What communicators need to know about … “WeChat”

What communicators need to know about … “WeChat”
10. May 2019 Falk Rehkopf

What communicators need to know about … “WeChat”

WeChat for Communicators

Up until just a few months ago, international organisations who wanted to set up an account with Chinese app WeChat had to operate through a domestic intermediary. Now, however, WeChat allows non-Chinese businesses to directly control their own WeChat accounts. WeChat will further reduce any such barriers and given its enormous user base, WeChat holds immense potential for communicators across the globe to reach Chinese publics.

In this blog post, we walk you through what WeChat is about and discuss how communicators can leverage WeChat to promote their brands and businesses.

What is WeChat?

If you’re based in Europe or the US, chances are, you use an array of apps to send messages, do online shopping and pay your bills. Consumers in China, however, rely heavily on WeChat, a multi-purpose app that allows them to socialise, shop and run their errands, all at once. It’s the Internet for the phone,” says brand consultant Ernest Lupinacci. “It delivers payments, websites, personal chats, phone calls, group chats, file sharing, scheduling and appointments, gaming, content and videos. It’s almost like taking the intimacy of texting—but with far greater functionality”.

WeChat was launched in 2011 as Weixin and, back then, it was little more than a messenger app. Today the app has a huge range of functionality and it allows users to make voice and video calls, follow updates from friends and brands, do online shopping, get food delivered or pay for items bought in retail stores, pay bills, book a cab or a doctor’s appointment, apply for a visa and also send the – in China – all-important virtual red packets to friends. In 2019, an impressive 820 million users sent or received a Chinese New Year red package over WeChat.

WeChat is essentially based on an “app within an app” model. Think of it this way: you’re using an app that has the interface of Facebook but within it, you can also unlock all the functionalities of Apple Pay, Instagram, Spotify, Uber, Google Maps, Slack and more.

The app is immensely popular – within 14 months of launch, it had 100 million registered users under its belt and, as of January 2019, Tencent-owned WeChat had one billion Daily Active Users (DAU). Today, WeChat is the fifth most-used app in the world. The median age of WeChat users is 26 and, interestingly, the ratio of male to female users is nearly 2:1.

Most of WeChat’s users are in China but its growing international user base – currently estimated to be in between 100 and 200 million – shouldn’t be ignored.

Consumers in Western markets typically don’t have access to the same seamless experience. In the US and Europe, apps are more fragmented and consumers generally download separate apps to access a comparable range of functionality. As Michelle Evans, Global Head of Digital Consumer Research at Euromonitor International, points out, this can be attributed to the slow uptake of mobile payments and social commerce in the West compared with the East.

WeChat for Business

Given that WeChat is where the vast majority of Chinese consumers congregate, businesses have naturally followed suit and jumped on the WeChat platform as well. Today, generally speaking, many businesses use WeChat for marketing, brand communications, internal communications and customer service.

To get started with WeChat, you’ll have to:

  1. Register for an official WeChat account on apply.wechat.com
  2. Decide if you want to register for a Service Account or Subscription Account
  3. Wait for your account to get approved
  4. Log in at admin.wechat.com and start setting up your profile

For B2B brands, we recommend going for a Service Account instead of a Subscription Account. In fact, anytime a Service Account publishes content it shows up as a direct message within followers’ personal chat log. This leads to more visibility and a higher probability that messages will be read and shared, even though a Service Account is limited to publishing content four times per month. Service Accounts also come with additional functions such as CRM, custom menus, mini-websites – dubbed mini-programs – and payment integration.

As for a Subscription Account, this allows brands to publish content once a day, however, all Subscription Accounts live in a Subscription Account folder which users have to actively check to see all new posts. Therefore, this type of account is more applicable for news outlets or brands who predominantly work with promotional campaigns. 

Promoting brands on WeChat

First and foremost, brands can use WeChat to promote their products and services. For B2B brands, the best way to go about this would be to share high-quality content such as case studies, reports, white papers and more on WeChat. Communicators can use any of these features:

