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.
In an effort to further diversify the Weibo ecosystem or perhaps an attempt to stem the flow of user share to WeChat which has amassed over 500 million users in a few short years, Sina is introducing tipping and paid subscription functions in Weibo to provide new mechanisms for their users to monetize their content.
The tipping function, called Da-Shang in Chinese, is still in its public testing stage since August. If a reader enjoys a Weibo post, he/she has the option to tip the author by whichever amount she sees fit by clicking the tipping button. The transaction is completed using online payment system Alipay.
The concept of tipping is not new. Watching a street performer and tipping him on the way out is a common behavior practiced across many cultures. This online tipping for a virtual performance provides an additional monetization mechanism for personal media within the ‘fan economics’ framework. The current Weibo platform provides opportunities for users to make money via ad placements and product sales posts.
So far Sina is limiting the eligibility of this functionality to verified personal accounts with less than 5 million followers and fewer than an average of 3 million views a month. The move is apparently to prevent the ‘Big V’ accounts (verified accounts with huge followings) from completely taking over the market opportunity and create some protected space for medium to small accounts to establish roots.
Whether tipping will turn out to be a killer function remains to be seen. Early results revealed that, not surprisingly, well known personalities are the first ones to take advantage of the new function. One of the top 10 contenders in a 2013 male singer contest posted a download link to his new song and reportedly collected RMB 100,000 in less than three hours and completed 8,000 paid transactions on the first day. The average tip received was RMB 17.6, nine times the owner suggested price of RMB 2.
Another stock advisor account with a mere fan base of 3,400 showed off his record single tip of RMB 6,000. The tipping amounts vary substantially from 2,000, 600, 100, 50 to as low as 8, with the vast majority less than RMB 20, says the account owner.
The early results from Weibo’s paid subscription service, also test launched at the same time as Weibo tipping, are also quite interesting. One domestic stock advisor with an annual subscription price of RMB 2,400 claimed to receive over RMB 100,000. A similar account providing stock advisory service for the US stock market charging RMB 5,888 a year claimed to receive RMB 80,000 at the time of the report.
Sina’s latest move is perceived by some as an attempt to slow or reverse the massive shift of user activity from Weibo to WeChat. Whether this would convince the opinion leaders and social media personalities to keep Weibo as the social media platform of choice remains to be seen. As it is common for users to have both Weibo and WeChat accounts, it is expected that the same content would appear on both channels owned by the same person. It is questionable whether tipping would become a mainstream behavior when Weibo is not the exclusive channel where the content can be read.
For most users and enterprises, Weibo and WeChat serve different purposes with content marketing being one area where the two channels overlap. It is unlikely one would choose one platform to the exclusion of the other. The maturing of WeChat will provide both challenges and opportunities for businesses trying to reach out to their customers in an increasingly fragmented social media environment.
So your organization is putting together a concerted effort to attract those inbound Chinese travelers who have been pouring out of that country and have managed to overtake the Americans for top spot in the total amount of dollars spent abroad in 2012, and you have decided that having a Chinese Weibo account (microblogging account, a cross between Facebook and Twitter) is a good way to reach out to these potential travelers.
If you have outsourced the Weibo management service to a third party, you would find the following two pieces of advice useful – even if they won’t turn your Weibo into a white hot account with a 7-digit following, at least it would help you avoid a PR disaster or becoming a chuckle du jour.
To illustrate what I mean, take the following real life posts from an official DMO Weibo account. The actual account and the texts are blurred out of respect for the destination bureau.
The image to the left is a re-post about a recent auto accident which happened in the city. Apparently a driver on the overpass lost control of her car. It jumped the barrier, went through the guard rail and landed on the highway of traffic below, resulting in some serious traffic jam from midday to midnight on that day. Not sure if anyone died as a result.
And the message of the post: watch out for falling objects from above while driving in this town.
OK, next one – same Weibo account, different day.
This one was also a re-post about the not so wonderful effects of global warming, such as the rising of the sea level. The original post describes a website with an interactive map which allows one to play with the sea level to find out how much an area gets affected and covered by the rising water. The rhetorical question was, how much would our wonderful destination city still remain dry if the water level goes up by four meters? The answer was, surprise surprise, not too freaking much (as in sweet friendly all). The author rubbed it in with a “pretty scary” comment and threw in a bawling emoticon for good measure.
