Let's Chat About WeChat

Texting, payment, news feeds, cab hailing, video games, and social media -- what do these things have in common? They’re all available through WeChat, a so-called “superapp” that, in the past few years, has become a serious competitor in almost all electronic activities in China.

Since its creation in 2011, WeChat has experienced an almost meteoric rise in users and capabilities. Go to China today, and you’ll use WeChat for almost everything. A typical day could look like this: you wake up in the morning and check your WeChat app for any messages you might have received. You then use that same app to hail a taxi for work. As you ride on the taxi, you get bored, and you simply stay on WeChat and play a game. When you get to work, you hold a conference call (still on WeChat). On your way back home, you decide to stop by a café: and, as you might have guessed, you open the same WeChat app and pay for your drink or snack with it. Your entire day is streamlined by this one application on your phone.

It’s clear that WeChat has become an integral part of everyday life for Chinese citizens. People are hooked: today, almost 1 billion people use WeChat (90% of whom are from China), and that number is still growing rapidly. WeChat can feasibly be thought of as a competitor not only against other messaging apps, but also against other social media networks, credit card companies, car services, and more.

What can account for WeChat’s incredible capabilities? The answer lies with Chinese governmental policies. WeChat is one of many applications that became popular in China because of the government’s strict policies on social media and the “firewall” it has erected: the Chinese government blocks a great number of applications and websites, allowing for replacements to pop up. A few well-known examples of blocked applications and websites include Google (which has been replaced by Baidu), YouTube (replaced by Youku), and Twitter (replaced by Weibo). WeChat, in a sense, was at first a replacement for the popular messaging applications Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp.

However, as WeChat has profited from the Chinese government’s regulations, so has the Chinese government from WeChat’s growth. Since WeChat’s creation, the government has worked closely with the application, monitoring it and utilizing its data. State-run media channels and governmental officials have accounts on the application, which they use to connect with Chinese citizens. More importantly, however, the Chinese government benefits from the information shared via the application, and that provides an incentive for the government to promote the application amongst Chinese citizens.

Because of WeChat’s reliance to its relationship with the Chinese government, however, the reach of WeChat appears to be rather limited to China. Outside of the nation, WeChat needs to contend with the fact that it must compete with already existing messaging apps with strong user bases. WeChat also has trouble pivoting from its majority-Chinese user base. For example, WeChat’s expansion into India practically “died” after a year. It seems as if some of the features could not morph to fit the needs of the drastically different Indian market. The chat features, for example, never stuck—while in China, followers were linked from another app (QQ), which was not popular in India.

In addition, WeChat’s superapp structure might not work outside of China due to differences in marketing and electronic usage. For example, in China, people are much more inclined to use their phones than their computers to make purchases. In addition, American mobile users are already linked through different social media applications, many of which are separated from one another (for example, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat), and this method of connection has already stuck.

Thus, although WeChat continues to have incredible growth, it seems relatively contained to China. In order to expand its range elsewhere, WeChat needs to think about ways that it can engage with the user base of other countries.

Sources: The Verge, BBC, Sina, Business Insider, Forbes