WeChat is a way of life for the people in China. Source: Shutterstock

WeChat is a way of life for the people in China. Source: Shutterstock

WeChat isn’t a messaging app, it’s a public utility service

TENCENT’S WeChat is part of everyday life for people in the People’s Republic of China. It’s where people go when they want to book a cab, order for lunch, make an appointment with a doctor, or look for cleaning services.

In Southeast Asia, people are beginning to learn about the concept that WeChat pioneered a couple of years ago through superapps such as Grab and GoJek. However, the technology is clearly more advanced in China with widespread user adoption and user comfort.

Whether you shop online, go to a store, or simply shop on the street, there’s a high chance that you can browse for things on WeChat, add to cart and pay for the goods using WeChat Pay, and have the items ready to be picked up or delivered to you at your convenience.

“We don’t think of WeChat as just a messaging app, we think of it more like a public utility service — a platform that welcomes everyone, customers and businesses alike,” said Dowson Tong, Senior Executive Vice President of Tencent and President of Cloud and Smart Industries Group.

WeChat opens itself up to businesses by allowing them to freely create mini-programs.

Mini-programs are simple apps that work inside the WeChat ecosystem and don’t need to be downloaded to be used. Since they don’t crowd the user’s phone or take up additional memory, users prefer them over traditional apps.

In fact, when Tech Wire Asia was in China recently, we learned that everyday users prefer mini-programs despite the company offering standalone apps — Taxi service Didi being an excellent example of this.

Local Chinese users told Tech Wire Asia that it’s normal for people to open the WeChat app as many times as they pick up their phones, because outside of emails, all communications and transactions are performed on the app.

From McDonald’s to Mercedes, it seems as though everyone has a mini-program to better engage with customers and provide users with personalized services with fewer clicks than anywhere else in the world.

WeChat’s ecosystem makes doing business easy

WeChat has been smart from the start. Its strategy to keep its platform open is quite a contrast to WhatsApp, the most popular messaging app outside China.

WhatsApp has been experimenting with a version for businesses to help them communicate with customers and clients, through executives as well as chatbots. However, the interactivity and engagement levels are far lower — you can’t perform transactions on the platform.

This is not to say that WhatsApp must ape WeChat and become the conduit between customers and businesses like its Chinese rival, but the latter has demonstrated that there are many merits to doing so.

Not only do WeChat’s mini-programs allow businesses to showcase products, add shopping carts, and transact on the platform, but they also make it easy to personalize the app and experience with less than three clicks in most cases.

When users open a mini-program, they’re asked if they’d like to allow the company to gain access to their data on WeChat to personalize the experience. This simple action allows McDonald’s to customize food menus and Mercedes to assist with driver’s needs.

While much of the narrative about WeChat’s mini-program has been about shopping online, it does lend itself remarkably well to other kinds of applications. Banking and financial services, home rentals, and car sales are some examples.

Can Tencent replicate WeChat’s success outside China?

It looks like the million dollar question that everyone at Tencent should be asking — and yet, from discussions between Tencent’s Tong and media at the recent company’s Global Digital Ecosystem Summit in Kunming, China, it seemed as though the focus is on building functionality for users.

“We’re focused on compliance and we’re keen on making sure we do the right thing for our customers, in China and in the other market where WeChat operates,” said Tong.

Tong emphasized that the success of the business is dependent on building a strong ecosystem across the region because that is what will help Chinese tourists traveling outside the country as well as inbound tourists traveling to China.

Several of WeChat’s functionalities are absent in overseas markets, and when present, capabilities are limited. For example, Malaysian WeChat Pay users can’t use the money in their accounts or their bank cards to make payments when in China.

Honestly, WeChat’s struggles are shared by almost all of its competitors in the market. Superapp Grab, for example, has similar issues with funds loaded into the wallets in Malaysia not being accessible when traveling to Singapore.

However, it’s worth mentioning that Grab is able to accept a user’s credit card in one market and allow them to levy charges on it in another market (albeit not in China).

Truth be told, nobody really knows if WeChat will be able to replicate its success in overseas markets.

To succeed, the first step is to make sure they developed WeChat’s capabilities internationally to match the experience provided to users in China — and that will be exciting to watch in the coming months as Tencent aggressively looks to launch new functionalities to support customer’s needs.