Life changer: We are, therefore WeChat
What started as a social media app providing instant communication has become indispensable for millions, and report.
Shayne Rochfort is an Australian who lives in Thailand, but the companion he relies on daily to survive socially and professionally is neither Australian nor Thai; it is Chinese — the phenomenally successful messaging app WeChat.
Rochfort, who has lived in the Thai city of Chiang Mai for six years, started using the app in 2013 and said he has more than 2,000 contacts listed on it.
He is just one of 650 million monthly active WeChat users worldwide who have seen the transformation of what started as little more than a handy piece of software to help friends stay in touch into an indispensable tool now used to do all manner of commercial transactions and that has joined the arsenal of weapons that companies deploy to help their businesses grow.
Rochfort said WeChat has been invaluable in promoting his travel book China to Chiang Mai, whose Chinese version will be on sale in China soon. “I often use the People Nearby function (of WeChat), to meet travelers in Chiang Mai,” he said. “When they add me (to their list of contacts) I usually send out the food section of my book and a one-day trip planner, so people know how to get around Chiang Mai.”
WeChat also allows users to chat with one another either by audio or video, and Rochfort said he has found the app’s ability to translate text into other languages, including Thai, a great help and a valuable learning aid.
With WeChat, which was launched in 2011, users — as long as they have an Internet connection — can display pictures, video and written material that they think contacts may find interesting.
They can book taxis, buy bonds, shop, order food and almost anything else and pay for all these things by linking the WeChat account to a bank account. Accounts can be set up by individuals or corporate entities.
The first research report about WeChat, issued by its owner Tencent late last year, said that Internet use of WeChat generated 95.2 billion yuan ($14.6 billion) in revenue; and 11 billion yuan worth of daily consumption items were bought.
The newspaper USA Today said recently that WhatsApp, a popular communication app in the West, now has 900 million monthly active users; Twitter has a little more than 300 million monthly active users; and Instagram, the photo and video sharing app that Facebook owns, also has about 300 million.
Mobile Messaging Apps: Global User Forecast, a report by eMarketer, a digital industry research firm, said more than 1.4 billion consumers worldwide were expected to use a mobile messaging app last year, and it forecast that the number would grow to 2 billion by 2018.
A recent Forbes article forecasts that the number of average monthly users of WhatsApp would rise to nearly 1.3 billion by the end of 2020. It also estimated that WhatsApp’s average revenue per user would be about $4 by 2020, which could yield revenue of about $5 billion in 2020.
WeChat has a far wider range of
3.9% functions than an instant messaging app and it differs from Twitter and Facebook, whose content can be made available to very large audiences, in that communications are usually restricted to individuals who know one another. Exceptions to this are its People Nearby and Shake functions that allow users to make contact with strangers.
Charles-Edouard Bouee, global CEO of the consulting firm Roland Berger, said that WeChat brings together the features found in other apps. “WeChat is like WhatsApp, Skype, Instagram and Facebook all in one, with an included payment option and a service that allows for real-time localization and finding friends nearby. In my view, the developers of WeChat have managed to combine the strengths and services of various different apps all in one. This is what I call ‘flat to fast’, a flat recombination of existing techniques into a very powerful tool.”
Kirk Wilson, executive director of the China-British Business Council (China), said that almost all British government departments and companies have WeChat official accounts, and almost all senior executives of British companies in China have personal WeChat accounts. The council has more than 900 members companies in China, of which about 70 percent are British companies, and 20 percent are Chinese.
“Chinese WeChat is very good for the final consumers in terms of convenience; it is very convenient that you can do all the applications with the wallet, all kinds of things.”
Stefan Sack, founder and chief executive of the Hong Kong consulting company SinEuSyn, said: “WeChat is so present in Chinese consumers’ hands that it is impossible not to use it as a company. Even in business-to-business the notification of events, products, fairs, etc is something everyone needs to do now.”
He often uses the WeChat Moments to let others know about work events and social happenings, and to encourage exchanges, he said.
However, WeChat’s ease of use does have at least one downside, and that is that staff are prone unwittingly to pass on company information that is commercially sensitive, and they need to be educated in this regard, he said. Ease of use also means that sometimes the quality of information disseminated is not of the standard that it ideally should be, he said.
