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Messaging App Sweeping Asia Could Blunt Snapchat’s Global Ambitions

Korea’s Snow is more popular than Snapchat in China, Japan, and Korea, and wants to be big in the West, too.
From left to right: Snow made this special-effects “Year of the Rooster” lens for Chinese users and this face-altering “blue demon” lens for Japanese users. The pink mouse lens is Snow’s top design in Korea, the teddy bear is the most popular lens in Japan, and the hand-drawn cat leads in China.

If you want to morph a selfie so you look like a cartoon cat or send video messages to your friends that vanish after a few seconds, you could use either Snapchat or the South Korea-based app Snow. But if you want to subtly alter a photo to make your skin clearer, create animated GIF pictures, or program your embellished images to be viewable for several days, you’d have to use Snow, because Snapchat doesn’t give users these options.

Snow’s wealth of features has made it the most popular photo and video app in Japan and Korea, and one of the top multimedia apps in China, with 40 to 50 million monthly active users. Snapchat, of course, is much bigger. It boasts more than 160 million daily users, and the upcoming IPO of its parent company, Snap, is anticipated to be the biggest U.S. market debut for a technology company since 2014. But documents filed in preparation for the startup’s IPO show that Snapchat’s growth is slowing, particularly outside of its major markets of North America and Europe. Could Snow curtail Snapchat’s global expansion?

Snow owes its success to three main factors: timing, connections, and willingness to customize its product to meet local needs. When the app launched in September 2015, Snapchat was four years old and available in Asia, but had little traction. Snow filled that void in Korea and expanded to Japan and China within five months. Those three countries are still Snow’s main markets, but the app counts users in 140 countries, including the U.S. Most people who use Snow are in their teens and early 20s, similar to Snapchat.

Snow has also benefited from close ties with Naver, Korea’s largest Web portal, and Line, a Japan-based messaging app owned by Naver. Both companies hold large stakes in Snow. After a Naver subsidiary called Camp Mobile created the app, Naver spun it out as a separate subsidiary and Line invested $45 million for a 25 percent voting interest.

Snow offers users digital graphics customized to local tastes, which is a strategy that made Line one of the biggest messaging apps in East and Southeast Asia. Chinese users can enhance their photos with face-tweaking lenses that celebrate the Year of the Rooster, and Japanese users can play with a lens that makes people look like blue demons, based on a horror game called Ao Oni. Snow currently stocks about 1,500 stickers and lenses and 50 background filters, which is far more than Snapchat, and it uploads new versions daily. (Some of Snow’s competitors say that the app is able to release stickers and lenses quickly because it copies designs from them and Snapchat.)

Snow also lets users directly upload the images they create in the app to major social networking sites, such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, WeChat, Line, and KakaoTalk in Korea.

Snow has been particularly strategic in China. It initially operated there as an image-centric messaging app, but in September 2016 replaced that app with a China-only app called Snow Camera that limits users to shooting and editing photos and videos. People who want to share their Snow Camera images on a social network must link the app to WeChat. The move enables Snow to operate in China while its Western competitors, including Instagram and Snapchat, get blocked. Snow’s camera-only app consistently ranks in the Chinese iOS App Store’s top 10 photo and video apps and top 50 apps overall, according to market research firm Priori Data.

Though Snow’s strength is in Asia, it’s not limiting its ambitions to the region. Naver has made recent investments to boost Snow’s global competitiveness, including founding a $43 million fund with Japan’s SoftBank that will invest in startups and technologies around the world that Snow could partner with or incorporate into its app.

Snow says it is developing more features designed to appeal to Western tastes, such as funny, face-distorting lenses. The app doesn’t make any money yet, but a representative said it will host ads in the future.  Amir Ghodrati, the director of market research at the app analytics firm App Annie, thinks Snow will try to run the same types of ads as Snapchat. “Snow is definitely the hot app right now,” he says. “Even though it’s primarily popular in Asia, it’s a potential competitor.”

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