Since the first announcement in September 2016, WeChat’s Mini Program has been through quite a bit of ups and downs. The hype before the release didn’t spark a high adoption rate at the beginning and it cast considerable doubt over the product’s viability. After a few iterations and updates, WeChat’s Mini Program is once again generating excitement (see graph below). My initial observation on the product’s applicability and future potential — that WeChat is creating a walled garden of convenient mini apps where users would grow more reliant on WeChat as a service and an OS more than just an app — would remain relevant, but it could use some updates. I prepared 4 case studies of mini program application and a list of product updates since my last article. Enjoy.
If you haven’t read about it already, Bike-sharing business has taken over China by storm. Colorful dock-less bikes now flood the streets of Chinese major cities and fast becoming an integral part of middle-class Chinese lifestyle. Mobike’s integration into WeChat’s Wallet interface is seen as a major step towards an eventual bike-sharing duopoly between Mobike and Ofo — now backed by the car-sharing company Didi.
But before all this, Mobike’s marriage with WeChat was through Mini Program — the bike sharing company was one of the first few early invitees by WeChat to test out the program, and for very good reasons. As I discussed before, Mini Program’s biggest application is in specific offline business contexts, either to enrich offline experiences with online services, or to drive online traffic through cheap offline campaigns. In Mobike’s case, it is to make bike sharing even easier and more sociable than through its own app.
In the app:
- open the app
- (register & verify identity, and put in a deposit for first-time users)
- scan the QR code on the bike
- wait for the bike to unlock
- off you go
- when you finish, the app deduct fees from your deposit
- open the app (which is almost always open for Chinese users)
- pull-up the QR scan function to scan the bike
- (register, verify, and put in a deposit for first time users, or for users switching from the app for the first time)
- Mobike mini program is automatically pulled up, and wait for the bike to unlock
- off you ride
- when you finish, the app deducts fees from your deposit
On paper, the difference between the App-mode and Mini-Program-mode is not significant; but in user experience, and from the point of view of the back-end, the difference cannot be discounted.
Analysis: Chinese users already have a habit of using WeChat to scan all sorts of QR codes in the physical world — for paying vendors, for entering raffles, for claiming deals. By putting your online services in Mini Programs, accessed via the WeChat QR scanner, you will gain the potential to leverage the over-900M MAUs of the app. For me personally, after I switch to Mobike mini program, I don’t ever have to touch the Mobike app again, everything from payment to deal sharing has become so easy within WeChat’s ecosystem.
Fast Food: McDonald’s
Besides an official public account (you can learn more about WeChat Official Accounts here.), which already has a slew of functions —news, deals, campaigns, McDonald’s nonetheless introduced a separate Mini Program — “i麦当劳”. Its primary functionality is cultivating loyalty through a points system. Each purchase — done by presenting the mini program screen to the cashier for scanning (and this vendor-scan-your-phone-style of payment is already prevalent in Chinese cities)— would translate into points in the mini program member card and various rewards can be redeemed in the same vendor-scan-your-phone-style.
Analysis: The entire process doesn’t involve cash or physical loyalty cards, which means the threshold for participation is extremely low. Globally speaking, mini programs have opened up one more major consumer touch-point, with very low barriers for participation; In McDonald’s case, it’s one more touch point that can lead to continued purchases and increased loyalty.
Banking: Agricultural Bank of China
Aside from its native app, Agricultural Bank of China (ABC) put some of the more frequently used services into the mini program, such as appointment booking, queuing, branch locator, and large sum cash orders. Customers can access these services by scanning the QR codes displayed at retail locations, and instantly use the services they would need in that particular business context. Now WeChat has introduced the “Mini Programs near you” feature, which means you can already start doing some of your banking tasks on the way to your bank.
Analysis: some may argue that online banking (native apps) is there to solve most of the retail banking problems that mini programs are seeking to address; hence mini programs are redundant. But do remember, mini programs’ ambition is never to fully replace native apps; it only seeks to fill the gap when online services fall short in specific offline scenarios. In the case of ABC, when customers have to visit a retail branch, certain functions in the mini program can increase service efficiency and therefore improve offline customer experience. It is however a relatively small value-add, so a very cheap and light tech product is required to make this trade-off viable. A mini program fits the bill.
French luxury brand Longchamp recently announced a strategic partnership with WeChat and released two mini programs in one go: Longchamp Paris Live & Longchamp Custom Shop, becoming the first luxury brand to release its own mini programs. To differentiate from the standard product models in offline stores, “Longchamp Custom Shop” mini program offers possibilities for customization and lowers the barrier of consumer participation in the often-aloof luxury space.
