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WeChat: A winner in China but a loser abroad

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How WeChat became China’s most successful ecosystem but failed in foreign markets.

WeChat is an app that seems to have it all: features offered by Amazon, Apple Pay, Facebook, Grubhub, Messenger, WhatsApp, Uber, and Venmo all live within the same app. As of the second quarter of 2017, Tencent’s WeChat had 963 million active users [1], with the majority located in China. The app is wildly successful in China: 79.1% of smartphone owners access the app regularly and 84.5% of messaging app users use WeChat. Given the variety of features available on WeChat, users spend an average of 90 minutes a day on the app [2]— that’s almost twice as long as global users spend on all of Facebook’s suite of apps including Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger [3].

A winner in China

WeChat was released in early 2011 amidst competition from Kik, WhatsApp, Viber, WeChat, Line, Facebook Messenger, Miliao, and Weibo. However, it beat its competition for several reasons:

  1. The Chinese government blocked foreign messaging apps, thus encouraging the adoption of domestic apps.
  2. Tencent leveraged its existing user base from its instant messaging software service, QQ. Competitors required the creation of a new account, while WeChat allowed users to create an account for free using their QQ account, which millions of Chinese people already had. Network effects rapidly kicked in: the more users joined WeChat, the more other users wanted to join to connect with family and friends [4].
  3. Tencent had user data through QQ, and was able to use this information to develop WeChat in a way that it offered what users wanted. For instance, by opening up its platform to third-party developers, it quickly offered new capabilities ranging from ordering food to booking a doctor’s appointment to meeting nearby strangers. This led to the creation of an ecosystem that users were dependent on rather than just a messaging app.
  4. Tencent used creative ways to get users comfortable with new features and make the app stickier. For instance, WeChat introduced mobile pay in 2013, but it wasn’t until 2014, when it introduced Red Packets, that users got on board with sending money electronically. Red Packets allows users to exchange money electronically. A user can, for example, put $5 in a red envelope, send it to a chat group with five friends, and set up the gift so that only the first two to tap the envelope receive the money, thus creating a competitive, gambling-like thrill that keeps users hooked to the app. This contributed to a surge in mobile payments; in 2015; China’s mobile transactions reached $235 billion, surpassing the US for the first time [5].

A loser abroad

Despite its success in China, WeChat has failed to take off overseas. Several reasons account for this:

  1. By the time WeChat entered foreign markets in 2012, most markets already had a dominant chat app. Furthermore, since the adoption of an app like WeChat depends on network effects, it was difficult for WeChat to convince users to join a platform where users did not have connections.
  2. WeChat failed to offer comparable capabilities to foreign users. Even as of mid 2016, the app did not allow American users to order food, book an Uber, or control a smart TV.
  3. WeChat was too China-centric and failed to adapt to the unique needs of foreign markets. For instance, WeChat allows users to buy sticker packs, but the majority of these stickers are tailored towards Chinese users. As of 2016, searching for “carnival,” Brazil’s most famous festival, led to no results, despite WeChat’s attempt to enter the Brazilian market [6].

What next?

Frankly, the prospects for WeChat’s expansion into foreign markets looks grim. There may still be opportunities for WeChat to serve as an aggregator app—especially given that in most markets, users use different apps for different functions—but the opportunities in this space are not very appealing.

However, WeChat’s success story in China may be an indication that there are opportunities for players to build comparable ecosystems in emerging markets. For example, Vodacom’s M-Pesa is the largest mobile money platform in Tanzania with 42% market share, and 14% of the population uses M-Pesa as of 2014 [7]. Players such as M-Pesa with a sizeable user base may be able to take advantage of the relatively low penetration of “convenience” apps in their markets to start building an ecosystem.

 

References

[1] WeChat: Number of Active Users 2017 | Statistic. https://www.statista.com/statistics/255778/number-of-active-wechat-messenger-accounts/
[2] WeChat Users in China Will Surpass 490 Million This Year. https://www.emarketer.com/Article/WeChat-Users-China-Will-Surpass-490-Million-This-Year/1016125
[3] How Much Time Will the Average Person Spend on Social Media During Their Life? http://www.adweek.com/digital/mediakix-time-spent-social-media-infographic/
[4] What did WeChat Succeed in China Where Other Apps Failed? https://www.techinasia.com/why-wechat-succeeded-china
[5] How WeChat Became China’s App For Everything. https://www.fastcompany.com/3065255/china-wechat-tencent-red-envelopes-and-social-money
[6] Why China’s Biggest App Has Sputtered Everywhere Else. https://www.fastcompany.com/3060494/why-chinas-biggest-social-app-has-sputtered-overseas
[7] M-Pesa Retains Position as Tanzania’s Leading Mobile Money Platform. http://kenyanwallstreet.com/mpesa-tanzanias-leading-mobile-money-platform-42-market-share

3 thoughts on “WeChat: A winner in China but a loser abroad

  1. As Wechat itself is essentially a social media app that could be used by users free of charge, it could only monetize through serving as a channel for business vendors to provide services to its large base of users, and through its Wechat Wealth feature that provides users investment products. However, both of these two revenue streams are encountering competition from Ant Financial, who one might argue even had the first mover advantage over Wechat. With the dual monopoly between WeChat and Ant Financial in China’s domestic market, their only organic opportunity for growth lies in the global markets. However, as you are pessimistic at the outcome of WeChat’s global expansion, then where do you think would be Wechat’s path for growth?

  2. Interesting post! I agree with you that the three reasons are key to lead Wechat’s failure overseas. I would like to share one additional thought, the cultural difference also plays an important role here. Chinese people really like the concept of “large and complete”, and products with multi-functions are more popular. Wechat is such a product with multi-functions. It has everything (facebook, whatspp, paypal, Amazon, Uber…) in one app, and Chinese people are very fascinated by that. But US consumers may hold different preference. They prefer leaner products/apps, each with one pure but powerful function. So for US consumers, WeChat is not that attractive and lose lots of its differentiations against existing dominant players. As far as I know, overseas market is not a focus for WeChat (messaging) now. Wechat payment is expanding globally, but mainly target Chinese consumers shopping overseas.

  3. Thanks for sharing your post on WeChat. I visited China over the winter break and quickly discovered that WeChat was a necessity in to survive over there – almost everyone lives and works by WeChat. As a new user, I found the app be extremely user friendly and the all-in-one feature to be convenient with many carry over synergies between features. As I traveled the country, I was amazed to find that even an old man street vendor selling food on a rickety one-burner stove accepted WeChat Pay; almost no one uses cash or credit card in China. I agree with your conclusions regarding the lack of penetration in foreign markets, but I wonder how much focus WeChat has actually placed on growth beyond China. While competition in developed markets, like the United States and Europe, will be tough as you pointed out, I wonder if consumers in emerging markets will appreciate WeChat’s features if it is able to make its app more regionally specific.

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