If you’ve recently chatted with someone from China, they might have mentioned WeChat. They might have bragged about how easy it is to stay connected through the platform. The truth is, they weren’t needlessly bragging. WeChat plays a dominant role in their daily contact with the world, from morning to night – and the connection is not limited to social networking. It is a hub for all internet activity, and as a platform through which users find their way to other services. From chatting with friends, to brainstorming with teammates in group chat; from paying for goods at physical stores to settling utility bills and splitting dinner tabs; from ordering taxis and food deliveries to making hospital appointments. You can access almost all your service needs without ever leaving the WeChat universe.
Compared to the West, China’s social media landscape is highly fragmented and rapidly evolving. What was popular two months ago might not even exist now. WeChat’s ambitions have been stratospheric, and they have delivered against those ambitions with a drive and pace unrivalled by anyone in the social landscape. As a result, WeChat has taken China by storm in the space of only two years. A super app, as some call it, WeChat now has 806 million monthly active users, increasing 34% year-on-year, according to Tencent’s 2016 Q2 results. For Chinese mobile internet users, more than a third of their browsing time is on WeChat. A typical user accesses it ten times a day or even more. And it’s still growing.
The rise of WeChat
Some believe that no innovation from China can be called original: Baidu was the copy of Google, Alibaba follows the Amazon blueprint, even WeChat’s big brother QQ owes much to ICQ. But the rise of WeChat is no copycat story; it’s a true trailblazer.
Back in 2011, Tencent sensed the mobile internet trend and challenged its team to design a smartphone-based messaging app. That’s how WeChat was born. Its first mission was to shift messaging away from boring, straightforward, text-based SMS to more expressive, entertaining and immersive forms of communication that were more enjoyable and simple to use.
To achieve that, WeChat introduced playful functions and elements. Shaking your phone to find people near you, tapping to send audio messages, files of funny emoticons or gifs, photo sharing through WeChat moments… Through these simple functions, WeChat created an all-in-one social communication ecosystem that provided innovative new ways to connect, communicate and share.
For many emerging social platforms, getting the first wave of users is the big problem. However, WeChat was born with a silver spoon in its mouth. Many Chinese grew up using QQ – a PC-based messaging platform also offered by Tencent. With over 800 million register users, QQ provided the perfect launch pad for WeChat to take off. With a simple one-step sign-in, QQ users could easily transfer their entire profile over to this new app. And a new mobile-led era of 24/7, 360 connectivity was born.
From social app to super app
WeChat didn’t call it a day once they’d delivered the nation’s number one social platform. Continuously evolving around users’ needs, WeChat has exploded and grown into a holistic platform with various functions that bring together messaging, social communication, e-commerce, online payment services, gaming, and more. It’s the one App to rule them all.
WeChat knows exactly how to identify user mindsets and needs, and rolls out services and functions that benefit them. One of the more successful ‘stunt features’ WeChat introduced was the Red Envelope. The giving of money-filled red envelopes is an annual tradition of Chinese New Year that places importance not only on the value of the money inside, but the message it carries. During the 2014 Chinese New Year, WeChat users were able to send virtual Red Envelopes with money and a greeting to friends and family. But in reality it was a scheme to lure new users onto its mobile payment system. Behind the veil of a user-friendly feature, it was wildly successful. Since then digital Red Envelopes have become a tradition, and at the same time prompting tens of millions of mobile users to link their bank cards to WeChat, opening the floodgates for other on-platform purchases. This is a notable achievement given the high risk of cybercrime in China. WeChat negated that risk by rolling out a function that pulled on the heartstrings and provided real value.
Jumpstarted from there, WeChat quickly rolled out more payment services to stay ahead of their competition – a money transaction service and offline cashless payments. While a truly cashless economy is still on the horizon in the West, thanks to WeChat the Chinese are living it now. They can make regular purchases directly though the app, making cash and credit cards redundant day-to-day. It is the best example yet of how WeChat is shaping the future of not only social media but also consumer behaviour.
Look before you leap: What are the challenges and opportunities for brands?
The strengths of WeChat are unarguable. Its continually growing user base. Those users’ dependency on the platform. The frequent and market-leading platform innovations.
These enticements have prompted many brands to rush onto the platform. And then they approach WeChat as they would Weibo or Facebook. They set up an account, they write an article, they publish it, they wait for those client-delighting engagement stats to roll in. But that’s not how WeChat works. Brands can only reach their current followers – there’s no option of paid support to reach wider audiences. The only way to do that is organically, by shares from current followers. The same principle also applies to content engagement and retention rate. Users will only open and read the post if they are intrigued at first sight. It’s not about what brands want to tell the audience, it’s what the audience wants to be told that matters.
Not all brands jumped on the WeChat bandwagon too fast without fully understanding why or how. There are few successful players who managed to cut through the noise and establish themselves as platform leaders. Burberry is one of them.
Burberry revealed its digital innovation partnership with WeChat back in 2014. The partnership allowed consumers access to experience and explore the brand as they never could before, through livestreams of the fashion shows and behind-the-scenes exclusive content tailored for them. But it also helped hero Burberry in the Chinese market as a digital innovator that really understood the market and its consumer’s needs.
Of course, not all brands can afford this type of collaboration, but what WeChat intrinsically has to offer is already remarkable. With all the different services and functions the platform provides, brands are able to build stronger relationships with the consumers by better serving their needs. Just to name few examples:
Real-time customer service
KLM took on a very practical strategy, leveraging WeChat's customer service capability to build an always-on service channel. Customers don’t need to endure two hours of tinny waiting music before a two minute conversation with a customer representative. It’s faster and easier through chats. KLM encourages its customers to reach out to the brand on WeChat whenever they need help and KLM will get back to them within the hour.
China Merchant Bank cooperated with WeChat to take online banking to a whole new level. Once users’ bank cards are attached to WeChat, they can check their balance, pay bills, or even request a loan directly through the chats with China Merchant Bank. This is mutually beneficial – it’s convenient for customers, but also saves the bank money. Rather than sending an SMS to cardholders as a reminder after each payment, the service is completely transferred onto its official WeChat platform.
Social commerce and more
Unlike Amazon or Taobao, the e-commerce experience on WeChat requires little deliberation, starting with content and ending with an impulse purchase. This is what some may call social commerce. This is no traditional shopping platform – traffic directed by the social commerce is extremely targeted, making purchase action the natural continuation of content consumption. More than 10% of the top WeChat official accounts have WeChat stores, and their sales are amazingly high. For start-up brands like Super Salad and Hey Juice, WeChat provides even more than social commerce. Often labeled as internet-based brands, they don’t have any form of offline touchpoints (except delivery). For them, WeChat is their entire brand ecosystem. They can connect with the digital savvy millennials, then seamlessly bridge the gap between brand awareness and sales – ‘like’ and ‘buy’ is only one click away.
There’s no doubt that WeChat and its continually evolving functions is leading the social channel revolution. It is no longer just a place for posting photos, or updating status to keep others informed. WeChat is like a Swiss army knife, the master of all things. And the future of social media. But if we peel off the fancy coating, what remains at the core are what WeChat values most – users.
They only roll out services and functions that add value. And have been known to cut those that are disliked, even the moneymakers. This is the ultimate reason for WeChat’s success, and also one of the biggest takeaways for brands…
It’s great to embrace change, but no matter how fast social evolves, brands must focus on the value they’re providing rather than change for the sake of change.