Tommy Tang, a project manager with Roland Berger Strategy Consultants, said the app offers various kinds of commercial functions for companies, such as opening WeChat shops. The forwarding of products or information on WeChat Moments can be highly influential with mouthto-mouth promotion, he said.
The one-time release of an advertisement in the WeChat Moments section can cost millions of yuan. A company in Shanghai has built a third-party platform named Weimob that offers marketing and promotional
19.7% services to companies based on WeChat.
“WeChat’s commercialization forms are quite different to those of others and are very flexible for companies,” Tang said. “They can do things that are very simple and things that are very complex. The use of WeChat for promotions is a must for companies. It is the most active social media platform in China, and companies can tailor advertising and promotional campaigns on WeChat in accordance with their strengths and needs.”
Lyu Ronghui, a researcher with iResearch Consulting Group, said WeChat is one of the most important promotional platforms for companies that want to advertise and to engage in brand building. It is not just a matter of promoting its brands, but more importantly of reaching individuals so that they form positive relationships with brands and in turn influence buying decisions.
But WeChat is still limited in the way it carries advertisements and promotional activities, she said.
“Companies are certainly keen to promote their goods and services through WeChat a lot more, but that would have an impact on the WeChat user experience, and there is a reluctance by WeChat’s owners to allow that to happen. But they do want to find ways to help companies build promotional channels.”
The emergence and success of WeChat has come on the back of the growth of the mobile Internet.
“This has also resulted in changes in the way people socialize and in the way companies promote their products and services. As the mobile Internet has made hand-held devices, one of the chief tools that people use in dealing with others, including businesses, individuals have begun to demand transitions that are faster and more fun, and companies have begun to demand closer relationships with consumers and greater efficiency.”
Ren Chao, a researcher with the Internet consultancy Analysys International in Beijing, said that the important thing for big Internet companies is building an eco-system, and WeChat is building that based on the mobile Internet. WeChat is likely to be replaced only when handheld devices are supplanted by other kinds of electronic terminals such as glasses and watches, and even unmanned aerial vehicle, he said.
WeChat, like Facebook, needs to pay a lot of attention to the user experience, he said, and as long as it innovates it will continue to be popular.
WeChat’s overseas market has expanded greatly since 2011, and it now has more than 200 million users outside China. Nevertheless, China remains by far and away the app’s most important sphere of activity.
In Africa, Tencent has teamed up with Naspers, the continent’s largest media company, to introduce WeChat, and it is estimated to have about 6 million registered users in South Africa already, the Financial Times reported recently.
WeChat is also widely used by university students learning Chinese and business people developing ties with their Chinese partners.
The eMarketer report said that WeChat ranked among the top three messaging apps last year in the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong and Malaysia. It tends to be popular in countries with a sizeable Chinese population, but has gone mainstream only in a handful of markets outside China. WhatsApp was listed among the top three messaging apps in 34 countries, and it ranked No 1 in 26 countries.
The report said that a popular chat app in one country may not even be on the radar in another. The qualities that make a chat app popular in a location — cultural nuances, countryspecific features and app capabilities and word-of-mouth marketing — do not always translate to the global stage, which has made it difficult for some apps to expand beyond their home country or region.
“WeChat hasn’t done much good strategic marketing overseas yet, but its strength is about making good products, so it will make its efforts to expand the market,” Ren said.
Kirk at the China-British Business Council said WeChat is like 10 companies together, which can be a good thing and a bad thing. In developing countries, many companies may be able to work with WeChat, but in developed countries, people would probably prefer to have individual apps for different functions, rather than one comprehensive platform.
“The good thing about WeChat is that you have everything on one platform, but it could also be a bad thing for Tencent to go abroad. I think they will struggle in Europe and the United States, because people like their individual apps and have a lot of choices. So they need to work out a way to be much more flexible and let other companies participate in the ecosystem. But there are similar markets in which people would like it very much, such as India and Mexico.
“WeChat has been mostly developed based on Chinese users’ habits, and if they want to expand overseas, it has to be tailor-made for overseas users. But for companies or brands that want to come to China, they need this platform.”
WeChat is like WhatsApp, Skype, Instagram and Facebook all in one, with an included payment option.”
global CEO of the consulting firm Roland Berger
Contact the writers at chenyingqun@ chinadaily.com.cn and suqiang@ chinadaily.com.cn