Unless you have a strong connection to China, you might think WeChat is no big deal. But over the last 10 years, Tencent’s flagship social platform has become the everything-app for people in the country. Plus, an important social and business tool for millions around the world.
Despite some resistance to its use in countries like the United States (more on this later), WeChat continues to grow. In 2021, the app boasts 1.24 billion monthly active users.
Compare that to Facebook’s 2.85 billion, and you can see why WeChat is now the 6th most popular social media platform worldwide.
But what is WeChat and how can you tap into its online market? Read on to learn where WeChat came from, what it can do, and how to get started with WeChat marketing for business.
Bonus: Download our free, customizable social media calendar template to easily plan and schedule all your content in advance.
What is WeChat?
WeChat is a multi-purpose social media, messaging and payment app developed in China. It’s the largest social media platform in the country and one of the top 10 social networks in the world.
In 2011, WeChat (known as Weixin in China) launched as a WhatsApp-style messaging app. It filled a major gap in the world’s largest social network market, where many foreign-owned platforms like Facebook, YouTube and WhatsApp are banned.
WeChat is also popular in Mongolia and Hong Kong and maintains a foothold in Chinese speaking communities around the world.
Registered users can connect to the platform through their phones using the WeChat app, or through WeChat web. WeChat for web includes WeChat for PC and WeChat for Mac, but you might also hear it referred to as WeChat online or Web WeChat.
If you’ve not used WeChat before, you might think it’s just another online space where people talk to friends and share life snaps. But It’s much more than that.
Users can send messages, hail a ride, pay for their groceries, keep fit, book a Covid-19 test, and even access government services like visa applications, all without leaving the app.
No third-party click-throughs or complicated user journeys. Just one very large captive audience and some super sleek, integrated tech.
How does WeChat work?
Over the last decade, WeChat has sought to simplify daily life for its users. So much so that it’s become a ‘one-stop’ shop for social and transactional moments in China.
Here are just some of the things users can do on WeChat…
WeChat instant messaging
Instant messaging is WeChat’s core service. It’s where the app started and where it maintains its strongest hold over the social media market in China.
WeChat users can send instant messages in multiple formats, including:
- Text messaging
- Hold-to-talk voice Messaging
- Group Messaging
- Broadcast messaging (one-to-many)
- Photo and video sharing
- Video conferencing (live video calls)
WeChat messaging users can also share their location with their contacts, send each other coupons and lucky money packages, and share files with people in close proximity via Bluetooth.
In total, WeChat users send over 45 billion instant messages per day.
Moments is WeChat’s social feed where users can share updates of their lives with their friends.
It’s similar to Facebook’s status updates. In fact, WeChat users can sync their Moments to Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms they don’t have direct access to from China.
120 million WeChat users use Moments each day and most check it every time they open the app.
Moments users can share images, text, short videos, articles and music. Just like Facebook status updates, friends can react to other’s Moments by giving a thumbs up and leaving comments.
Developed in May of 2017, news feed is most similar to Facebook’s NewsFeed. It curates content posted by Subscription accounts (like media organisations) that users follow.
WeChat account holders can use Search to find content on the platform, including:
- Official Accounts
- Wechat Moments (via hashtags)
- Content from the internet (via Sogou search engine)
- In-app eCommerce platforms
- WeChat Channels
- Stickers for instant messaging
In early 2020, WeChat launched Channels, a new short video platform within WeChat.
Through Channels, WeChat’s users can create and share short video clips in a similar fashion to close rival TikTok.
Users can find and follow content posted to Channels through their friends or influencer accounts. Channels posts can include:
- A description
- A location tag
- A link to an Official Account
More than 250 million WeChat users have linked their bank accounts to WeChat Pay, the platform’s payment gateway.
With it, they can pay for pretty much anything anywhere in the country, including:
- Money transfers
- eCommerce purchases
WePay includes Quick Pay, in-app web-based payments, QR code payments and native in-app payments.
In 2016, Tencent launched Enterprise WeChat to help users separate their work and social lives. Just like Slack, it helps users speed up and organise work communications.
Through Enterprise WeChat, users can keep up to date with work conversations, keep track of annual leave days, log expenses and even request time off.
WeChat Mini Programmes
Mini Programmes are third party apps built into the WeChat interface. A so-called ‘app within an app’. WeChat users can install these apps to gain access to more features. One of the most popular is a ride hailing app similar to Uber.
By keeping these apps inside WeChat, the platform maintains control over the user journey and directs payments through WeChat Pay.
400 million users per day access WeChat MiniProgrammes.
Who owns WeChat?
WeChat is owned by Chinese firm Tencent, one of the most valuable companies in the world. Run by billionaire businessman Pony Ma, current estimates put Tencent’s value at $69 billion USD.
For context, that’s more than cosmetics giant Johnson & Johnson and only marginally less than Alibaba.
Both Tencent and WeChat are closely tied with the Chinese government. WeChat user data is tracked, analysed and shared with the Chinese authorities.
This has driven concerns internationally that WeChat may be a threat to national security. These concerns drove President Donald Trump’s attempts to ban WeChat in the United States between 2016 and 2021.
Current president elect Joe Biden has since panned the idea. But WeChat has previously been censored in Iran, banned in Russia and is currently banned in India.
