Since it official launch in 2011, WeChat (better known as Weixin in its home country) has been stealing a large share of social media buzz and spotlight. Even taking into account the fact that WeChat is another creation of the 800-pound Chinese social media gorilla Tencent which commands a huge QQ messenger user base, the growth of WeChat – 600 million registered users worldwide and 438 million monthly active users (slightly below Whatsapp’s 500 million) in a span of three years – has been nothing short of phenomenal.
Behind the hype and the confusion about what WeChat is and isn’t, there are a few aspects of WeChat which we feel that hoteliers, operators, destination management organizations (DMOs) and other participants in the outbound Chinese travel market should be aware of. Knowing what it does or doesn’t do would help decide whether this social media channel should be part of the marketing arsenal targeting Chinese travelers.
By the Numbers
In order to decide whether you should consider WeChat, it is instructive to fully come to grip with mobile internet and mobile phone use as it relates to overseas Chinese travelers. Some factoids:
- There are one billion mobile users in China.
- With 500 million smart phone users, China is the country with the highest number of smart phone users. Annual smart phone sales in China, also the highest in the world, surpassed that of the U.S. a year or two ago.
- Over 90% of Chinese mobile users use their phones to access the Internet.
- Of all nationalities who post on social media about their travels during and after their trips, Chinese travelers are among the highest.
- Over 90% of smart phone users have a registered WeChat account.
So you can really describe the importance of WeChat in three words: social media + mobility.
Or, the claim that WeChat is THE gateway to Chinese mobile internet is not too far off the mark.
First and foremost, WeChat is a messaging app. Similar to Whatsapp, it has a suite of functions which comes pretty much standard to messaging apps. A few interesting and unique functions include:
- Hold To Talk – you can use WeChat like a walkie-talkie instead of typing texts. Messages are sent to the other side like voicemails.
- Video calls – you can make video calls over WiFi or 3G networks.
- People Nearby – this feature allows you to look around and connect to other users in the area, if they accept your connection requests.
- Shake – it is a fun feature which, by shaking your phone, you connect with someone anywhere in the world who is also shaking his/her phone at the very moment.
- Drift Bottle – this is another fun feature which lets you put a digital (text or video) message in a virtual bottle and let it drift in WeChat’s virtual oceans, to be picked up by someone somewhere in non-virtual time.
While there is still much ongoing debate and comparisons amongst messaging app like WeChat, Whatsapp, Line and Viper, the debate is pretty much meaningless, especially from Chinese users’ points of view. As messaging apps, they all have unique functionality and styles catering towards different user experiences. For WeChat, however, this is where the similarities with its competitors end.
As Tencent has built several key capabilities and slowly opened its API to third party developers, an ecosystem has gradually emerged around its core messaging functionality. Some of these capabilities are becoming valuable marketing and customer management tools as it relates to Chinese travelers.
Public Accounts – Marketing and CRM Channels
WeChat allows companies and brands to set up public accounts to interact with their customers and followers. One type of public accounts, called subscription accounts, is typically used by companies as a broadcast channel where company information is pushed to subscribers. Service accounts, the other type of public accounts, have more interactive capabilities allowing for a much deeper relationship with customers. Both accounts require explicit user opt-in registrations, and their messaging frequencies are limited (once a day for subscription accounts and once a week for service accounts) in order to preserve user experience.
Whereas the functionality of subscription accounts, much like the popular Weibo accounts, is limited by design and serves primarily as channels for pushing content, the rich capability of service accounts, which includes mobile e-commerce, customer service, integrated payment platform (see below) and a host of 3rd party mini-sites hosting solutions designed specifically for WeChat, makes them an ideal social CRM channel and allows a company to provide strong one-on-one personalized services to its customers.
QR Codes – Online-to-offline (OTO) Conduits
While the tech savvy and shiny-objects crowd vying for the latest NFC or iBeacon technologies might yawn at this o-so-2010 technology, the good old QR codes have their appeal in a couple of ways within the WeChat context. For one, a QR code scanner is built-in to the app and Chinese users are very used to using it due to its convenience. In China it is more common to see people meeting for the first time to connect with each other by scanning each other’s QR codes than by exchanging business cards.
Another more compelling reason is the simplicity of the technology which connects a customer from a company’s physical world to its online world. Imagine displaying a QR code at an amusement park entrance. By scanning the code, a Chinese tourist is directed to the park’s official WeChat account, and, upon subscribing to the account, becomes a follower of the park and gets instant access to all relevant information in Chinese about the park. There are no expensive IT integrations required which might or might not work with customers’ mobile devices.
Built-in Mobile Payment Platform
Designed as a direct challenge to Alibaba’s Alipay, WeChat comes with a built-in mobile payment system. From hotel and airline bookings, taxi fares and parking meters to utility bills, mass adoption is occurring from public institutions and private enterprises alike. Although the payment system only works in China for now, rest assured it won’t be long before it gets extended beyond the Chinese border, as Alipay has extended its reach to North America with its recent introduction of ePass.
All in all, WeChat opens a new marketing and customer relationship channel for businesses while at the same time further diversifying/complicating one’s choices of Chinese social media tools. How WeChat can be used in conjunction with Weibo and other social media platforms would depend on the types of service one provides within the tourism industry, a topic we will double click as we deep dive into specific aspects of WeChat in future articles.