What is WeChat? An Intro From On-The-Ground in China
When I first arrived in China all I expected WeChat to be was a Chinese version of Facebook – a place to connect with friends, chat, share pictures, etc. Little did I know it would be so much more than a social platform.
For those who have never heard of WeChat, it started in 2011 as an instant messaging app. As of the second quarter of 2017, it reached 938 million users, ranking it fifth among the most popular networks worldwide (by the number of active accounts) according to Statista.
What is WeChat then? On the surface, it looks similar to WhatsApp, LINE or Viber, but it combines not only their IM features but also options offered by Skype, your local bank app, Endomondo and more. Additionally, via WeChat you can use – among others – Uber, Tinder and city bike renting tools. I know it may seem confusing at the very beginning, so let me take you for a short trip to show which features Chinese users like and use most – I’m sure you’ll get addicted yourself! And what’s most important, the more you understand how the Chinese Mobile World works, the closer you are to launching a successful marketing campaign. So, what about starting here, with the basics, and later, if you still feel like craving for more, moving on to other articles on NanjingMarketingGroup.com to learn how to use WeChat for marketing, advertising and customer service.
One: Connecting with people
If you’ve already been to China, there’s a fair chance that you’ve heard this sentence more than once: “Can I have your WeChat?”. No matter if you are friends, classmates, business partners or strangers walking down the same street – WeChat is the must-have in China if you want to connect with others. It’s a quickly-changing tool, and it’s changing how people interact with each other both online and offline. I even noticed that Chinese people, who were widely known for carrying their business cards along, tend to connect with potential clients or partners via WeChat, all they have to do is scan someone’s personal QR code. A piece of cake, isn’t it?
With WeChat you can send texts, pictures, videos, make audio and video calls – all the usual stuff. Chinese people also commonly use features that are still unpopular in the Western world. They’re in a hurry? No problem, they just send a voice message instead of a text. Got lost on their way to meet someone? They share their real-time location. But what is it that Chinese people like most about WeChat? I asked some of my Chinese friends from different age groups and the answer was always: “WeChat Moments”.
According to Statista, about 61 percent of WeChat users access WeChat Moments every time they open the app. No need to carry out a survey though, it takes just a few minutes on WeChat to notice that Chinese people are dedicated to the idea of “sharing is caring”. And so they share… Pictures of their children, weekend activities, trips, screenshots of funny conversations, memes or articles. Everything! Not to mention how fast news spreads via WeChat, it takes minutes to go viral in China. I noticed that people using Facebook often care about the image of themselves they create in the Internet posting pictures or sharing posts. Many times I’ve hesitated myself before hitting the “share” button – ‘is the content interesting enough?’ or ‘do I share too much?’ I’d think. But, as far as my Chinese WeChat friends are concerned, I don’t think it’s an issue in China. My WeChat Moments is full of news pieces, blog posts, music videos, adverts etc. shared by other users. They don’t pay too much attention to the number of posts they share every day – if it’s entertaining, pretty or catchy, it’s a reason good enough to share it with all of your friends.
Creating a group sounds pretty familiar to all of us, we join various groups on Facebook, we send pictures to groups we share with friends on WhatsApp, but it still doesn’t quite cover how groups work on WeChat. When I first started using WeChat I missed having Facebook-style events and group walls where I could easily share many things, Facebook felt so clear and familiar to me. I didn’t really understand the phenomenon of group chats on WeChat, they all seemed a bit cluttered to me – messages not organized in any way, hundreds of GIFs breaking every discussion up. But, surprisingly, as I was getting used to their rather rough interface, I discovered that they are somehow an answer to every single question you might have. Renting an apartment, buying cosmetics from Europe, selling second-hand furniture, looking for a job, learning Icelandic – no matter what you need, if you ask the right person, you will certainly hear: “Och! Wait a second, I’ll add you to the group!”.
Also, I don’t know how you usually connect with your colleagues, but in China you do it via WeChat groups. It works exactly the same among classmates and teachers. Groups are just a much more convenient and faster way than sending e-mails – you can easily chat, video call or send files with colleagues both sitting next to you and in the office across the country within your private group. You find it annoying to text using your smartphone? Switch to WeChat for Web, just scan the QR code and there you are – everything’s on your computer or tablet.
Three: Subscriptions and Service Accounts
Talking about QR codes, as you might have noticed already, it’s very unlikely to find a place in China where QR codes are nowhere to be seen. They’re not only used to add new friends or to pay (we’ll get back to this later), but they’re also the easiest way to find your favourite shop or product on WeChat – just scan a QR code and go straight to their fan page (which is called an “official account” on WeChat”). Most of my Chinese friends have dozens or hundreds of subscriptions added to the special folder on their app. They follow famous brands, local cafes and restaurants, news pages or basically anything they encounter on their way, especially that a lot of places offer some discounts if you scan their QR code and start following them (coupons are saved to your WeChat wallet, of course!).
