Chenyin Pan
Oct 29, 2015

Would the world use WeChat?

Will WeChat suffer the same fate of the selfie stick - be favoured by only the Chinese? Chenyin Pan from Fireworks thinks it will be hard for WeChat to pull its weight overseas.

Would the world use WeChat?

If you, like me, visited Paris this summer, you will have seen selfie sticks handled by tourists to capture the beauty of the city (and themselves) from different angles.

The selfie stick has become a phenomenon in the past few years, but do you know when it was first invented by the Japanese in the 1990s, it made into the list of “useless Japanese inventions”?

WeChat today looks somewhat similar to the selfie stick. The medium is revolutionary. It combines social media, chat, web browser, mobile payment and synchronisation with all sorts of lifestyle services including hailing taxis.

Its awesomeness has not gone unnoticed in China, where 570 million monthly active users take advantage of what the app has to offer.

However, it seems that WeChat is still far from being recognised outside of China. In the last two years, attempts were made to make inroads globally, but to little avail.

In early 2013, as part of its initial US$200-million global promotion campaign, WeChat signed Argentinian football star Lionel Messi as the app’s TV commercial star. It was claimed that WeChat amassed 100 million users outside of China then.

Yet, WeChat remains insignificant in other parts of the world. By October 2014, WeChat users accounted for only 2 percent of all the overall internet users in the US. The same data in Europe is not available, but a quick glance at WeChat Europe’s Facebook page shows an unambiguous lack of enthusiasm with only 272 'likes' registered.

I haven't found other data regarding the weak presence of WeChat in Europe, but the fact wasn't denied when I reached out to Andrea Ghizzoni, Italy country director of WeChat, for comments. Here, I quote him: "For sure it's a mix of cultural differences, lateness to market and an initial prejudice towards Chinese brands". 

"The more cross-border activities and cross-cultural interactions that take place, the more people [in Europe] will see the advantages of WeChat," added Ghizzoni. "Still, competitors are quickly adapting their apps and business models using WeChat as a reference, hence this will for sure keep the battle fierce."

In Southeast Asia, there is only moderate activity among the Chinese-speaking community (in Singapore, 20 percent of smartphone users use WeChat, and 38 percent in Malaysia, according to WalktheChat’s report).

Even in Hong Kong, which shares many cultural commonalities with mainland China, WeChat usage is still lagging behind WhatsApp and Facebook (see Statista chart below). 

The mobile app ecosystem is much more diversified in Hong Kong, and local users would go to specialised apps for specific purposes (Facebook messenger/Whatsapp for one-to-one communication, Instagram and Pinterest for sharing photos, and Uber for booking rides). 

And of course, better English literacy in Hong Kong also makes people more willing to adopt new apps from the US and Europe. While in China, any app that wants to make it has to be in Chinese, or go through a very long time period for acceptance (i.e. LinkedIn). 

In sum, no matter how much Chinese users think WeChat is superior to any other platform, the rest of the world is still immune to its fascination.

So what’s stopping WeChat from conquering the world?

Itself. It's the foreign player who is late to the game.

WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger arrived in Europe and America much earlier than WeChat. This is the reality, and unless WeChat finds a way to touch people's lives, they will not use it.

WeChat functions such as hailing taxis (via Didi Dache) and getting meal deals (via Dianping) make the lives of many urban Chinese citizens much easier, but would an American be able to link his/her WeChat account to a Wells Fargo debit card and use it in a Whole Foods store in San Francisco? 

Ivan Quagio, director of strategic planning at Brazilian digital agency Sabbre, also agrees: “These kind of services usually depend on how fast they grow their initial base of users. A late arriver has a lot of disadvantages. Many apps are very similar to it, so there is minimal incentive for an user to migrate to another”.

The language issue is also putting a hold to WeChat’s international outreach. Though the WeChat chatting interface contains more than 20 language options, the back-end management system and dashboard is only available in Chinese. This alienates users, and also brands.

A Chinese digital marketing manager for a European luxury brand recently mentioned to me how Chinese social media has evolved beyond the imagination of her supervisors in Italy, as she had to explain over and over again to them what WeChat is. That has cost the brand the opportunity to be the first few luxury brands to link their WeChat accounts to e-commerce.

Offering language options in the backend system to manage subscription and service accounts for brands is the most important solution I could think of, if Tencent really wants the app to make progress in global markets.

The future of WeChat globally depends very much on how the app finally becomes user-friendly in non-Chinese speaking countries. It certainly would be a pity for the world to “rediscover” it in 20 years, as we did with the selfie stick. 

Chenyin Pan is a digital strategist from Fireworks 


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