WeChat Nation: HOW ONE APP OVERTOOK OUR LIVES

If you stand amazed as WeChat slowly takes control of your life, are scratching your head at the blisteringly inane nature of Moments, or simply want to know how to use China’s most popular app, HERE! has it covered in our insider’s guide to WeChat

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By the time you read this there will be 700 million of us. At the dinner table, on the bus, in meetings, at work, in the home, most definitely on the toilet, it doesn’t matter where, but we are likely checking WeChat, the all-encompassing app that has come to so brutally dominate contemporary life in China, many of us checking it well over 20 times a day. Smartphones are now being used for little else and that, most likely, is exactly the way WeChat wants it, our mobile phones less like phones, more like small portable WeChat devices.

On its journey, the app, owned by Tencent Holdings, effectively killed-off Weibo, now the preserve of tired celebrities and fading brands, became embroiled in a censorship controversy, entered a cold war with Alibaba, and, in terms of payments at least, left social networks such as Facebook trailing in its wake. Whether all this is a high-point of convenience or something deeply insidious that we should be wary of, largely, as ever, depends on whose side you are on.

Barely five years old, what was once a little known messaging app named Weixin is now almost, though not quite, a de facto mobile operating system, offering a staggering array of functions. These include but are not limited to (take a deep breath): sending text messages, uploading videos, playing games, booking taxis, making video calls, splitting bills, buying film tickets, sharing location details, making contacts, a rolling news feed, checking-in for flights, ordering food, sending money to friends, donating to charity, monitoring fitness, making doctors’ appointments, paying utility bills, reading articles, following celebrity news and, I am sure, many other things that you didn’t even know you could do in the real world, still less in WeChat.

On its journey the app, owned by Tencent Holdings, has effectively killed-off Weibo, now the preserve of tired celebrities and fading brands, became embroiled in a censorship controversy, entered a cold war with Alibaba, and, in terms of payments at least, left social networks such as Facebook trailing in its wake.

It is not that you could not do most of these things on smartphone before-you could-but that previously you needed to download multiple apps in order to do multiple tasks. WeChat’s ‘apps within an app’ system means you can now do all of these things without ever leaving WeChat itself. All this happens through a series of small apps embedded within WeChat. There are over ten million of these lightweight apps, which mostly take the form of ‘Official Accounts’ (both service and subscription accounts), and they are incredibly varied, taking in anything and everything from the Humen Local Government and the Guangzhou Public Security Bureau, right through to McDonald’s and Air China.

The majority of these apps are now directly linked to WeChat’s own payment system, making it incredibly straightforward for end users to access goods and services. Over 80 percent of WeChat users now follow an official account. Indeed, WeChat has become so pervasive that instead of releasing stand-alone apps, businesses are now increasingly developing apps to put directly into WeChat instead. The app has already penetrated over 60 percent of Chinese smartphones. WeChat is simply too big of an opportunity for them to miss. Putting an app in WeChat gives businesses all of the app’s chat features too, so they can easily examine how social networking affects purchasing decisions, monitor exactly how much people are talking about services, and see which users are the most influential. What is more, all these analytical tools are built directly into the app, and they are free.

0116_cover story_2WeChat’s Lucky Money function was launched in January 2014, and a few days later 4.82 million people took part in a Lucky Money game featured on the annual Spring Festival TV gala (China’s superbowl in terms of viewing figures), that enabled people to win money, which would be deposited into their WeChat accounts. The function became a huge success, and just one year later over a billion transactions were made on Chinese New Year’s Eve. Lucky Money has helped to effectively drive the WeChat payment system, WeChat Wallet. All this gives WeChat a huge advantage over other social media who have traditionally relied on advertising or small fees to generate revenue, though it is likely other networks will follow WeChat’s lead sooner rather than later.

By way of a simple comparison, WhatsApp, perhaps WeChat’s closest app in terms of function, generates an average of about one US dollar of revenue per user, whereas WeChat generates about seven dollars per user, and in the main that is down to the WeChat Wallet function. Payments are not just limited to online purchases either, and people are increasingly using the wallet function to purchase things offline through QR cards. Mom and pop shops, coffee chains, restaurants, hotels and even vending machines are now accepting payments via WeChat Wallet. In a snowball effect, the more businesses accept payments, the more users join. On current trends, it is likely that within two years WeChat smartphone penetration will be close to 100 percent.

I would like to tell you it was down to stunning technical pyrotechnics, or intense ‘blue-sky thinking’ over at the Tencent offices in Shenzhen but they seem to have put themselves at the forefront of mobile commerce with one relatively simple feature, the addition of a ‘buy button’. Well, duh.

While Chinese start-ups don’t necessarily have a history of being particularly innovative, WeChat has seemingly stolen a march over most other social media and have arguably cracked the code to successful mobile commerce. I would like to tell you it was down to stunning technical pyrotechnics, or intense ‘blue-sky thinking’ over at the Tencent offices in Shenzhen, but they seem to have put themselves at the forefront of mobile commerce with one relatively simple feature: the addition of a ‘buy button’. Well, duh. Think about it. You are on Facebook scrolling through whatever crap passes for content these days, when you suddenly see an amusing ad from a watch company that has gone viral and ended up in your feed. You suddenly realize you wouldn’t mind buying that watch. Well, actually you can’t. It’s just an ad, designed to give you the desire to purchase, but not the practical ability to do so.

In WeChat it doesn’t have to be like this, if you are in the right service accounts, a simple tap of the button and you can buy it and have it delivered to your home there and then. Hell, it doesn’t even need to be your home. WeChat’s location function means you can have it delivered to exactly where you are standing. In this sense it is only a matter of time before western social media follows suit. It is not like Americans and Europeans do not like shopping, after all. As William Bao Bean, managing director of Chinaaccelerator, a company that aids start-ups in China, recently told techinasia.com, “If you can get a hold of Facebook’s product roadmap, it’s a giant WeChat clone. It’s not that Americans haven’t been willing to press ‘buy’ – they haven’t been given the opportunity. It doesn’t exist… Americans will be willing to press ‘buy’ if somebody gives them a fucking ‘buy button.’”

Unlike much social media, WeChat started as an app not a website, so in China, a whole generation has effectively sidestepped the cumbersome PC era and gone straight to mobile. With penetration in Chinese smartphones soon to hit 100 percent (the company even boasting 100 million users outside China), and with the developing of mobile commerce only just starting, brands are only just realizing their capacity to get their claws into us. It’s likely that WeChat is going to move deeper and deeper into our lives in ways previously thought unimaginable, and soon we will all be living what Tencent innocently refer to as the WeChat Lifestyle. Dystopian visions of society often paint us having our privacy taken away from us by bullying autocratic states, but the reality seems more that we are consensually giving it up in order to share dull pictures of ourselves.Who knows where it will all end?

Read Wechat: Magic Moments here.

 

Apple store link to download Wechat: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/wechat/id414478124?mt=8

Android store link to download Wechat: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.tencent.mm&hl=en

 

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