For example, the latest custom designs are only sold in one of the retail branches in Shanghai; all other branches only display the mini program QR codes, encouraging customers to shop and engage online. In the Longchamp Paris Live mini program, customers can check-in, follow an itinerary of “one day of French living” in Shanghai, and share their journeys.
Anslysis: in today’s China, where e-commerce supply chain is efficient and impressively low-cost, social selling becomes indispensable. In other words, when buying anything is just a click-away and requires less than a day to deliver, customers can switch to a new product every other week and their loyalty becomes increasingly difficult to capture. Therefore, the burden of marketing and sales fall heavily onto “social” and instant consumption. For retail brands, 1) buying online traffic on e-commerce platforms such as T-Mall and JD.com is getting more expensive, 2) WeChat official public accounts are facing ever more fierce competition from various other content creators. Wechat mini programs can now link to official public accounts, and support access through long-press QR code recognition, which further lowers the barrier for online traffic routing. Mini program becomes a cheap and connected tool for brands to attract and engage customers who already have enough interest to visit a physical store location.
New Feature Updates
As I alluded to in WeChat Mini Program Part I, WeChat mini program is going to grow despite the initial push-back from businesses and users alike because it is part of an important strategic move by Tencent. Since the product launch in January, the frequency of updates on mini program is staggering— more than any other products within the WeChat app. Below is a summary of the major updates since my last article on the topic.
Frankly, each of the below update merits an in-depth analysis. For the purpose of this article, I’m merely listing them without further discussion. But if you have insights or questions, please share them in the comments! I’ll attempt to respond in more detail.
- Individual developers — as opposed to developers with a Chinese business license — can create mini programs now. The process is similar to the Wechat Individual Subscription Accounts.
2. Mini Programs are well linked to Official Public Accounts — the primary consumer touch point for businesses, and can be accessed in a variety of ways:
- Public Accounts’ info pages
- Public Accounts’ menu buttons
- Template messages from Public Accounts
- Hyperlinked texts or images directly in Public Accounts’ primary content: the published posts.
- When a mini program is linked to a Public Account, the admin of the account can send an announcement directing subscribers to the mini program. (And per mini program’s unique feature, when you open it once, the mini program will always be visible in the mini programs tab in your WeChat.)
- Note: Each Public Account can connect up to 10 mini programs from the same business/individual entity, plus 3 mini programs from different business/individual entities; Each mini program can connect up to 3 different Public Accounts.
3. Native apps can be directly shared to WeChat conversations or groups and can be opened as Mini Programs (It is especially useful when you don’t already have the app installed on your phone). A mini program preview icon is larger than a normal link shared in a group chat, thus delivering a much smoother user experience.
4. Existing offline QR codes won’t be wasted on mini programs. After back-end tweaking, scanning existing offline QR codes can directly pull up the corresponding mini programs.
5. Third-party development and management of Mini Programs are now supported. Good news for marketing agencies. For a while, freelance mini program development will be the hottest gig on the market.
6. Long-press an digital image to extract QR code is finally allowed, opening up more possibilities for online sharing. (Previous versions were meant to encourage users to scan printed QR codes in the physical world, i.e. real business contexts)
7. Mini program QR codes are officially ROUND. No more ugly square QR codes that look like a robot’s barf.
8. WeChat also opened up new data APIs on users’ visit trend, geo-location, page stats, etc.
9. The retail store feature in a Public Account is now migrated to Mini Program. This migration does not require any coding/development and has the potential to be adopted by a large number of small retail businesses who can’t afford to develop stand-alone mini programs. It’s going to help push adoption rates to the roof! (And likely also help WeChat Pay grow)
10. Businesses can now display differentiated content according to different IDs or names of the groups where their mini programs are shared.
11. “Nearby Mini Programs” feature let users find relevant services near them. Imagine the potential for hyper localized ads.
12. Mini programs can access more user data now after only a one-click authorization.
13. The size of mini program is increased from 1MB to 2MB, while the average size of a iOS mobile app is 38MB.
Besides the core messaging (Chat) and social (Moments) functions, the WeChat walled-garden is blooming with a plethora of mini programs. Is WeChat truly becoming a super-app akin to an operating system, therefore posing credible threats to Android or iOS? This would be a discussion for another time.