I didn’t make this up folks. Sensational posts? Maybe. Inspirational to a prospective visitor? Well…. you decide.
Which brings us to the couple of takeaways from this article.
Pick the right service provider if you have to outsource the Weibo account
This advice sounds a little obvious but it takes on an added degree of importance because of the language aspect.
It is not unusual for most organizations to lack in-house resources who take care of social media marketing, let alone in a foreign language. In addition, it is also not uncommon that the company you outsource the management of your Weibo account to also outsources your account to yet another third party.
In our experience in dealing with social media writers and language translators here and abroad, unless you are dealing with the end persons directly or have all the kinks ironed out with your third party service providers, you would have to be prepared to deal with inconsistent quality and surprises from time to time.
Whereas a questionable post in English might get picked up fairly quickly by you, your fellow workers or your friends, a same post in Chinese might go undetected for a long time as most people in your office can’t read it. The last thing you want is for the feedback to be coming from the customers or, worse yet, no feedback at all. By the way, the above posts are still published and alive out there.
Make sure you do your due diligence on the outsourcing company and understand how they will ensure quality. If you know or suspect they are the middleman, make sure you will be able to maintain a direct and responsive channel with the gatekeeper. Having the gatekeeper in the same time zone and understand your business culture would allow for speedier access and more effective interactions should problems arise.
Remember, know your pilot. Otherwise you are flying completely blind.
Make sure you have a coherent content strategy
The failure of #2 is often a key contributing factor of #1.
Judging by the Facebook posts and Tweets out there in the English speaking world, it is evident that a lot of businesses are struggling to maintain a steady stream of interesting and engaging content to post day in and day out. It is pretty damn hard to write something interesting when there is a lack of content from which to source.
Now you can imagine the guy or gal who was in charge of your Weibo account. He had no content to source from. He needed to talk to you but you were already in bed, and, in any case, you spoke Greek as far as he was concerned. In his desperation to come up with something, anything, he did a keyword search on the city and grabbed the first two results which happened to be highway hell and high water. So hell and high water it was.
So regardless of whether your content consists of texts, images, videos, something that parallels Facebook/Twitter posts, articles from journalists, bloggers or third party grass-root writers, having a rough editorial calendar ahead of time detailing the frequency of posts, the types and how they are sourced would make sure that the posts are relevant and timely and the content pipeline is not subjected to bouts of feast or famine.
Before embarking on our journey to explore the nuts and bolts of Chinese social media, perhaps it is instructive to first have a look at a set of macro numbers just to give us a proper perspective on where this crazy little thing called Chinese social media fits in the overall scheme of things and why we should bother to spend time making it part of our business strategy.
Internet use worldwide has been growing at a breakneck pace over the past 15 years. Its user demographics have also undergone a significant shift. Whereas English has been and still is the most dominant language used, its user population now only makes up less than one third of the overall user population.
If you dig deeper into the numbers, you would notice what is even more significant is the pace of growth of non-English Internet populations. Whereas the English user population has grown by 301% over that period, the user populations for Chinese, Spanish, Arabic and Russian have grown by 1,478%, 807%, 2,501% and 1,825%, respectively.
China is now the country with the largest Internet population with 538 million users (note: the entire population of the U.S. is 313 million). Since edging out the U.S. to take top spot in 2010, China’s user population has gone up by 118 million in the past two and a half years! Talk about a tsunami.
Another observation one can glean from the above numbers is that, as impressive as these numbers are, the penetration rate as a percentage of the Chinese population is only at 40%. Whereas comparable rates for developed countries such as the U.S., Japan, Germany, the U.K. and France are hovering around the 80% mark, making significant further growth difficult, there is still ample headroom for growth for China.
If you think the above the numbers are impressive, take a look at the mobile phone statistics. From a modest user base of about 40 million in circa 1997, the mobile population has exploded in the ensuing 15 years and has for the first time exceeded 1 billion users in 2012 (1.1 billion to be exact). The user population went up by 126 million in 2012 alone.
Of all these users, 232 million are 3G/broadband Internet users. With the rapid growth in the smart phone user base, China has already pulled ahead of the U.S. as the largest market in terms of annual smart phone sales since 2011. It is also set to top the U.S. iOS (iPhones) and Android install base in 2013.
And 75% of users surfs the web using their mobile phones.