Product that blew me away: WeChat
WeChat the ‘all-in-one app’ is essentially Facebook, Messenger, Uber, WhatsApp, ApplePay, Twitter, Venmo and many more apps combined. It is an integral part of life in China. I studied abroad for a semester at Shanghai Jiao Tong University last Spring and it is tough to imagine my life in the country without this one mobile application. The numbers speak for themselves: it boasts a staggering 963 million monthly active users, which is almost thrice the population of the United States!
Why I Loved WeChat
Initially I downloaded WeChat as a mere local messaging app, only to soon realize its true potential as a singular portal to all realms of social media. The incredible variety of services offered by this app absolutely blew me away! This blog will provide some insight into this truly ubiquitous app.
How is WeChat Different?
Although WeChat started as an internet messaging app it soon evolved into a multi-functionality app. Today you can use it to transfer money, post pictures and videos on your feed, put filters to photographs, order a taxi, check the news, book hotel rooms, consult with a doctor, translate phrases into any language, monitor the air quality, watch traffic camera feeds, pay traffic fines, report incidents to police and the list goes on!
And since popular apps like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are banned in China, WeChat virtually has no major competitor.
The UI is simplistic enough that it performs basic functions to perfection, while exploration of the multitude of features is an endless endeavor.
A typical day for me in China:
On any given day I did the following straight from WeChat:
1. Bought breakfast from FamilyMart (thru WeChat Pay)
2. Purchased a Latte from Timo Café.
3. Rented a shared bike (thru MoBike)
4. Took pictures of class notes and shared them on the class group.
5. Bought lunch.
6. Planned to get dinner with friends.
7. Searched for a restaurant.
8. Took a taxi to the restaurant.
9. Split the food bill among my friends.
10. Took a taxi back to the dorm.
11. Translated numerous Chinese messages to English.
12. Checked what my friends were upto.
ALL FROM WITHIN A SINGLE APP!
WeChat Pay: The Gamechanger
WeChat Pay is a digital wallet that can be used to transfer money between WeChat users, make online payments or even pay participating offline retailers at the tap of a button or a snap of camera. E-payments are omnipresent and almost every store, shop, and restaurant has QR codes that can be scanned to pay money. WeChat was our saving grace on multiple occasions when we ran out of cash. WeChat Pay was so commonplace that my phone was all I ever really needed on an outing, since my bank account was directly linked to WeChat pay.
We even paid for some delicious dumplings on our hiking trip in the remote hills of Guilin through this incredible app! Owing people money was a thing of the past since we could settle our debts on the go. On multiple occasions people created temporary QR codes on their phone if a physical print wasn’t available.
Adding people as contacts was a hassle-free real time process and took mere seconds. There’s a clear winner between a quick scan of the other person’s unique QR code versus that of communicating 10 digits. I observed that voicemail messaging was more routine than texting, which allowed people from every age group to extensively use the application.
The Moments section is undoubtedly a flagship feature which allows you to share and view all your friends’ updates. It allows you to regulate who can see your moments giving you full control over your privacy settings.
WeChat also promotes some spontaneity with a feature called Shake. On enabling Shake, you can physically shake your phone and will be presented with the option of messaging other random WeChat users who happened to shake their phone at the same time.
WeChat’s Unique Selling Point is its app-within-an-app model which are called Mini-Programs. It’s a complete ecosystem with over ten million third-party apps. It rids the user from having to download external apps and having to worry about device storage space. A move that aids users and app makers alike! These even included equivalents of Western apps like Tinder and Seamless, along with tons of other services such as task management, e-commerce, etc.
Tesla has a mini-program for users to locate charging stations, schedule a test-drive and share their experiences about driving a Tesla car
Every enterprise and organization has an official account that it uses to communicate with the users that choose to follow it. People subscribing to these accounts are regarded as “fans”. The integrated payment system obviously allows you to instantly purchase anything on offer on these official accounts.
Falling emoticons are unique to WeChat and drop from your screen when you type in certain keywords in the chat. The emoticons cascade down the screen when you type in words like: “Happy Birthday,” “Miss You” or “XOXO.”
And ofcourse a GIF and sticker for every moment you can fathom from a virtually infinite library.
Coolest features: A few features that I found really interesting.
Voiceprint — A voice recognition system that can be used to log in to your account. Like the fingerprint, their smart systems recognize your specific voice and intonations to verify your identity. This works especially well since Chinese languages are very tonal, although the feature is enabled to work with any language.
Recall — For the times you send a message to the wrong person or the wrong group; or realize your message is a mess after hitting send! The “Recall” feature was available on WeChat long before Whatsapp added a version of it. Saved me a couple of times from embarrassment.
Drift Bottle — Lets you create a message (or a short audio clip) and virtually send it out to sea for any WeChat user to see. After your message is viewed, the viewer can respond and start a dialogue. Had some super interesting introductory messages after which point the conversations either died out or the Mandarin got too overwhelming to keep up with. Nevertheless, a fascinating feature.
Doctor’s Appointment — Patients have the option of viewing information about and making an appointment with specialist doctors. They can further pay their fees and medicine costs through the app! I wasn’t able to try this since the English translations did not work for me, plus I fortunately never fell sick!
WeChat very frequently releases surprises for holiday seasons.
I remember receiving Red Packets on Chinese New Year from my local friends which essentially was money sent to people on an auspicious occasion! Receiving completely random amounts from different friends puzzled me initially, only to realize it to be another one of WeChat features called ‘Lucky Money’. Apparently, you can select a total stipulated amount of money and send it to a select bunch of friends. The amount each person receives is randomized. (As seen in the picture below)
These are just some highlights of the features I got acquainted with during my stay in China, but I’m sure a multitude of other amazing features and services are waiting to be explored in this treasure trove of an app that WeChat is.
Fun times in China!
Lets dig deeper:
A significant user base (~86%) lies in the age group of 18–35 years. Although the trend is expected, the numbers are astounding! This figure is further enhanced with the frequency of user activity. More than 60% of the users open the app at least 10 times a day. The addictive nature of the app can be garnered from the statistic that 18% of the users spend more than 4 hours per day on the app!
China only has 100 million(~11%) of its users outside China, with a majority of these numbers being accounted for by Chinese moving abroad. Within the country, WeChat’s influence is unrivaled since the Chinese government has banned major competitors. Even if it were to open up the market now WeChat’s reach would almost be insurmountable. The government has also strongly supported the shift towards mobile payments and digital infrastructure. The following graph highlights how far ahead China is, in comparison to the US, in digitization.
However, WeChat was not a success outside of China. As a late entrant in international markets, it faced tough competition from existing apps that were not banned anywhere else. Despite sparing no expense on marketing by hiring top international celebrities like Lionel Messi as brand ambassadors, they could not convince people of their value to warrant a switch. WeChat was designed with China in mind and the difference in culture was not heavily considered before launching in new markets.
Yet WeChat’s biggest value proposition, as a super lifestyle app, is the staggering amount of data it captures which is particularly appealing to advertisers. Tencent (WeChat’s parent company) is now opening its services to U.S. advertisers and has announced a new ads platform to attract western brands. This could mark the reentry of WeChat in international markets! Now will they be successful, only time will tell.
WeChat has found success by integrating all aspects of users’ daily lives under one umbrella app and providing a vast array of services. Central to it all is the dependable, seamless payments system: WeChat Pay. This unique amalgamation of a product certainly blew my mind! Now that I’m back in the United States my use of the app has considerably reduced. However, I still use WeChat to stay in touch with all the wonderful people I met through my travels in China!