If you are immersed in the Chinese social web like me, the imminent rise of WeChat in the last year has probably gotten you somewhat curious.
So what’s the fuss with a simple chat tool?
Scope and ambition
The first thing to understand about WeChat is its scope and ambition. Far from a fresh start-up, WeChat is the brainchild of Tencent, a Chinese Internet behemoth. Internally, WeChat is touted as the future of Tencent (while QQ represented its past, both financially and in influence) that ties all its services and offerings together.
Last year, WeChat and Tencent threw all its marketing muscles into its global expansion efforts, and now boasts a healthy user base in markets such as South Africa, India, and South-East Asia.
WeChat is also far from just a personal messenger app. It pushed out its commercial accounts early in its development, and has re-iterated its business and e-commerce solution with almost every update (particularly in the Chinese version of the app). Note that the global/English version that you and I see tends to be a couple of updates behind, and minus some of the payment and gaming bells and whistles.
A truly private social network
The second exciting, although little talked-about feature of WeChat which also explains its immense popularity, is the way it’s actually managed to do what Google+ has failed to do – and has vastly improved the privacy shortfalls of Facebook and Twitter while incorporating elements of Path.
Let me explain.
WeChat’s interactions are set up to ensure maximum privacy. While the primary usage of the app is the one-on-one messenger service, most users also make use of the “Moments” functionality in the app, which works as a news stream not unlike those seen in Twitter and Facebook.
Even though the “Moments” functionality encourages you to share photos and updates with your contacts, WeChat does not make your contact list visible, nor does it display the content or size of your contact list. By shielding users off from prying eyes, the app feel private, intimate, and much more authentic. Remember, one of the biggest complaints of Facebook is that it turns your social media activities into a popularity contest, where people start to obsess over the content and size of your friends list, and who’s friends with whom.
That problem does not exist in WeChat.
Conversations that take place within “Moments” are also very private.
For example, say you have three friends, Abel, Brienne, and Cassius, and all three comments on a “Moment” you posted. Abel doesn’t know Brienne nor Cassius, so he won’t be able to see any of their comments, nor see your responses to either of them. Brienne and Cassius knows each other but not Abel, so they will see their interactions with you, but not Abel’s.
As a result of this set-up, instead of being bombarded continuously by notifications of likes and comments by people you don’t know (i.e. Facebook), you feel like you are either having a private conversation with someone, or reinforcing your mini social circle, all without the noise of strangers.
It also alleviates pressure on the poster – no need to worry about being witty or that nobody will interact with your post, because all interactions are now protected based on existing relationships.
Developing the commercial side
On the commercial side, WeChat has presented businesses with ample options from the very start.
During one of the updates late 2013, WeChat separated its previous subscription accounts from a new type called service accounts, as a way to help its commercial partners drive better engagement and sales both on and offline.
While the subscription account (for businesses) acts more like a RSS feed and limited to one post per day – most businesses do even less for fear of offending its users, the service accounts are more free to determine their own content mix and frequency, although many choose to focus on customer service and e-commerce activities.
[starbucks and China Southern pictures]
Most service accounts function essentially as their own app, with promotions, self-controlled content publishing, games, and even connection to its own CRM system to facilitate purchasing directly from WeChat.
Mobile payment infrastructure
With its serious effort on developing the commercial side of its business, it’s no wonder that when it comes to mobile payment, WeChat is the platform where people feel comfortable pulling their wallets out.
While Weibo tries to tie its content and promotions into direct purchases with limited success, the mobile-first and privacy-oriented nature of WeChat has made its e-commerce platform much easier for users to accept.
Although e-commerce through WeChat is still in its early stages, I already see at least three areas where WeChat is the perfect app for.
The first group of e-commerce activities are driven by casual purchases like topping up your cell phone, paying for a fast-food or delivered meal, and sending someone a virtual gift.
The second group of purchases are made when users are on the go, or have to talk to others while making the decision, such as hauling a cab or booking a holiday.
The third group of successful e-commerce activities are exclusive deals distributed through the platform like Xiaomi, where 150K phones were sold out through the WeChat platform within 10 minutes late last year.
So there you are, a private and intimate social media network under the guise of a simple messenger tool that locks in the loyalty of its user base, an aggressive offering on the commercial side with a strong payment infrastructure, ensures that WeChat, much more so than any other networks in China or the west, is the future of the mobile space.