Elisa Harca
Jan 12, 2016

Why Chinese retail marketers are creating native apps

While WeChat's unique capabilities make it a powerful marketing tool, many brands are realising the importance of owning their own space on consumer devices, writes Red Ant's Elisa Harca.

Elisa Harca
Elisa Harca

Some of China’s biggest fashion retailers aren’t relying solely on WeChat for e-commerce success. Many are creating native apps as a strategic addition to their omnichannel ecosystems. 

For example, British fashion retailer ASOS (a client) just launched a native app to great success. ASOS is not the first international retailer to create a native app rather than rely solely on WeChat. So why do big retailers believe native apps are a necessary part of their omni-channel ecosystem? And exactly what extra tactics can you implement on a native app versus a WeChat presence or mobile web?

Retailers looking to make an impact in Asia will no doubt be tempted to take the quickest route to market—by using an existing platform like WeChat to promote their products, or by simply making their website accessible to mobile users.

While these are both valid strategies, which certainly have a place in the overall marketing mix, retailers with long-term ambitions to secure their position in an increasingly competitive marketplace are beginning to realise the importance of ‘owning’ their own space on consumers’ devices by developing a native app.

Native app versus WeChat

There’s no doubt that WeChat is a very powerful platform, it delivers an instant mobile storefront. But with that convenience comes limitations, including:

  • Creative freedom: Retailers don't have full control over the user experience. WeChat’s parent company Tencent sets the rules for look, feel and layout as well as e-commerce and payment options.
  • Functionality: Functionality is limited to WeChat’s capabilities, so it might not be possible to implement brand-specific features, innovative activities or marketing campaigns that lie outside its platform framework.
  • Cost: While there’s usually a way to open a WeChat store for free, other marketing activities come at a cost. For example, the charge for advertising on Moments starts at 200,000 RMB (US$30,430).

Recommendation: WeChat is terrific for building a trusted brand presence in China, and with around 650 million monthly users it has tremendous reach. A native app, which gives retailers the freedom to develop unique features and marketing opportunities, will complement WeChat’s advantages, leveraging multiple platforms for a true omni-channel experience.

Native app versus mobile-web app

In theory, it’s quick, easy and cost effective for retailers to simply adapt their website for mobile. However, this approach can involve sacrificing functionality and the benefits inherent in developing specifically for a smartphone:

  • A web app has technical limitations based on the browser it was set up for, and will not be able to fully access smartphone capabilities. A native app, in contrast, could access the user’s address book, offer an unrestricted integrated camera experience, use location services and the accelerometer, access in-store beacons and so on.
  • Web apps cannot offer a personalised experience, whereas native apps can store and apply a wealth of user data to deliver targeted alerts, discounts, promotions and loyalty schemes based on store proximity, previous activity and other factors
  • If a user looking at a web app loses their internet connection, they can no longer access it, whereas native apps allow for offline browsing.
  • Native apps allow retailers to send push notifications which isn’t possible via a web app – this is an important consideration when it comes to marketing campaigns
  • Well-made native apps get additional promotion through platform app stores – they may even be featured in top ten charts and editors’ picks. This adds to the credibility and popularity of both the app and the retailer

Recommendation: On face value, web apps seem to be a viable, speedy way to get content onto users’ mobiles. However, the fact that they are not primarily designed for smartphone use means the limitations outweigh the advantages.

While it’s important to make web content available in a mobile-friendly way, smartphone users expect a specific experience, and retailers can reap the benefits from their enthusiasm for apps that fully use their phone capabilities.

For a complete optimised mobile experience, it is key to address all mobile aspects and for China a strong mix of all three—mobile web, mobile apps and WeChat—is key.

Elisa Harca is global client partner and regional director for Asia at Red Ant.


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