How WeChat is taking China by storm
Last week the GREAT Festival of Creativity took place in Shanghai, to celebrate the UK’s creativity in business and foster new global business relationships. It was also (by coincidence) the first time I heard about WeChat in China, which has taken the country by storm.
I’d never heard of it – living in our little UK bubble, it’s easy to forget that other countries are doing interesting things with mobile apps and social media.
China has always been an attractive and challenging space for Western tech companies —it is home to 600m internet users. Home grown companies like Tencent have been able to capitalise on the opportunities.
So what is WeChat?
According to Wikipedia, it’s a mobile text and voice messaging communication service developed by Tencent in China, first released in January 2011. As of August 2014, WeChat had 438m active users; with 70million outside of China. To put this into context, it has fewer monthly users than Facebook (1.35bn) and WhatsApp (700m) but more than Twitter (288m) and it’s growing fast.
What can you use it for?
You can send messages (text, image, moving image and voice), share photographs (described as ‘moments’), videos and your location. You can exchange information with people nearby via Bluetooth as well as contacting people at random (if you want to) through its ‘radar’ functionality. It integrates with other social media sites, you can talk to brands, shop and buy funky ‘stickers’. In essence, it rolls together the functionality of Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin, with a few added extras.
What makes it stand out is that its users are increasingly relying on it for voice messaging, instead of traditional phone calls. It is shaking up the usual model for mobile phone providers. You can use its ‘walkie-talkie’ functionality to speak, tap and listen to replies. A study of WeChat users conducted by CNNIC (The China Internet Network Information Center) in May 2014 found that the most popular activities on the platform were the voice and text messaging services.
Who is using it?
According to eMarketer, a whopping 65% of internet users in China use WeChat. 64% of users are male and half are aged 18 to 25. Its fans are committed – one quarter of its fans uses it more than 30 times per day. On average, 27% of users’ smartphone internet traffic went through the app.
WeChat's infamous New Year campaign
Another thing that makes it invaluable is its e-commerce functionality. Recently WeChat ran a hugely successful Chinese New Year promotion, playing on the tradition of giving your loved ones red envelopes stuffed full of cash.
Millions of users spent the holiday trying to 'virtually' grab millions of yuan in gift money being given out by their friends, bosses and also by Tencent themselves. As well as sending money to people you know, you could virtually ‘throw’ money into your WeChat groups. Friends then scrambled around to grab as much of the money as they could.
Tencent reported that at the height of the campaign for Lunar New Year’s Eve, WeChat recorded 120m red envelopes being handed out. Bitcoin enthusiasts in China exchanged over RMB 10m (over 1.6m US dollars) in New Year Gifts using OKCoin’s mobile wallet functionality. Chinese WeChat users sent out 20m cash-filled red envelopes to friends and family within two days.
Will it ever come to the UK?
All this makes me wonder whether WeChat will make it to the UK in the future. Will we be using it? Or will big names in the West just adopt some of its progressive technology? Its popularity is spreading across Asia with huge uptake in Japan and South Korea. It’s available in eight languages, Argentine soccer star Lionel Messi has signed on as the company’s global spokesman, and it’s now the fifth most downloaded smartphone app in the world (after Google Maps, Facebook, YouTube, and Google Plus). Tencent also recently opened an office in the US which is a rather intriguing move. Watch this space.