If you have lived or worked outside of China for the past 5 years then you may well be unaware of the huge social media phenomenon that is WeChat. WeChat (微信 WeiXin in Chinese) was created in 2011 by the Chinese digital giant ‘Tencent’, also the creator of QQ (the largest email and IM service in the middle kingdom). We asked Shanghai based blogger Benji Lamb to give us some background information on WeChat, as well as some case studies of businesses taking advantage of WeChat.
An Introduction to WeChat:
WeChat is predominantly a mobile application but there is also an online version. It is the leading social network in China with over 700 million active users. It offers a whole plethora of services that most significantly (from a digital marketing perspective) leads to users remaining within this single application to fulfill the majority of their needs. This means more time which equates to greater exposure to content. WeChat have arguably built a platform that integrates services in a way that caters for the user’s lifestyle more wholly and effectively than any current western app does.
It boasts a host of features:
Instant Messaging: WeChat began life as a simple IM app. Users can now send text, voice messages, pictures and video ‘sights’ to one another. In a sense you could compare this function to Whatsapp or SnapChat. The use of WeChat’s messenger is the main method of communication for the younger generation nowadays which has essentially resulted in the death of the text function of a mobile phone.
Moments: This is WeChat’s version of Facebook’s timeline and wall. You post a ‘moment’ via your profile, and it can be seen on your contacts’ Moments feed. When posting a moment an image or ‘sight’ (video) has to be included, text is optional. Content from official, brand channels is often shared via user’s moments.
Official accounts with subscription. The most important feature for marketers and content creators. It allows an organization to have a subscription-based account to share content with their audience. It is somewhat similar as a fan-page on Facebook. Companies and brands often develop promotional offers for WeChat followers that encourage users to share with family and friends.
Microsites and app-within-the-app. You can have your own website or app running inside the application. This presents a significant opportunity for brands as well as online retailers with your micro-site being highly customizable.
WeChat e-wallet: This gives users the opportunity to connect the platform to their bank. It allows them to use the app as a method of payment in many shops, simply by scanning a QR code. You can also buy directly online or in WeChat m-commerce platforms. Payment can be made by scanning QR codes or transferring payments to other users. Hongbao’s (red envelopes) can also be used to great effect, users can open mystery envelopes with prizes and cash incentives inside.
WeChat currently has over 10,000 active advertisers and over 1,000 publishers and is connected to more than 67,000 different apps.
From its launch in Q1 2011, WeChat went from 2.8 million active users in Q2 2011 to over 732 million in Q1 2016, see chart below.
WeChat campaigns to take inspiration from
Western brands have been quick to identify the potential of WeChat. However it takes time for marketers to understand what kind of strategies work on the platform, content and strategies evidently need to be tailored for the Chinese market. Today I see an increasing number of very successful campaigns.
1/ Uniqlo, The O2O Success (offline to online or vice versa)
Uniqlo, the Japanese apparel designer and manufacturer is very popular in China with flagship stores in Shanghai and Beijing. They understood quickly that China was a mobile dominated environment. They have developed a very strong physical presence in the country with their numerous stores, this has allowed then to launch a large scale 020 campaign.
The “style your life” initiative was effective in stores where consumers could try on clothes and stand in front of monitors equipped with cameras to take pictures of themselves with different featured backgrounds such as New-York, Tokyo or London. The picture was then sent to their WeChat account where one third of participants shared it on their Moments. The campaign was a huge success, with a 30% increase of sales for featured items alongside an increase from 400 000 to over one million followers. Each shared image featured Uniqlo’s logo.
Sephora the perfume group has its own mobile website within the WeChat platform. There, they reward their regular customers and followers who participate in their campaigns with discounts and exclusive access to promotional events and items. News about Sephora and its products are also featured, it is an efficient channel of communication for the company.
The campaign which attracted most attention tried to emulate the success of a previous marketing campaign based around ‘Bobbie, the purple bear’. Sephora added its own spin to it. Their pink bears and other well liked products were available to win in a contest where users had to take pictures of themselves with pink items and send them in via WeChat. Marketers at Sephora show that they know how to interact with their community.
3/ Mulberry, A Story Behind the Products
Mulberry is a brand of clothing and accessories which started its WeChat account in 2014. They promote through their microsite on the platform and feature exclusive content such as behind the scenes pictures and videos. They notably develop effective storylines for their brand and products.
These narratives are shared via their WeChat page which will include Chinese women as the protagonists. Mulberry are also particularly good at interacting with customers via the chat function, consumers need to feel connected to the brand. The Chinese market is still relatively unfamiliar with leather luxury products which has allowed them to carve a strong niche.
4/ Twist and Drink
The Austrian specialists of fruit drinks for children promote social responsibility. They emphasize healthy fruit drinks and ecology with the bottles made of 100% recyclable material, they insist that the production process is waste-free.
On WeChat, they created a Chinese styled campaign with animated cartoon characters, although stereotypical these type of graphics remain very popular in the orient (and not just for children’s brands!). They made an animated, colorful world within the application (with HTML5), with their bottles directly addressing mums in China. Each bottle had its own personality according to its taste. Additionally there were games involving the characters with prizes to be won.
Starbucks is now omnipresent in first and second tier Chinese cities. It is actually a symbol of development in China, showing that your city (and citizens) are rich enough to afford it. As a result, the brand is pre-sold to them but to construct this image they took full advantage of social networks.
They started to make their presence felt on WeChat in 2012, by launching their first “mood” campaign. The principal was simple, you sent the platform an emoticon, and Starbucks replied with a song reflecting your mood according to the emoji your sent. With as much as 22 000 messages a day, it is safe to say it was a success. Being one of the first major brands to make their presence felt digitally has fueled their success in China.
6/ Otte, The Shop that Conquered Chinese Hearts
Otte is a relatively small fashion boutique for women’s clothing based in New-York. It has a very small structure but interestingly in terms of its e-commerce; 50% of all online sales are from Chinese consumers.
This brand has invested in Wechat Marketing, with attractive content and a well designed WeChat site. Otte are good at embedding QR codes in all their branding which when scanned links directly to their official subscription page.
This pushed them to open their second store ever in Shanghai, 16 years after the first one in New-York. They cannot be compared to huge groups such as Uniqlo, but what they lack in physical presence they make up for digitally. Proof that effective digital marketing is king.
This example demonstrates that smaller structures can be successful in China. As long as they provide Chinese consumers with what they are looking for, and make themselves visible through smart communication on the web.
7/ Window Malaysia
Window Malaysia is an evolution of Visa Malaysia built on the same concept. It is a portal, a hub which has the ambition of becoming the first stop for Chinese looking for anything related to Malaysia, whether it is simple tourism (including medical tourism), education, investment, visa assistance, etc.
With much quality information about VISAs in Malaysia they attract a lot of visitors and many other accounts repost their information.
The idea behind their project is to attract visitors through quality content about Malaysia, encourage people in China to know it better and eventually awaken interest in investing or travelling there themselves.
WeChat is sometimes refered to as the ‘’WeChat times’’, Chinese users increasingly turn to WeChat for their news and information about the world. Without a presence on WeChat you are largely invisible in China.
WeChat is a very user friendly application with versions in both English and Chinese. The most phenomenal thing about the app is that users use it for so many services and are thus constantly interacting with it. It has been designed to retain users, to provide a complete service so that the Chinese do not need to leave WeChat, this ease of use is the key to WeChat’s success in China; such a high user exposure creates a key opportunity for brands digitally in China.
Benji Lamb is a digital marketing specialist based in Shanghai. For more information see his blog and website here.