What is WeChat?
WeChat is a marketing and social media platform also know as a super app because of the sheer volume of its features and functionality. It has 1.1 billion registered accounts and 846 million monthly active users according to parent company Tencent, making it not only a super app, but much like Facebook is in the West, a channel that is too big to be ignored if you have, or want to have business dealings with mainland China.
WeChat kicked off in 2011 and is used in China somewhat like a countrywide intranet rather than an internet due to the high levels of localised usage within the confines of a tightly regulated market. For some quick geopolitical background, China has a sophisticated amount of internal management of digital information flows. This is known colloquially outside China as the Great Firewall, and it means that companies like Facebook, Google and YouTube are unable to operate inside China due to their refusal to comply with the rules that the Chinese government have in place.
The social media and digital communication vacuum from the absence of Facebook et al was filled by a number of Chinese companies: WeChat began like Facebook and Instagram, Weibo like Twitter and YouKu similar to YouTube. All these channels have subsequently evolved into significant players in Chinese e-commerce and marketing. When WeChat was initially launched it was seen as a poor cousin to Facebook and Whatsapp, but quickly and rapidly escalated as WeChat launched feature after feature that seamlessly integrated and simplified the life of Chinese citizens in every aspect imaginable, while connecting them together.
Video: How China is changing your internet
What can it do?
In short, everything. If WeChat started as a messaging app, it is now much more than that. Here is a list of (some of) the things you can do with WeChat:
· Message people
· Voice call or video chat including group chats (like Skype and Whatsapp)
· Share images and updates on your timeline (like you would on Facebook)
· Transfer money
· Top-up your phone credit
· Order a cab
· Buy movie tickets
· Organise your dry cleaning
· Order food
· Invest money in a wealth management plan
· Book a train or plane tickets
In other words, WeChat is not just another messaging app. It is important to remember that all of these functions happen inside the app, which is why it is a super app where users never have to leave. They say in China that 'WeChat is life', it is a platform which enables you to do anything and everything in China and is integral to business success. So what about its use for businesses outside of China?
Who should use WeChat?
Tasmania has been strategically marketing itself to China for over a decade, looking to attract consumers for tourism, education, residential and business investment, and for our businesses to become exporters of Tasmanian branded niche products such as value-added food and milk products, cold climate wines, boutique spirits, health products, education and increasingly services such as training. While WeChat has been a largely internal brand, Tasmanian firms looking to trade with Chinese consumers need to be where their consumers are, and having an active presence on WeChat is a smart step to connect with your customers and future customers in a channel that is already deeply embedded in their lives.
There are a couple of broader strategic digital considerations here: one is that you have a website that is localised for China and hosted appropriately and that you have a digital marketing strategy that is designed for your Chinese growth whether that is attracting customers inside Tasmania or selling Tasmanian goods to mainland China. Tasmanian SMEs that are in the tourism, student accommodation, education, real estate and luxury niche product market would be obvious candidates to cater to this market.
Can I use it if i’m not in China?
The simple answer is yes, but in a different way than you would if you had a Chinese company or a Wholly Owned Foreign Enterprise (WOFE) and could access an official account. Lets first have a look at the different types of accounts available.
Personal accounts: these are accounts of normal WeChat users. They are meant for individuals, not marketing, but can be successfully used as your first foray using WeChat or your business with a maximum of 5000 ‘friends’.
WeChat Corporate Accounts: WeChat Corporate accounts are primarily for internal communication and management. They are not available to the public nor marketers. Users of corporate accounts must be verified internal staff in order to follow the corporate account. Like Facebook is trying to pursue the corporate market as an intranet style messaging and comms service, WeChat is also heading down this path, driven by the ubiquitous use of the channel anyway, and the ease of conversion from a personal to a business environment.
With third-party APIs, corporate accounts have multiple internal management functions, such as internal chat room and resource sharing. Corporate accounts have high visibility and high security as users have to follow the account and then be added manually by the account owner entering their name, phone number and WeChat id.
WeChat Official accounts: these accounts are meant for companies or individuals wanting to promote themselves, or make advanced use of WeChat for business. They are the equivalent of Facebook for business pages with a tonne of additional functionality, and any number of users can follow them. The two most relevant types of WeChat Official Accounts are:
- Subscription accounts: can send 1 push message per day to their followers and are stacked together in a dedicated folder appearing alongside your friends in the "chat" section of WeChat. This account allows a lot of content, but it is fighting for visibility amongst all of the other subscription posting and can be harder to get traction with. You can't have a store for transactions using a subscription account, so if you want to sell direct then a service account is better.
- Service accounts: appear as friends in the "chat" section of WeChat. They are extremely visible, and have additional features compared to subscription account (in particular WeChat login, WeChat payment and geo-localization). However, they can only post 4 messages per month or one a week, so if you are a content driven business, a subscription account is more relevant.
