It’s no exaggeration to say that life in modern China without WeChat is pretty much unthinkable. Tencent’s blockbuster super-app is the poster child for China’s mobile lifestyle, embedding itself into all aspects of daily life in ways that are sometimes hard for people based outside of mainland China to fully grasp.
Just a few days ago it was announced that the platform reached 1 billion monthly active users this Chinese New Year holiday, making it the largest social network on the planet not owned by Mark Zuckerberg.
So how did WeChat hit this impressive milestone and what’s their secret sauce?
First off, I’d like to dispel a myth: WeChat did not succeed in China because other popular global messaging apps such as WhatsApp were blocked. In its early days, before WeChat had gained a critical mass of users, its fiercest rivals were in fact local players such as “Fetion,” a free messaging service released by network operator China Mobile, and “Miliao.” a messaging app from smartphone maker Xiaomi. WeChat ended up winning the war for messaging in China, in large part, for the same reason it lost outside China -- timing.
Messaging is a winner takes all game. Put simply, people will use the messaging app that their friends and family use. By the time WeChat had made moves to create an English language version and started to promote outside of China they were late to the party, something acknowledged previously by Tencent President Martin Lau. “We tried to make WeChat international. The reality was that there were other products in the market already.”
More than just timing
Snap CEO Evan Spiegel hit the nail on the head with this recent quote about WeChat: "Tencent very early on understood the power of communication because it drives frequency. And if you can be the service that's most frequently used on someone's phone, you're able to develop a lot of other ancillary businesses around that engagement." This is exactly the opportunity that WeChat has grabbed better than any other app on the planet.
Chinese users spend approximately one third of all their time on mobile in WeChat. That presented a huge opportunity to build extra features and functionality on top of the basic messaging experience. And it was many of these features that hit the China market at exactly the right time, met the needs of local users perfectly, and helped propel WeChat to becoming the juggernaut that it is today. Classic examples include Shake-shake, Friends Nearby, Walkie-Talkie, QR Codes, Official Accounts, Mini-Programs, and of course WeChat Pay.
It’s no coincidence that Tencent was the company to grasp this best, given their previous experience with flagship desktop messaging product QQ. Tencent CXO David Wallerstein had this to say: “When it came time to building value added services around WeChat, it just came to us very naturally because we had just learned so much over a decade, probably like 12 years of learning by the time we got to WeChat… we also started thinking more about the economy, more about financial services, more about e-commerce, about how do you really transform a business or a hospital or a government using WeChat and I think we had so much experience with platform services and tying services together in a seamless way that when it came time to WeChat, it was like okay, good fresh platform, let’s get everything right this time.”
What’s next for WeChat?
The growth rate of new active WeChat users has been steadily declining for many quarters and many -- myself included -- believe it has pretty much reached a ceiling. The future and focus of WeChat will not be about gaining more new users, it will be about embracing it’s stated vision to “Connect people to people, people to services, people to businesses, and people to objects.”
The digitalization of daily life continues at rapid pace in China through trends such as mobile payments, online-to-offline services, the sharing economy, smart retail and digital ID cards. WeChat acting as China’s great universal connector is at the very center of all of this and showing little sign of relinquishing its place at the forefront of Chinese innovation. The bigger question is will the tech giants outside China ever be able to catch up?
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