WeChat’s mistaken identity and how Western brands get it all wrong

WeChat is the world’s most versatile app. It has evolved from a simple messaging app into something that resembles a complete operating system. This functionality has fuelled massive growth, it now has 898 million monthly active users. The app does so much that over one third of users are on the app for more than 4 hours per day.

The latest major development, mini-programs, attempted to set WeChat in direct competition with the App Store and Google Play. It enabled third party developers and businesses to develop programs to be used within WeChat. However, they have not yet become widely successful, largely due to copyright restrictions, enforced by Apple, leading to difficult to use search methods.

Western brands are looking at WeChat with dollar signs in their eyes. The reality is different. The first problem is verification, meaning that if a brand does not have a registered business in China, the WeChat account cannot be verified. This impacts the credibility of the account as well as effecting search optimisation.

The second problem is that brands misunderstand the platform. The core use of the app is still instant messaging, the use of which is now deeply integrated into both social and professional life. The number of public accounts has been on the rise, but their penetration rate is far lower than initially expected.

The lack of resources for brands to promote their accounts has been at the heart of this problem. Tencent have been slow to roll out functional targeting capabilities. The importance of advert placement was highlighted by recent statistics that showed over 85% of users dislike seeing adverts on their WeChat Moments (news feed).

WeChat Strategy

There are well over 10 million official accounts on WeChat, but few brands have developed a successful strategy.

WeChat should be used as a brand’s China CRM platform. Brands can contact their fan base directly and easily initiate a one-on-one conversation. With the growing sophistication of autobots and the WeChat back-end, brands can seamlessly engage their fan base directly and grow brand loyalty. There is no other channel in the world that can provide this level of mass personal communication.

A brand’s WeChat followers are its core fans, its top 1%. The strategy needs to be aligned to this. Whilst Weibo can be used for mass broadcasting to all demographics, WeChat must be tailored to your biggest brand advocates needs and desires. This means long form and in-depth content, exclusive features and opportunities that will make them feel valued. The creating of this relationship will, in turn, provide greater opportunities to generate revenue through WeChat.

Shopping on WeChat

WeChat enables brands to put their products where the consumers are, where they shop and in a format that they understand. The 93% adoption rate of WeChat pay across Tier One and Two cities, shows how ready and comfortable users are spending money on this platform.

E-commerce strategy must not be rushed. A one-size fits all model does not work in China, and a local approach has to be implemented. Listen to the fans, survey them and understand what products, price-range and promotions work. Launching all merchandise at once, with one large announcement will not lead to long-term success.

Flash sales have been used very successfully by brands such as Nike and Xiaomi. Reduced numbers of available products drive a huge demand and also lead to higher engagement with followers as they eagerly await the next release.

The Future of WeChat

Whilst not exclusively, the vast majority of WeChat’s user-base are in China. The major hurdle between it and success in the west is the fact that outside of China, most of its functionality is lost. Recent initiatives, such as the recent launch of WeChat Pay in Europe show that Tencent has recognised this issue and are beginning to address it. Tencent will be very aware of the importance of achieving success abroad before WeChat’s current momentum is lost.

Tom Elsden is senior client manager at Mailman China.