If you are in Tasmania without a WOFE but want to begin to connect with Chinese customers, the best first option is to create a private account that you use to communicate your business activities. Its easy to get started, you simply download the app and follow the instructions - setting up on WeChat for a private account is no more difficult than getting an e-mail address. You’ll need a phone number to register, but you’ll then be able to take your account to other devices ( e.g. your iPad that has no SIM). This is another great feature of WeChat that WhatsApp missed – you can sign in on other devices without having to re-register. This is really handy when you are using a private account for your business, as you’re not restricted to one device. Features of a private WeChat account that you can use for your business include.
- Send / receive payments
- Create WeChat groups
- Post to “moments”
- Add a network of friends and contacts
- Follow and comment on official WeChat accounts to build networks and relationships
It stands to reason that if you want to get started on WeChat outside of China then beginning by using the tools which ARE available to you is a good place to start. By running your WeChat account much like an MVP, you’ll get used to the platform and start to understand how private users behave on WeChat – this is valuable as private users are the ones you want to understand as consumers. By adding your WeChat QR code to your website and social media, WeChat users can simply scan it and add you as a friend, getting access to all your content. As Tasmanian businesses are unable to use the WeChat Wallet (unless you have a Chinese bank account and a credit card, in which case you can transact) WeChat is best used as a straight marketing tool for your business.
If you don’t have a WOFE but want an official account, you can also set up a WeChat account using a third party. This allows your brand to be shown, but will also display the organization that is auspicing your account. WeChat now allows this arrangement to be easily migrated to your business if you move to a WOFE without losing customers, so it can be a middle ground to test the market.
Clustering your customers into active chat groups has been a successful strategy for many businesses on Facebook. WeChat groups function very much like Facebook groups and are the quickest and easiest way to get content out to private WeChat users who have an interest in your type of product or service. Think of it as similar to a forum – you get interested customers into a WeChat group in order to serve up useful information and develop a relationship with your audience. Content has a short shelf life on groups which means that consumers are reading in the moment, you want to post frequently and keep it in the moment, similar to Instagram and Twitter. For WeChat groups you should maximise on peak engagement times – lunch time and early to mid evening are reported as the best starting point for small business owners to do this.
Moments is a feature similar to how the Facebook wall operates. You post pictures and comments to it, and they are visible toyour WeChat friends. They are not, however, available to anyone who is not in your circle of friends. If you are a Snapchat user, it uses roughly the same system – you can only broadcast to friends. There is no limit on how much content you can put out in your moments, unlike the restriction on a Service or Subscription account. Why is this so valuable? Because when you enter the world of WeChat marketing, you are playing a slightly different game to that on any other platform's you should be looking to split test your ideas by varying types of content, calls to action, and measuring the effectiveness of engagement times during the day. You may have done a great job of engaging your audience outside China using a successful blog/podcast/ social media strategy, but this isn’t automatically going to copy over into WeChat – both the audience and the platform are different, and should be treated as so.
WeChat advertising and KOLs
According to Tencent, 55% of all WeChat users are male, 45% are female, with most users between 22-54 years of age – which is also the group driving China’s growth in consumption. Unsurprisingly WeChat is expanding its advertising, including outbound targeting so consumers travelling to other countries, such as Australia, can be specifically targeted. This is a relatively new offering, and is likely develop significantly with use and better demographic targeting.
Currently in WeChat there are banner ads and Moments ads, both of these are only available with Official accounts not private ones. Moments ads are similar to native ads that appear in your Facebook feed. Banner ads appear at the bottom of an article, allowing users to click through to an external URL. Both use sophisticated demographic targeting to narrow down the audience they will be shown to, but currently the general feeling is that these services are yet to reach maturity in relation to their targeting capability, and this will improve over time.
One of the key ways that brands and products gain visibility on WeChat is through content marketing and the use of Key Opinion Leaders or KOLs. For more on Content Marketing you can check out the Digital Ready blog here. Basically content marketing means having your product or brand endorsed by a third party with some influence and relevance to your key markets. One way of doing this is using a variety of channels to place paid and unpaid content relating to your product. Another is to pay a KOL to endorse your product as part of structured campaign to increase sales and brand awareness. There are many digital marketing business in China that purely manage KOL communities and broker deals between them and brands who want their services.
Is WeChat for your business? If you want to sell to Chinese customers, or gain brand awareness, or simply understand that vast and diverse market better, WeChat is a great place to get insight into the Chinese consumer, their behavior and how your product or service might fit. Due to the innovation being deployed within the WeChat app, it is an app that offers so much in one place, and is increasingly looking at the capacity for agile cross border sales and marketing. Like Facebook, WeChat is constantly changing and upgrading their offerings. Unlike Facebook, this is often due to Government regulation and sporadic tightenings of laws, which can impact foreign users.