If brands and their agency counterparts aren’t keeping pace with WeChat’s evolving digital ecosystem, they are forfeiting valuable opportunities to create consumer relevance.
Just last week, WeChat's subscription account display improved from a stacked list of accounts to a content feed.
Here's some other recent changes:
- Look, an inventory, technical and distribution partner for fashion KOLs claimed that its most successful KOLs can move anywhere between 5 million and 100 million RMB of stock per month through their individual WeChat stores.
- 跳一跳 (Jump, Jump), a mobile game within WeChat, attracted 400 million players within three days of launch.
- Netease Music migrated playlists from its app to its WeChat mini-program.
- Tencent Video opened a WeChat mini-program that allows viewers to watch the latest Game of Thrones episodes.
The above examples beg a simple question: What’s happening to WeChat?
The answer is deceptively simple, but the implications are far-reaching. WeChat’s evolving. It’s now a fully-fledged digital ecosystem, enabling its billion-strong monthly active user base to access digital experiences and services, not just content.
To understand the changes taking place, let’s first backtrack a little to WeChat’s humble beginnings in 2011.
From WeChat 1.0 to WeChat 4.0
WeChat’s development has been through four distinct phases.
The first phase, WeChat 1.0, connected users with users. Users chat with, call and transfer files between one another through individual or group chats.
The second phase, WeChat 2.0, connected users with information through WeChat Official Accounts. These official accounts, including subscription accounts and service accounts, periodically send users long-form articles, memes or notifications.
In February 2014, WeChat was turned on its head as its ‘Red Packet’ (红包) function was unveiled at CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala, with 1.2 billion red packets delivered over the festive period. This represented the dawn of WeChat 3.0, which connected users with payments.
WeChat’s integration with payments didn’t stop at peer-to-peer payments through red packets stuffed with virtual money. In the blink of an eye, WeChat extended its payment function to utilities, mobile phone credits, and offline purchases.
WeChat 3.0 was a significant turning point in WeChat’s development. It transitioned WeChat from a social media giant to a ‘super app’, commanding around 30% of Chinese internet users’ time online.
However, WeChat’s most significant change came in January 2017 when it lifted the veil off its mini-program. This program allows an application smaller than 10 megabytes to run instantly within WeChat, removing the need to download and install an app from Apple’s App Store or Google Play.
It may sound small, but apps smaller than 10 megabytes can achieve a lot: order a taxi, have take-out delivered to your door, rent a shared bike, purchase a pair of sneakers, and watch your favourite vlogger’s livestream. Like its 'red packets’ in 2014, mini-programs heralded a significant shift in how Chinese users interact with WeChat.
Within the space of the next 18 months, WeChat implemented a new format of Moments Ads (advertisements now presented as an enlarged 'card', instead of the previous text-image-link format), WeChat Search (an internal search engine across content on Moments, in articles from official accounts, related mini-programs, stickers, music or novels), and Mini-Games.
An enormous amount of change, compressed into a relatively short time frame. This is the fourth stage of WeChat’s development, WeChat 4.0, which connected users to a full digital ecosystem. Messaging, search, entertainment, gaming, payments, e-commerce, mobility and lifestyle services can now all be completed within WeChat.
What's in it for brands?
This opens up immense possibilities for brand engagement with consumers. Brands have the opportunity to move beyond content and create full digital experiences that align with their mission, vision and values.
Consider Pigeon, a Japanese pacifier manufacturer. It quickly embraced the WeChat 4.0 reality, designing and deploying a mini-program for expecting mothers. It lets expecting mothers keep a record of obstetrician appointments, remind them of upcoming ultrasounds, look up suitable meal plans, book parenting classes and access pre-natal counselling.
The CityExperience mini program in partnership with Tourism Australia, VisitBritain and Dubai Tourism is another example of tourism brands that were quick to rethink how they approach WeChat. In partnership with Tencent, the tourist authorities created mini-programs containing maps, itineraries, translation services, food and shopping suggestions, as well as Mandarin audio guides for key destinations.
These are just a few instances of companies making full use of WeChat’s digital ecosystem. It’s fair to say the majority of brands haven’t yet made the most of WeChat 4.0.
The warp-speed of WeChat’s change has eclipsed the imaginations and competencies of most brands, content creators and social media managers, who have been well-versed (and sometimes not so well-versed) in creating long-form content for WeChat official accounts.
They are still stuck in WeChat 2.0’s content-push model.
As pioneers race ahead toward new levels of relevance with fans, followers and consumers, laggards increase their odds of digital obscurity. There are a lot to come to grips with. However, unlike content, digital experiences on WeChat that gain consumer love generally possess notable first-mover advantage and high user stickiness.
There’s a real imperative for brands and agencies to tackle the learning curve—with haste.
Michael Norris is a research manager at Resonance China.