I started using LINE I had no reason to switch back. Because LINE texting was absolutely free, people quickly switched.

On the marketing front, LINE initially focused on high school girls because they are the ones who often start new trends in Japan. LINE created cute “stamps” that high school girls would love and solicit user feedback very frequently. Once high school girls adopted LINE, it spread to college girls, junior high school girls, boys, 20s, and the rest of the population.  LINE dominated Japanese market in less than a year.

 LINE’s future and competition

 LINE deliberately focused on expansion of its user base and not on monetization strategy. LINE is believed to be already making profit with its stamp and game sales, but the real monetization is expected to come after its IPO. LINE may start selling advertising space like Facebook or open its platform and charge a fee to whoever wants to access its user base.

LINE’s biggest competitors are WeChat (over 1 billion users, mostly in China) and WhatsApp (mostly in the US and Europe). As there is a strong network effect, messaging app is likely to follow the same path of SNS and one or two players will take the dominant positions. Demographic and social trends are in favor of LINE because LINE has a dominant share in Asian markets, where smartphone penetration is expected to skyrocket in the next few years. Whoever comes out as winner will enjoy the similar power as Facebook today.



  1. Joe Khoury

    LINE is no doubt a very interesting newcomer to the space of online messaging. I actually started using it few months ago as it is becoming more widely used.
    It offers a good experience for social networking with unlimited calling and messaging 24 hours a day and everything for free. What i like most about it is the high quality voice calls. I also like the option of sharing photos and videos instantly. Also, the number of ways to express oneself with stickers and Emoji is very appealing.
    However, i doubt if there is still room for competition in this space. Or maybe the instant messaging and voice call industry is experiencing another set of dynamics where it will always be facing new disruptive players in the space. I also wonder how much innovation can you ensure in this space (more Emoticons? better voice quality?) or is it only a byproduct of a first mover advantage in specific geographies (ie WeChat in China)?
    Also, there is something to be said about the demographics of users of different instant messaging apps. I heard that LINE main target market is teenagers and young adults whereas whatsapp targets an older crowd. In fact, this is where LINE's huge library of Emoji come to play for the younger generation.
    Regardless of what instant messenger will dominate the market in the near future, it will be very interesting to see what mobilization strategies these different companies will focus on and whether newcomers in this space still have a place!
    Thanks for sharing, very interesting.

  2. Thai Nguyen

    Like many other Asian, I am using LINE as well and very interested in the prospect of this app and the online messaging space in general.
    What I think is different for LINE compared to competitors like Whatsapp is its vision seems to be much more than an enhanced version of SMS. LINE is gradually moving towards becoming a communication platform, attaching a lot of different services rather than just messaging. Already very successful with its stickers and gaming apps (each month the company reportedly earns $10m from sticker sales and $27m from gaming apps), there are plans for LINE to introduce even more monetization strategies.
    I recently downloaded stickers for Barcelona FC, a soccer club in Spain. What I signed up with downloading these stickers for free was to receive frequent messages from the club on how they are doing. I can imagine this is going to be a new way for organizations to strengthen its customer relationship in a much more personalized way, enabling them to push through marketing and advertising messages more effectively.
    I agree that LINE’s potential is very much its popularity in the young and lucrative Asian market with dominant position in countries like Japan. The challenge for them is to quickly build on this early success and successfully scale to establish a platform in other Asian countries to fully enjoy the strong network effects.

  3. I can't see LINE being as popular in the United States as overseas, as the network effects inherent in regards to gaining a significant active user base to replace Facebook or Twitter as the next social platform. This week, Facebook introduced the usage of stickers within its comments (some stickers are quite similar to the stamps within the LINE app), which could further lessen the possibility of users from switching from Facebook's platform over to LINE.