Although WeChat is tremendously used in China, it is not very well known in Europe. This is the reason why I decided to talk to you about it. You may have already heard about it but do you know exactly what Wechat is?
Launched in 2011 by Tencent Holdings, the Chinese tech colossus, WeChat is a super app that brings together all the internet in one platform. WeChat is considered as a real digital Swiss army knife of the Chinese daily life. The platform already gathers more than 1.2 billion users, with a penetration rate of more than 90% in China. (63% for Facebook in the United State for comparison).
The concept of WeChat is rather difficult to describe for us, who are used to having an application by utility and by need. But, if originally it was a simple mobile instant messaging application similar to Messenger or Whatsapp, today it offers a real ecosystem of services.
With WeChat, Tencent has inaugurated the super app model. A parent app that hosts other mini-apps, which range from ordering a cab to a Covid-19’s case tracking system. Today more than 4 million mini apps exist in WeChat.
In ten years of existence, the application has become a way of life. Checking the weather, talking with friends and colleagues, shopping, playing games, paying for groceries, booking a restaurant or even buying a train ticket. On the social side, users can create a private account, follow their friends or favorite stars, interact with them, create group chats, make voice or video calls, share photos on their feed, meet people and play games. A user can go through his or her entire day without ever leaving the app.
The app evolution through the years
WeChat began life as a basic messaging app focused on text messages. Then, it added phone and video calling capabilities. Then, it began to expand into areas that had previously not been associated with simple messaging apps, like pages for photos, linking, liking, commenting and updates. It started to become a social network.
After that, it added functions like taxi hailing and food delivery. E-commerce and fund transfers weren’t far behind. It continuously added functions that its users needed and wanted. For example, the addition of voice messages made it faster and easier to communicate and were a huge hit. They could be recorded while on the go and cut the time spent writing complex Chinese characters onscreen or picking them out of predictive text menus.
Finally, it added virtual red envelopes like the ones given out at Chinese New Year with money in them. Users could send money through the app and millions of people did just that. That’s when the app became ubiquitous.
WeChat Pay meant people could settle restaurant bills and pay for groceries with their phone. Now, people were doing everything from booking and paying for flights to buying a few apples from a tiny market vendor with the app. WeChat has become so big that the word “app” doesn’t adequately describe it.
Types of accounts
WeChat accounts come in two basic flavours. There are personal accounts, which are also known as private accounts. Then there are official accounts, which are also called public accounts.
- Personal accounts are for people who want to stay in touch with friends and family, subscribe to official accounts and use the app’s mini-programs and services.
- Official accounts are for brands, businesses or high-profile individuals so that they can get followers, communicate or redirect people to their website or e-commerce store.
- Official accounts have three types: service accounts, subscription accounts and enterprise accounts (WeChat Work). Enterprise accounts function like workplace intranets, similar to apps like Slack.
- Service accounts are for businesses to communicate with customers and have plenty of sales- and service-oriented functions. You can open a WeChat store, create mini-programs and access additional WeChat functions.
- Subscription accounts focus more on brand communication. They’re the only type open to individuals as they don’t require a business licence. One to six articles can be posted once a day with this account. They reach users through a subscription account folder with no push notifications so they’re less visible.
How do people use WeChat?
WeChat is popular for both casual and business communication. With its current capabilities, you can send text and voice messages, pictures or video in direct messages or group chats. You can also share posts on your Moments page.
It’s commonly used in workplaces as it facilitates easy file sharing and conference calls. Enterprise accounts can be used to apply for leave, track projects or submit reimbursement forms. You can also scan someone’s WeChat QR code instead of exchanging business cards.
WeChat Pay makes paying easy
WeChat Pay launched in August 2013. It’s linked directly to a user’s bank account and can be used to pay for things on- or offline or to send money to friends by scanning a QR code. This can be done almost everywhere in China, whether you’re in a high street store or at the hawker markets. It has been widely adopted as it doesn’t require expensive terminals that need to be rented or bought – all it requires is two phones.
This, along with Alipay, is a primary driver of the cashless lifestyle in China. It’s even got to the stage where the average person in China leaves the house without cash on them. And plenty of people there, if given the choice between losing their wallet and losing their phone, fear losing their phone more.
Because WeChat makes most of its revenue from transaction charges and financial products like insurance and small loans, it doesn’t rely on advertising for revenue. Some feel that the result of this is that WeChat’s pay per click advertising is expensive and not highly targeted.
WeChat Pay has expanded beyond China’s borders, along with the country’s outbound tourists, and as of December 2020, it could be used in 55 countries and regions.
Keywords and constant updates
WeChat’s official accounts are similar to a Facebook page. Users subscribes and brands, media or individuals post articles, news, product reviews, personal stories and more. Then you get push notifications from them daily or weekly.
Users can also search for content using keywords. This includes articles from official accounts, mini-programs, friends’ posts on their Moments page, text threads and more. People do product research, find news and check on old conversations with their friends – all within WeChat.
This constant and convenient supply of information means that WeChat is the default information source for many people in China as well as the primary touchpoint connecting them to the world.
In January 2017 Tencent officially released its WeChat mini-program platform. Mini-programs are cloud-based embedded apps within WeChat, making them simplified, streamlined apps-within-an app essentially. Being cloud-based, people didn’t need to install them on their phone. Their introduction meant that people didn’t need a lot of apps crowding their phone. They could just install WeChat, save memory, battery, data and download time, and do almost everything within WeChat. It was a masterful move by Tencent.
Mini-programs for hailing and paying for taxis, paying electricity bills, e-commerce stores, food delivery, playing games and more all work smoothly within the app. You can make hotel reservations without downloading a travel app. There’s even a mini-program that monitors your phone’s battery usage and sends a push notification when it’s low, with directions to the nearest available power banks or charging stations. They’re also perfect for brands that want to connect with customers who are nearby or in their city.
The little app that could
No-one could have predicted in its early days as a simple copycat messaging app that WeChat would ever turn into the all-encompassing behemoth that it is today. It learned from and mimicked its rivals but it didn’t stop there. It also paid very close attention to its users and their needs and wasn’t afraid to go beyond the boundaries of what people thought was possible for an app. It’s now at the stage that it’s a hybrid of Whatsapp, Facebook, Venmo, ApplePay, Amazon, GooglePlay, Skype, Uber, Yelp, Expedia and more.
And the little copycat app that could is now being copied by the apps it once mirrored.
There are two versions of WeChat. In China, users usually refer to the app by its English name, WeChat, even though it has a Chinese name as well, Weixin.