Jonathan Koh
Oct 14, 2014

WeChat, we conquer

CHINA INNOVATION 2014: How WeChat innovated into a category leader in 9 steps.

WeChat, we conquer

In under four years, WeChat has become not only the most popular mobile app in China with over 400 million active monthly users, it is has become synonymous with Chinese concept of “Wei-Innovation" (literally: micro-innovation). Here are nine key factors behind WeChat's meteoric rise. Each may seem innocuous, but as a sum, they are what make WeChat the dominant platform it is today.

Leveraging Tencent's user base and brand

First released January 2011, WeChat recorded 4 million users by the end of April, and announced 200 million users within six months. How was this possible? It was actually an easy switch for existing users of QQ, WeChat's messaging app predecessor and Tencent's cornerstone product launched in 1999. QQ has been the de facto chat application for Chinese users since then, now boasting over 800 million monthly active user accounts as of Q2 2014 across desktop and mobile.

Voicemail reborn

In May 2011 WeChat 2.0 added voice messaging, giving WeChat a unique feature over existing chat apps at the time. It was easier to use on the run. More interestingly, it was more natural for those users not used to typing on their phones, namely, the older generation of users in China.

Privacy taken seriously

In 2011, Sina Weibo was at its peak. The pulse of the country could be found on Weibo and it was the freshest way to conduct public discourse since BBS. However, being completely public and real-time it was also ripe for government censorship. And as events such as the Wenzhou Train Wreck stirred public anger on government handling of the disaster, hundreds of thousands of posts were deleted. This was the perfect segue for WeChat - described by users early on as ‘a great private messaging alternative to Weibo’ (imagine switching from Twitter to WhatsApp).

Hooking-up digitized

WeChat launched the Look Around feature in August of 2011. It showed users who else was looking around within four kilometer radius. At the time, even Western dating apps were still slow coming out of the exclusively gay app scene, and although never promoted as a 'hook up' function, it satisfied most users curiosity to do just that: look around. Unfortunately it became a growing channel for prostitution services, leading to a crackdown earlier this year when Tencent closed 20 million accounts because they offered ‘special services’. The operation was known as 'Thunder Strike' (reported by Quartz in June 2014) and was part of a wider government crackdown campaign.

Expansion in every direction

In April 2012, Tencent integrated a photo-sharing functionality using a timeline, just within months of Facebook's timeline integration. This function not only mimicked the timeline layout, it let users choose "limited sharing" per friend, much like Path or Google Circles at the time.

The Great Firewall of China has typically meant that for every Facebook or Twitter, there would invariably be a Chinese clone on the other side. What people didn't expect was that WeChat would expand into almost every social app niche.

WeChat introduced video chat in May 2012, giving frustrated mainland Skype users respite from ever-buggy connections. Game integration, payments and other innovations would come later, but WeChat’s intention to do all and be all was already clear.

Non-advertising advertising

Since its launch, WeChat's official stance was that the company was not developing WeChat as a commercial platform. Tencent was keen to avoid Weibo's ad-flooded (read: wretched) user experience. However, in reality there were already countless licensed 'agent' companies that help brands setup accounts at the time.

This changed slightly after WeChat’s Open API relaxed in 2013 - perhaps a first for Chinese social media, where media owners are typically quick to cash out from any branded activity (ex: Renren, Facebook's equivalent in China, charges monthly fees to open brand pages).

This meant advertisers had to act like developers.

There was no rate-card or media kit (at least that I could ever find). No official menu for what you could use it for. As a result advertisers were forced to think like developers, not just clients buying media space on existing channels. Everything was new and possible. Imagine trying to build a branded space within WhatsApp. How would you do it? Would you just import your timeline from Facebook? I hope not!

With platforms like WeChat, brands have the chance to do so much more than simple storytelling. They can create utility that makes peoples’ lives easier, or experiences more memorable than a TVC.

Starbucks was one of the first brands to be more inventive on WeChat, sending songs to users based on their mood (based on emoticons they were using.) This was a good example of starting from experience and content rather than run-of-the-mill brand messages and daily posts that we’ve become all too familiar with on Weibo, Twitter and Facebook.

Lifebuoy Soap recently launched their WeChat account in an engaging way - delivering daily tutorials that teach good hand-washing habits to parents and their early-education age kids (full disclosure, my agency, BBH, in cooperation with Profero produced this).

Getting into social CRM

Nike was another early adopter of innovative WeChat practices, with early efforts integrating Nike+ functionality letting runners collect social badges and tailored video content as rewards. The sports brand has since become even more advanced on WeChat, allowing you to find and join chat groups of runners nearby or start your own. Cleverly, Nike+ also adds a dummy or assistant account to your chat group that allows the brand to monitor your group’s activity and send reminders about Nike+ Run events. This essentially transformed WeChat from a broadcast channel for Nike, to a social CRM network. 

Games, games, games

August 2013 saw WeChat 5.0 launch with its games center that allowed purchase stickers, or animated emoticons and downloads of addictive games.

One of the first hits was 'Airplane Attack' (sidenote: ‘hit the airplane' coincidentally means "to masturbate" in Chinese). It was addictive to the point that it disrupted productivity among workers. Several office leaders I know in Shanghai actually banned employees from playing during working hours. This was just one of many signs of success not only for WeChat but also for parent company Tencent, which previously had struggled to gain status as a ‘white-collar brand’.

Online games contributed 56% of Tencent’s revenue in Q2 2014 (Rmb11 billion), up 46% from the previous year.

Payment integration in 2013

The thing about Payment platforms is, they only grow after vendors adopt. Fortunately for WeChat, taxi drivers using Didi Dache, China' primary taxi app quickly adopted a preference for WeChat users who had the ability to prepay, unlike cash-paying counterparts – so now drivers ask before letting you on: “Are you paying with WeChat?” Payment integration has a long way to go in the West, but they should look at what you can buy on WeChat these days. For example: DS, Citroen’s new sub brand, has sold over 1,000 cars on its WeChat account. Imagine being able to buy a car on WhatsApp. This gives a clue as to just how important e-commerce is to users in China.

WeChat’s rise can teach us about innovating. Here’s three final principles that are somewhat different from Western norms.

1) Don't be afraid to "borrow"

This is the main principle behind the Chinese concept of wei-innovation, referencing Weibo/Wechat's ability to -how shall I say- integrate countless features from existing apps in China and the West. Learn to improve and craft what’s out there to fit your own local environment. For brands, this could mean taking inspiration from popular apps in terms of functionality, or user experience.

2) Integrate as many great features as early as possible, and often. 

There are no rules to what an app should have, you don't have to just focus on one feature - as many startups and app developers tend to do in the West. WeChat didn’t think about integrating mobile afterwards – compared to Twitter and Facebook's relatively slow development of their mobile app. It took years for Twitter to add built-in photo sharing and link-shortening functions. And Facebook's mobile app is only recently coming into its own.

3) User Experience First

This may sound obvious but in China this is what made WeChat stand out in a big way. WeChat (like it's predecessor QQ) gave users what they wanted in functions and features, integrating gifs, animated emoticons, and pretty much anything else users wanted.

See all of our annual CHINA INNOVATION features


Campaign China

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