  • WeChat recently began allowing brands to advertise through Moments. A Moments feed is similar to a Facebook feed and users can see friends’ shared content and status updates. However, unlike Facebook, WeChat has shielded users from ads to some degree. In fact, as of now, a user will only see one or two Moments ads per day. With 10 billion hits every 24 hours, Moments are very popular.
  • Then there is WeChat’s Moment Card ad format which is fairly new and widely used to reach specific audiences. What makes it different from the standard Moment is the fact that instead of being made up of six pictures, you get one big image with a title/description below it.
  • While QR codes are perceived as out-of-date in many Western countries, they are everywhere in China with WeChat acting as a catalyst. QR codes are basically a way to connect the offline and online worlds and many brands use these to bring WeChat users directly to their product purchase pages.
  • Influencers are called Key Opinion Leaders (KOL) in China. These are not necessarily celebrities but bloggers or industry experts that have built up a loyal fan base on social platforms. KOL marketing is very effective in China with the main reason being the lack of trust in many brands. In fact, Chinese brands caused many scandals, marketing unsafe or fake products driving many consumers to rely on the opinions and recommendations of KOLs. According to a study by Accenture, up to 70% of Chinese Gen Z consumers prefer to buy products directly via social media, compared to a global average of 44%. Back in 2016 already, China’s KOL economy was valued at about 58 billion yuan or US$ 8.6 billion, respectively. Take the example of Papi Jiang (Papi酱) – a very popular key opinion leader. Here on her YouTube channel:

Moving on, a growing segment of companies is also utilising WeChat as an internal communications platform. WeChat already comes with several useful features such as file transfer and conference calling and if you sign up for an enterprise account, you get access to advanced functions such as leave application, project tracking tools and more.

Examples of brands using WeChat

The primary benefit of WeChat is that it helps overseas businesses to break into the Chinese market. That aside, WeChat also makes it easy for brands to engage their audiences and convert them into paying customers. 

For instance, businesses can create mini-programs to reach out to their target audiences – these are a lot more affordable and simple to manufacture as compared to full-blown apps but they’re also particularly effective in helping brands connect to their intended audiences. Fun fact: 170 million WeChat users access mini-programs and the average user opens 4 mini-programs every day.

Many Eastern and Western brands alike make use of mini-programs. B2B businesses who have successfully promoted their brands on WeChat include China.cn, a B2B eCommerce platform which connects international buyers with Chinese buyers.

Philips Healthcare utilises its WeChat account to nurture B2B leads and provide customer support to B2B clients:

Tesla, makes use of mini-programs to help users locate charging stations, to schedule test-drives as well as to allow them to share their experiences about driving a Tesla car:

Tesla's mini-program

Bike-sharing company Mobike uses mini-programs to support users locate bikes, unlock them and top-up their account:

Mobike's mini-program

Nike did the same for the launch of a new running shoe. As text-heavy WeChat content becomes less popular, brands are starting to provide information in a visual and mobile-optimised fashion. For this reason, Nike promoted the product on WeChat using a captivating, sliding graphic that ensured thousands of views quickly.

European brands using WeChat to reach Chinese consumers

European businesses, planning on using WeChat to break into the Chinese market, now have more support and resources as just last year, the European Union’s SME centre launched a service to help small businesses create WeChat online shops.

Consider the luxury market, for instance. Chinese tourists are responsible for about 40% of the global luxury market with 80% of them making their luxury purchases overseas. Bearing this in mind, Europe’s luxury brands would do well to use WeChat to attract Chinese audiences with relevant, targeted promotions in order to snag a bigger share of the pie.

For instance, in January 2019, Balenciaga debuted a limited-edition monogram bag via its WeChat mini-program – and within a single day, the original post garnered 22,000 page views and 67 recommendations. Burberry also conducted a flash sale on WeChat in 2018 and this was well-received; nearly half of the items were sold out by the end of the 24-hour event.

Risks for brands using WeChat

That said, businesses who want to explore WeChat will also have to deal with a unique set of risks and challenges. First and foremost, whether WeChat users will pay actual attention to the messages that brands are putting out is not a given – irrespective of the huge user base. According to statistics, only 7% of the 14 million business accounts successfully posted content that attracted more than 1,000 views.

On top of that, there is also a privacy risk that comes with marketing your business on WeChat. Just earlier this year, 300+ million private messages from WeChat users were exposed on the Internet. These messages contained personal information such as ID numbers, photos, addresses and more. According to security researcher Victor Gevers, who works for the nonprofit organisation GDI, it seemed that the database was also sending the data back to 17 other remote servers in various police stations – highlighting the risk of state surveillance in the country.

A final word on WeChat

WeChat has struck gold in China – and it’s now growing in popularity in Europe and the US. The good news? If you act now, you can still be one of the early movers to build your brand on the platform which will help you grow your following and translate this into measurable communication and business results.

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