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Will WeChat's live streaming update be a gamechanger?

WeChat’s focus is not on introducing live streaming as a key function, but on integrating live streaming with its mini programs.

Livestreaming in China has exploded in recent years with more than 200 Chinese platforms boasting the feature. As China's most used app overhauls its live streaming feature, experts question whether it's late to the party.

Tencent’s WeChat has had a live streaming feature for a long time as part of its parent’s family of apps like eGame, Tencent Live, NOW, Inke, Qzone, Huayang Live, Douyu, Huya Live and Guagua. However, the user experience has been less than ideal, with users having to go to a separate platform in Tencent Live, in order to use the live streaming feature.

Tencent has been trying to address this and has been testing the integration of live-streaming features into its WeChat mini program platform. In March, as the coronavirus pandemic worsened and lockdown measures tightened, it announced this feature would be available to all businesses as they turned to e-commerce to survive.

While many are surprised at how long Tencent took to improve WeChat’s live streaming feature, Benjamin Wei, managing director for China at Essence points out WeChat’s focus is not on introducing live streaming as a key or new function, but rather, on integrating live streaming with its mini-programs.

This lets brands, individual owners and small e-commerce businesses within WeChat’s mini-program ecosystem to both live stream and provide transactions for customers within their branded mini-program.

“Compared to other major e-commerce platforms, WeChat can indeed be seen as a little more cautious in integrating live streaming within its app. A reason for this may be deliberation on product compatibility. Live streaming, whether for shopping or entertainment, demands time and focus from both streamers and viewers,” he explains.

“WeChat, however, is an indispensable tool for users and its product experience has traditionally been associated with quick actions like messaging, banking or ordering food delivery. That may also partly explain why live streaming support is incorporated within WeChat’s mini-programs instead of being introduced as a major feature in its ‘Discover’ section.”

On the other hand, Joni Ngai, chief product officer at UM China, is puzzled why there was no official explanation from Tencent about why it waited until this year to formally introduce live streams to its all-in-one platform.

He points out Allen Zhang, the creator of WeChat and known as ‘father of WeChat’, is known as an artist and philosopher. Ngai notes that Zhang’s philosophy is always user experience comes first, which means putting user interests above all others, including monetisation, with the goal of creating a long-lasting ecosystem.

“We believe that WeChat’s live streaming capabilities must have taken a lot of time, work and considerations to ensure the user experience and technology are right for all parties. This is probably one of the key reasons for why WeChat launched the live streaming feature later,” he adds.

How does WeChat’s improved livestreaming feature benefits users?

According to QuestMobile, WeChat has a massive base of nearly 950 million monthly active users and a user penetration rate of 83.6%.

At this scale, the introduction of any new feature will likely have a significant impact, says Wei and in this case, he feels live streaming will give WeChat a boost to its user base and enable its mini-programs to better engage its users.

“Live streaming is very demanding in terms of a user’s time and attention, which is why WeChat chose to incorporate it within its mini-programs. WeChat’s mini-programs enable brands, businesses, media and other entities to engage and provide functionalities for its users in a non-intrusive way - as a user, you can basically achieve what you need and be on your way,” explains Wei.

“Compared to other platforms like Taobao and Douyin, users of WeChat may not sit through as long periods of live streaming, as they have and can carry out other essential activities on the super-app. It is also important to note that the live streaming functionality in WeChat’s mini-program will rely on further development, so user experience may vary greatly between different mini-programs.”

Ngai notes the key difference between WeChat live streaming and other platforms is a connected ecosystem across paid media (advertising), owned media (mini-program) and earned media (social), e-commerce, payment (WeChat pay) and data (closed-loop tracking).

The improved live streaming feature on WeChat will help improve customer flow as the continuous movement of customers along their path to purchase is vital to business success.

“Customer flow can be dramatically improved with the seamless experience of the whole customer journey in one single platform,” he explains.

“Brands should always create the clearest possible path for their HVA (High-Value Audience) to take actions by reducing or eliminating the barriers and friction that inhibit customer flow along the path to purchase.”

How will it benefit brands?

WeChat’s biggest advantage lies in its social network centricity, points out Wei, because while messaging is possible on other platforms, consumers in China most typically use WeChat to converse with their friends and family.

He explains brands that are live streaming on WeChat would benefit from incentivising and leveraging users’ social networks by, for example, encouraging them to invite friends to join a live stream or share content as generating positive word of mouth is key to driving conversion through live streaming on WeChat.

Agreeing, Ngai adds that it will shorten the customer journey with interactive and engaging content, e-commerce transaction and payment all in one platform to enable a seamless shopping experience.

“There are currently multiple models working with WeChat for live streaming, from the basic campaign focus model to fully integrated model with the mini-program. Brands should have an evaluation to understand the role of WeChat live streaming from the customer experience perspective and identify the right model to co-op with WeChat,” he says.

While live streaming on platforms like Alibaba’s Taobao Live, Tmall and the other platforms have a more mature ecosystem for brands, WeChat’s advantage lies in its social network centricity as it has the ability to leverage users’ personal connections to generate sales within its ecosystem, as well as enable attribution analysis as the entire consumer journey can be tracked for further optimisation.

In addition, as other platforms currently hold a first-mover advantage in terms of users’ familiarity with their live streaming features, Wei says it would be key for WeChat to develop direct e-commerce channels and maintain seamless user experience.

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