So what does one of the world’s most valuable companies do besides ruffle feathers in the oval office and run China’s favourite social network? Make video games, mostly.
Tencent owns Riot Games as well as a large portion of Epic games, the company that brought us Fortnight.
According to Hootsuite’s Global State Of Digital 2021 report, there are 4.20 billion active social media users in the world. And social media users in Eastern Asia represent almost a third (28.1%) of that total market share.
It’ll come as no surprise then that current estimates suggest 90% of China’s population use WeChat.
But WeChat isn’t just popular in China. Approximately 100-250 million WeChat users live outside of the country.
WeChat users are pretty evenly distributed between genders, with 45.4% being female and 54.6% male.
But, unlike Japanese rival Line – whose audience is evenly split across ages – people under 30 years old account for over half of all WeChat users in China. Those aged 36-40 years make up the smallest share, at just 8.6% of total users.
How to use WeChat for business: WeChat marketing 101
Businesses can market on WeChat either by requesting an Official Account or partnering with third parties.
If you have an Official Account, you can create content on WeChat and directly interact with and sell to your followers and customers.
Over 100 countries (including Canada) can now apply for an Official Account, even if they don’t hold a Chinese Business License. So it is worth trying your hand at WeChat marketing.
Set up an Official Account on WeChat
The most effective way to market your business on WeChat is by opening an Official Account. There are two types of accounts for WeChat marketing, Subscription accounts and Service accounts.
The Subscription account is designed for marketing but is not open to overseas businesses.
WeChat’s Service account is made for sales and customer support. Service account holders can send four broadcast messages per month and have access to WeChat Pay and API.
Notifications from Service accounts appear alongside those from friends. But Service account holders can’t message customers first, or reply to a message from a customer outside of a set 48 window.
But with Hootsuite’s WeChat integration, you can request data like email addresses from customers within WeChat, then follow up with them outside of the platform.
And if you’re an enterprise customer, you can manage Wechat messages through Sparkcentral, Hootsuite’s customer service tool.
To apply for an Official Account on WeChat:
- Go to https://mp.weixin.qq.com/ and click Register
- Select Service account
- Enter your email address to receive a confirmation code
- Enter the confirmation code and then choose a password
- Select your business’s country of origin
- Request the WeChat verification process to get access to premium features
- Complete your account profile and click Done
Official Accounts must be verified (usually via phone call) and pay a $99 USD annual fee to the platform. It takes 1-2 weeks to get an answer but, once set up, your business will benefit from the same access and features as businesses registered in China.
Engage with users on WeChat
Official Account holders can engage with WeChat users in a few ways:
- By displaying QR codes linked to their account at the point of sale, on their websites, in physical stores, or in other promotional materials
- By ensuring their products show up on WeChat Scan
- By creating content that can be seen in WeChat search
- By creating engaging Mini Programmes
- By setting up a WeChat store (an eCommerce store within WeChat)
These methods are popular because advertising options are limited on WeChat. Which brings us to…
Advertise on WeChat
WeChat offers three types of ads:
- Moments ads
- Banner ads
- Key opinion leader (KOL or influencer) ads
However, WeChat limits the amount of ads users can see in a day. For example, each user will only see three Moments ads in a 24-hour period. If they don’t comment, like or interact with the ad, it is removed from the user’s timeline after 6 hours.
Partner with influencers (KOLs) on WeChat
WeChat’s Key Opinion Leaders (KOL) are bloggers, actors and other celebrities who’ve gained popularity on the platform.
Any business, with or without an Official Account, can reach out to KOLs on WeChat. KOLs can endorse or promote your product or service, which means you can access their audience without having to build your own on the platform.
Collaborate or partner with WeChat
Occasionally, WeChat partners with organisations outside of China to run promotions.
For example, in 2016, WeChat partnered with 60 Italian companies based near their office in Milan. These companies were allowed to sell on WeChat without having to apply for a license to operate a business in China, or have an Official Account for overseas businesses.
These partnerships are less common in 2021 because businesses can now apply for a WeChat account without a license. But brands still frequently partner with WeChat to create promotional innovations that require new functions.
To date, WeChat has restricted it’s partnerships to luxury brands, very large businesses like Starbucks and countries where they want to grow their user-base.
Create a WeChat Mini Program
You can apply for a developer license to create a WeChat Mini Program as an overseas entity.
Once registered, businesses can use Mini Programs to create apps that are accessible to all WeChat users.
International fashion brand, Burberry, has been innovating through WeChat Mini Programs since 2014 when it used the platform to showcase its fall runway show.
In 2021, Burberry created luxury retail’s first social shop. A dedicated WeChat mini program links social content with a physical store in Shenzhen.
The app takes exclusive content from social media and brings it into the physical retail environment. It allows customers to experience the store in a completely new way and unlock personalised experiences they can share with their communities.
Any foreign business can apply to create a Mini Program and use it to connect with WeChat users.
Provide better customer service
Perhaps the most common way to engage with users on WeChat is to use it to provide great customer service.
With a Service account, you can reply to any WeChat users who messages you first. But, you’ll have to respond within a set timeframe and the chat will automatically end if either one of you doesn’t respond for 48 hours.
So, the key here is to use the methods above to get your account seen on WeChat. Then use instant messaging to answer questions and queries from your customers.
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