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.
As businesses in the travel industry have closed their books for 2013 and start to make plans for 2014, industry analysts and pundits alike are pondering over the year that has just transpired, particularly as it relates to the Chinese outbound travel market. For sure, 2013 has been a notable year again for the Chinese overseas travelers. But, more importantly, what lies ahead for this tsunami of travelers in 2014, and, as usual, the perpetual question – is the trend going to last?
While the official statistics for the entire year are still being tallied up, the numbers based on the first three quarters of last year are pointing to the expected growth trend. The total outbound overseas Chinese travelers are projected to grow by 18% over the year before to 98 million, according to a recent report released by the China Tourism Academy. The same report projected the total dollar amount spent at US$118 billion, smashing yet another previous record of $102 billion established in 2012 which propelled China to the top spot, edging out Germany and U.S. (see $102 Billion – China takes global outbound tourist spenders top spot ).
The continued outpour of Chinese overseas travelers is not a unique trend within the Chinese travel theme. Domestically, the Chinese had also been on the move. An estimated 3.3 billion tourists traveled and spent $430 billion within China’s borders in the past year. Little wonder every step along the Great Wall was filled with people and highways turning into kilometers of parking lots during peak tourist seasons inside the country.
As for the upcoming year, the China Tourism Academy, among other industry experts, is predicting another year of growth in the mid-teens (16% – 18%) for the Chinese outbound market. The prediction would put the total number of outbound travelers to solidly beyond the 100-million milestone.
While no drastic change of course is expected in 2014, barring any black swan event knocking over the apple cart otherwise known as the New Normal global economy, our crystal ball is offering the following five evolutions to watch out for.
1. Continued expansion of the free independent travelers (FIT)
The first prediction is an easy one. As more and more Chinese having already traveled overseas return for more trips, these repeat travelers are more confident than ever and willing to venture beyond what they had experienced in their first trips. If the evolution of the Japanese tourists in the ‘80s and that of the Koreans in the ‘90s are any indication, the size of the independent Chinese travelers will continue to expand. The only difference with the Chinese is the time scale (much more compressed) and magnitude of the numbers involved relative to the two other Asian groups before them.
Another factor causing this trend to accelerate is the new travel regulations which came into effect last year. The law forbids the sale of below-cost tour packages – a common practice by many domestic travel agencies who herd their group tourists through designated shopping outlets from which they earn commission to offset the cost of the trips. The side effect of this new regulation is reflation of package tour prices, in the process eroding the perceived economic advantage of package tours and further tilting the price-value equation in favor of FIT packages.
2. Going deeper and narrower
Whereas the bragging rights for the travelers back a few years ago used to be doing selfies in front of iconic symbols such as the Eiffel Tower or Coliseum, what is cool now might be having themselves and a group of buddies being helicoptered to the top of a pristine mountain to have lunch on a glacier, or a luxury boat and cycling tour along the Rhine where they stay in castles and vineyards along the route.
What this means is that the pace of their trips will slow down. Instead of five cities in seven days, the number of destinations might narrow to one or two, allowing them to smell the flowers, so to speak, along the way. Complementing the must-see’s at destinations, more and more time will be spent on theme based activities which better reflect an individual’s tastes and desires for certain types of immersive experience. Multi-day cycling tours, museum tours, hikes along famous trails and other participatory itineraries will become increasingly popular and sought after.
3. Spreading beyond tier-one destinations
As a group, the ‘been-there-done-that’ repeat overseas tourists are younger, better educated, more affluent, and are eager to venture beyond the standard tourist traps at tier-one destinations. The direct beneficiaries of this emerging trend are the tier-two and tier-three countries and destinations which have been so far left out by the first wave of Chinese tourists.
By definition, non-tier-one destinations are lesser known as less information about them is available. Such is especially true for the amount of information in Chinese. Therefore, the first challenge for these destinations is to raise their profiles so that they are part of the Chinese travelers’ vocabulary and appear as markers on their travel maps.
Along with prediction #2, these two trends will point to further diversification and fragmentation of the travel segment, and which leads us to our next prediction.
4. Intensified competition among destinations
The expanding FIT travel segment, increased sophistication and maturity of the repeat travelers, and continued diversification of vertical travel themes all mean that destination marketing organizations (DMOs) will need to innovate in order to capitalize on these emerging trends. Amongst the DMOs and industry participants, the next battle will be waged trying to win the hearts and minds of the FIT travelers, the prize of which will be better margins over those from packaged tours as well as economic benefits distributed more evenly across regions.
As most commonly known in the high tech industry, being early and on the bleeding edge of innovation can be detrimental to one’s wallet. On the other hand, being late to the game often means fighting over crumbs amongst many other me-too’s.
Destinations late in catching the initial Chinese trend will be fighting in an increasingly competitive landscape trying to position themselves for the next wave of FIT tourists. Some of them might still be weighing the pros and cons of the first wave of Chinese tourists arriving in tour buses on margin-challenged tour packages and wonder if the market is sustainable or worth going after. In the meantime their more innovative and forward looking counterparts are busy marketing themselves to the next wave of FIT travelers whose experience and preference for luxury occupy significant weights in their travel budget calculus.
2014 will witness further widening of the gaps between the have and have-not destinations and individual operators.
5. Increased sophistication of social media marketing
It is well known that the rate of internet user participation is high in China and social media plays an important role when Chinese travelers do their travel research. If these two factoids fail to convince you, the fact that a staggering 91% of Chinese respondents indicated they interacted with social media on their travels, according to a study by hospitality company Accor Hotels, should remove any lingering doubts that social media should be a vital part of your Chinese marketing strategy.
2013 is also the year when WeChat matured from puberty into an 800 pound gorilla. With 500 million users and 90%+ Chinese mobile users having this app installed on their smart phones (incidently, China outsold the U.S. in smart phones last year; another first), WeChat has gone beyond its messaging root and morphed into a full blown one-to-one social network, mobile payment system, social CRM and online-to-offline platform.
The jury is still out on exactly how dominant WeChat will be and exactly what roles it will play, as the platform and its ecosystem of apps are still evolving and mutating at a breakneck pace. The fact that WeChat will be a dominant gateway to mobile internet and a major social media force, however, is now clear and undisputed.
Microblogging, or Weibo, on the other hand, will see its growth moderated, now that it has to share the social media space with WeChat. Does it mean Weibo will fall out of favor any time soon? Not likely. Taper? Maybe.
The question of WeChat replacing Weibo is not quite a valid one as the different nature of the two platforms means that they are designed for different purposes. In fact, social media strategies using both platforms in an integrated and orchestrated manner has been a hot topic in 2013 and will continue to be one this year.