Official accounts are one of the best ways in Chinese social media to connect with the customers, so all of the brands have one, or even two accounts, as there are a few options to choose from. The most popular ones are subscriptions and service accounts. The former are listed in a separate folder and you can expect at most a post a day. The options are limited compared to the service accounts, for me, it feels more like a kind of newsletter or online newspaper I read every day when I’m in China to get some insight on what is going. Some of my subscriptions are, for example, Renmin Ribao or Shanghaiist – both posting daily news. Obviously, if you have more than two or three subscriptions in the folder, it’s quite impossible to read all of them, but don’t worry, the best articles are usually shared by other people on WeChat Moments anyway, so you won’t miss anything particularly interesting.
The latter, service accounts, are listed separately as well, but they also appear alongside your messages, on the front page of WeChat (look at the picture above). They are more complex than subscriptions, I’d say they’re more like tiny apps within WeChat as they have geo-locators, payments, membership cards and even mini-games integrated. A service account may also act as a simplified version of an e-commerce website – there are separate sections for brand’s info, offered products, sales events etc. My personal favourites are local magazines’ accounts, for example, ThatsShanghai or mapclub, that come in handy for a foreigner living in China as they post events info, translated news pieces or various articles about Chinese culture.
Service accounts may be updated up to four times a month and as a user gets a notification for each update, the brands do their best to provide the most interesting, entertaining and beautiful content.
Four: Payments and shopping
The second feature my Chinese friends listed as the most useful one was WeChat Pay, which is actually my personal number one. Back in Poland the thing I hated most was carrying along a heavy wallet packed with coins, cards and banknotes, so discovering WeChat Pay made my life so much easier – all you have to take going out is your phone (and a power bank ;-)). No matter what you want to pay for – your weekly shopping at a supermarket, dinner at a restaurant, a box of fried noodles or a bunch of flowers on the street - it only takes scanning a QR code (told you we’ll get back to it!) or getting your own QR code scanned. Could it get any easier? Well, it actually can, because with WeChat Pay you’re able to buy plane and tickets or movie tickets, order your favourite food, charge your phone and pay your electricity bills and you don’t even have to move from your couch, it only requires linking your bank card to the app. Already linked? Don’t forget that Uber in China is owned by Didi Taxi and it takes just a few taps on your phone to call a car via WeChat. Och, and have you heard about station-less bicycle-sharing systems like Mobike and Ofo (more info here)? Yes, it’s available on WeChat as well.
There is one more WeChat Pay function I’m pretty sure you will fall in love with. I don’t know about you, but every time my friends and I go Dutch, it turns out everyone runs out of small change. It may seem especially annoying in China where you can’t ask for a separate bill for the dish you ordered because you share all of the food with your friends sitting around the table. If you’re lucky, your waiter will split the bill and let everyone pay their own share, but not all of the restaurants are willing to do so. But don’t worry, WeChat Pay will come to your rescue! Next time someone mentions “AA zhi”, which basically means to go Dutch, you or your friend can pay the bill and the remaining companions will transfer their share to you using WeChat Pay, it takes only a few taps on their phones.
Another thing you’ll see a lot is a red packet, which is also a way to transfer money to your WeChat friends. Some people use it merely as such, but if you have any idea about Chinese culture, you’ve probably heard how important a hongbao (red packet) tradition is in China. If you haven’t, let me just say it is a monetary gift wrapped in a red envelope which is presented to loved ones, children, friends etc. during social and family gatherings such as weddings, birthdays or Chinese New Year. Since mobile payment systems were introduced, digital red packets practically brought an end to the traditional ones. In 2017 Chinese people sent over 46 billion (sic!) electronic red packets during the Chinese New Year (Xinhua via http://reut.rs/2y23QBt). I’ve received and sent a few of them myself and I must say it really is a super handy way of expressing your warmest wishes to your friends. Och, and remember, "the more, the better" might sound as the best option, but at least as important is to use a lucky number such as 8 (homonym of wealth or fortune), so red packets worth ¥8.88 are commonly seen.
Our short trip briefly introducing WeChat is coming to an end. The most important thing I would like you to get a grasp of is the fact that without understanding the Chinese culture, you will never be able to do marketing in China. And to get a step closer to understanding the modern Chinese culture and market, you have to embrace the fact that life there depends on mobile phones – everyone watches tv series and uses apps like WeChat, Alipay, Zhu, Waimai etc. And that’s why it’s pretty difficult to find a person without a huge power bank wired to their phones, myself included (did I mention earlier how convenient my life had become when I’d stopped carrying along all the coins and cards? Forget I said that!). I hope you don’t feel overwhelmed! Rome was not built in a day, but I’m pretty sure you’ll get used to all of the apps Chinese market offers faster than you expect. And I can promise you that after coming back home this is one of the things you’ll miss most – convenience cannot be overestimated, can it?