Korean pop culture has been steadily taking over the world since 1992 when Seo Taiji & Boys first took the stage and incorporated English lyrics, dance, and hip hop elements into their repertoire. Popularly abbreviated to “K-Pop,” Korean artists have initiated a whole new genre of their own with bursts of flamboyant colour, eclectic styles, and undeniable talent that speak to countless audiences. K-Pop will reset the way you think about music, and once you enter the rabbit hole, there’s no turning back.
Over the years, K-Pop has proven to break borders and shatter language barriers by captivating fans in every corner of the globe. With their Asian roots and subtle Western undertones, K-Pop has continuously evolved into a true hybrid novelty.
With the rise of digital technologies in 2010, smartphones, video sharing sites and social media platforms helped Hallyu Wave, the first and second generation of K-Pop stars flourish worldwide. At that time, music exports in South Korea grew to 168 percent.
Currently, K-Pop fans are busy raving over the third generation of Korean superstars, such as BTS, BLACKPINK, MAMAMOO, NCT and Monsta X. The first group to truly pave the way for massive international recognition was BTS (Bangtan Sonyeondan). Making their debut in 2013, BTS soared to global stardom in 2015 when they embarked on their first international stadium tour. Producing one hit song after the other, gaining over 30.7 million followers on Instagram, building a loyal fanbase, and breaking records on iTunes and YouTube, BTS has proven that they are a force to be reckoned with.
While these spectacular artists are swiftly taking the world by storm, it begs the question: What is it that makes K-Pop so special? The answer clearly lies in the evident talent and charisma that they radiate; however, a large part of their success is also due to the compelling digital marketing strategies that their respective agencies harness.
Social media had gradually grown into one of the most marketable platforms for brand and artist promotion. This trend started in 2003 when Myspace was the go-to platform for music discovery, allowing users to place their favourite songs on their individual profiles. Seizing this opportunity to the fullest, the K-Pop industry devised their own effective techniques to build an online fandom and keep them engaged with new content.
What makes K-Pop different from other musicians today is their social media presence. While there are a number of Korean singers who manage their own social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, it is also a common practice for them to live extremely private lives outside of their work. This means that a large portion of K-Pop groups typically share a joint social media page for fan communication, rather than individual public accounts.
In doing this, fans only need to follow one page, wherein they can stay updated with all their collective endeavours. Driving all fan traffic to one location streamlines all the band updates and content, allowing them to have a greater reach and higher engagement rates. Additionally, this provides the perfect balance between fan interaction and artist privacy.
Korean entertainment agencies are flawless at influencer marketing and protecting their artists’ privacy. Aside from ensuring that they look good on the outside, a widespread practice at Korean entertainment companies is to keep their artists’ images squeaky clean too. It takes prodigious sleuthing for the public to find even a single photo of what their parents or siblings look like. There is habitual evidence that the majority of K-Pop celebrities maintain a persona of youthfulness, wholesomeness, and professionalism.
South Korean entertainment companies have devised brilliant methods to publicize and strategize their artists’ new content in a manner that sparks interest and anticipation in a unique way.
The K-Pop industry builds bands by holding auditions; most companies hold open auditions all year round and select applicants to undergo training with them. These applicants get signed as talents who train for a certain amount of time until they are ready to debut in a group or as solo artists.
In the months leading up to a group’s debut, the managing company takes to various digital marketing channels to promote them in advance. At this point, they share virtually every moment of their lives as performers with content like teaser photos, rehearsal clips, and behind-the-scenes videos are posted to build excitement. Once they debut on a variety show or music channel, they would already have generated a fanbase and pre-promoted their brand concept.
During the run of a K-Pop band’s career, there will be a series of comebacks that mark a new single or album. Agencies take this opportunity to appeal to the curiosity of K-Pop fans by releasing mysterious clues, either in the form of cryptic messages on social media, highlight reels, or through vague imagery. As expected, these clues generate enormous amounts of engagement – prompting fans to decipher and decode until they solve the puzzle or continue to theorize.
