Cyworld, the South Korean-born social network, has opened its U.S. site into “public beta,” meaning anyone can now access the site and create those lovable “minihomes” and “minirooms” that have captured more than a third of the Korean population (see screen shots of the U.S. site below.)
Like MySpace’s web pages, U.S. Cyworld users are able to customize their sites with photos, images, and music and can send and receive messages for other users. Unlike MySpace the site is based around cutesy avatars called “Minime’s”, buying and shopping with “acorn” points and design elements that evoke a wholesome goodness that’s both kitchsy hip and a bit pollyanna.
Dozens of new social networks are coming to market this year, but Cyworld has seven years of experience and the backing of SK Communications, a subsidiary of Korea’s largest wireless operator SK Telecom, to kick off its attempt at global domination.
Cyworld’s U.S. efforts are more than just a way to tap the American market, the site is the platform for building sites that will be launched in Europe — Germany and the U.K. among other EU countries — as well as South America, and east Asia. Cyworld already has sites in China, Japan and Taiwan.
In some markets like Germany, Cyworld would rather partner with a local company, and a local telecom company like Deutsche Telecom is a natural fit given Cyworld also offers a mobile service. In different countries the site might take on different flavors, and in Germany the site could take on more of a dating element, says Michael Streefland, Vice President of marketing for Cyworld.
For the U.S. site, the 30-person Cyworld team in San Francisco has spent months localizing the Korean content to make it more U.S.-friendly, altering the layout and getting rid of Korean-content that just doesn’t translate. Cyworld’s music service, which broadcasts music for visitors to homepages, and has been wildly popular in Korea selling some six million songs a month, will be used for the U.S. site. Deals with U.S. music labels are now being finalised.
Cyworld is also working on its mobile service for the U.S., which won’t likely launch until next year. Part of that is because the company wants to watch and see the moves of MySpace mobile, which has an exclusive deal with SK Telecom’s MVNO Helio. Cyworld Mobile won’t likely have a direct relationship with Helio, given both are newcomers to the U.S. market says Henry Chon, Cyworld US CEO.
Henry gives a ballpark figure of $10 million for launching Cyworld’s U.S. site, but says SK Communications will give them whatever they need to succeed in the market. He says he’s talked with all the major venture firms in the valley, and isn’t interested in raising money for financial reasons. That said, he might be interested in a strategic partnership.
Cyworld’s U.S. site could be more of a testing ground for the company’s international plans rather than an attempt to dominate the U.S. market. The Cyworld team knows there’s a slew of social network sites in the U.S. already cleaning house. “We are being realistic. There are a lot of hardships in the U.S. market,” says Henry Chon. “But we’ve been here since 1999. We’re going to bring that experience here,” he says.
The U.S. site officially launches in August, but anyone can access it now. Go check it out and give us your feedback!