When tech giant Tencent released its latest figures earlier this year, instant-messaging application WeChat posted an impressive 400 million active users.
It’s a staggering figure by any standards, but even more so when you consider that it actually represents a large share of all the world’s social media users and that the vast majority are inside the Great Firewall of mainland China.
It’s also a number that figures to keep growing, even with the Chinese government's recent reminder that messenger apps are not exempt from “campaign against rumors” (which all but gutted the public Sina Weibo platform)
So, for brands looking to create inroads into the lucrative Chinese market, a WeChat account is a must, right?
Before you start salivating over the prospects of capitalizing on a platform that reaches 400 million active users on their most personal device, there’s more to consider.
WeChat certainly has some real strengths, the most obvious being as a great CRM platform for communicating directly with customers on a one-to-one basis. And it also excels at reaching followers effectively with newsletter-style content and lite-app/HTML5 mobile experiences.
So, if your aim is to communicate and engage with a current customer base in China, WeChat can be a really effective channel and is a must have.
But if acquisition is your goal then it’s a whole different story, because in reality there is a very limited ability to build brand awareness.
To Tencent’s credit and brand marketers’ chagrin, WeChat has been very careful about developing the app as a utility strictly for users, not bending to the commercial pressures of including advertising capabilities for brands.
There isn’t even anything akin to Twitter’s Promoted Accounts to help acquire followers.
That’s why in a recent Admaster survey of digital marketers, 52 per cent said the biggest challenge for WeChat was attracting enough followers to make the platform valuable.
There’s not an easy way for customers to find and connect with brands beyond scanning QR codes. The apps dual official account structure is confusing, plus the account search function is clunky and the results are riddled with fake brand accounts.
But regardless of the headaches in follower acquisition (not to mention walled-garden analytics), WeChat is still fast becoming a must have digital portfolio piece. And it’s continuing to evolve very quickly.
WeChat has made some very interesting moves lately for what was once seen purely as a consumer messenger app. There is a payments gateway allowing small businesses to accept mobile payments and bought a classified ads portal.
And now they’re entering into connecting products, in a play to use the messenger app to tap into the internet of things.
To translate this to the Western experience, think about what it would be like if Facebook, Paypal and Craigslist were all in the same app. Albeit one without the advertising platform that Facebook has. Still, the mind boggles.
So what is a brand to do? For now, follow Tencent’s lead and develop the platform as a utility for your product users. Engage in CRM and optimize your mobile web and app content so that it’s compatible with WeChat’s browser.
Most importantly, always keep in mind that it wasn’t easy to find you, so your followers are likely to be amongst your best, most engaged customers. WeChat gives you a great tool to connect with them and thank them for that.
But as always, regardless of the latest platform developments, the secret to successful social media marketing is to follow the eyeballs, communicate authentically when you get there, and invest in the data and analytics to optimize the real ROI of the channel.
Ed McElvain is APAC media strategy director with Lowe Profero