Consequently, Twitter blows up with trending topics and hashtags associated with the artists. Twitter is the preferred platform for K-Pop fans alike due to the fact its interface is built for news on the go. For the amount of content that is produced by the bands, it’s the only way to keep up with comebacks, new music releases, variety show performances, and photoshoots. Entire hashtag campaigns are created by the fanbase ahead of time on the fandom’s biggest accounts and easily shoot up to the top of the worldwide trends every time.
Within a few weeks of a group’s debut, it is customary for the agency to hold a contest for fans to send in suggestions for the official fandom name. The world of K-Pop is saturated with a wide array of fandom monikers that truly personifies the quirky side of the industry. For instance, BTS’ fandom is fondly referred to as ARMY, which stands for Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth. With the growing size and diversity of K-Pop fandoms, it has become akin to a cultural ecosystem like no other.
When it comes to interactivity, K-Pop is king. This can be observed from their official fan club memberships that come with tons of goodies, merchandise, and exclusive access to special content.
What truly keeps fans engaged is the frequent interaction between them and their favourite artists. A popular social platform that connects fans and artists is called Weverse. Designed by Big Hit Entertainment, this app is a free channel for people to connect with groups like Seventeen, GFriend, TXT, and BTS, who make it a habit to share glimpses into their professional and personal lives.
The 21st Century is often referred to as the digital era. Everyone is online for work, school, recreation, social interaction, and gaming. K-Pop giants, BTS, have managed to seamlessly integrate themselves into the world of gaming; and have just launched their newest game in collaboration with Netmarble, called BTS Universe Story.
Moreover, delving into the digital realm of gamification, the septet has also joined forces with Line Friends to launch BT21, an animated series and toy collection; broadening their target audience to appeal to a larger demographic of both children and adults.
K-Pop artists commonly take part in reality shows in order to further humanize the band and build a connection between them and the audience. One of the most popular reality shows in South Korea is a travel program that captures the artists in real-life relatable situations, wherein they let them explore foreign cultures, interact with locals, and go on challenging missions to complete the most random of tasks.
This effective marketing strategy presents public figures in their most simple, vulnerable, and uncomplicated forms. No makeup, no live audience, just the artists, a map, and a whole new world. Based on the positive feedback and skyrocketing ratings, it’s safe to say that engaging in reality shows works wonders for building the band’s brand image.
No matter what plans we had made for our lives at the beginning of the year, we were all forced to put them on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The impact of the global health crisis has been felt by every single individual on the planet, whether they fell ill or not. With nations implementing strict measures to help flatten the curve of the pandemic, no industry was left unaffected, particularly the entertainment industry.
With live concerts and tours, fan meetings, and TV show appearances at the heart of the music industry, it’s been interesting to see how artists continue to connect with their fans, produce, promote and perform music online. Fortunately, the K-Pop industry found ways to keep business flowing and fans entertained!
Throughout the year, K-Pop personified the phrase “the show must go on,” by launching one virtual concert after the other. In June, BTS hosted a mini music event titled, “Bang Bang Con: The Live” and followed it up with a full-fledged concert, Map of the Soul ON:E, in October. These virtual events cumulatively sold nearly 2 million tickets, proving that the power of K-Pop continues to prevail, even in a digital setting.
On top of performing online, K-Pop stars also made an effort to participate in spreading positivity and inspiration by appearing at digital conferences and commencements, such as the 75th United Nations General Assembly and the virtual graduation celebration, “Dear Class of 2020.”
The Korea Music Drive-In Festival (KMDF) is one of the most spectacular events of the year for K-Pop fans, as some of the biggest and brightest stars came together to set the stage ablaze. In this temporary era of physical distancing, the KMDF went down in history as the largest drive-in concert to ever take place in South Korea. The event had approximately 2000 cars in attendance and was even live-streamed for fans all over the globe. With talented artists and sparkling fireworks lighting up the sky, Incheon International Passenger Terminal was undoubtedly the perfect venue for the historical two-day event.
In its most basic form, Korean pop culture has always innovated new ways to launch artists, promote them with striking individuality, and uniquely engages their fanbase on and off stage.
Now more than ever, it has become clear that K-Pop is on a swift and steady rise to globalization. The K-Pop industry harnesses the power of digital marketing strategies through influencer marketing and unique content creation on their socials that attracts audiences from around the world. Whatever other marketing secrets they have up their sleeves, they are surely nothing short of magical.9
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