Assessing WeChat purely as an advertising medium misses the point

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JWT - Riku Vassinen - Photo

WeChat is big, scary, and poses a real danger of swallowing up a good portion of China’s digital landscape. But outside China, WeChat’s dominence is nowhere near a foregone conclusion. We spoke to Riku Vassinen, JWT‘s Digital Director, to find out more.

When viewed purely as an advertising medium, what’s more sophisticated – Facebook or WeChat?

Purely as an advertising medium, Facebook is more advanced – the targeting opportunities especially are better at the moment. On the other other hand, Facebook’s business model is purely built on advertising at the moment – 98% of its Q1 revenue came from advertising. However if you are assessing WeChat only as an advertising medium you are missing the whole point: WeChat has a more diversified business model compared to Facebook and is really the mobile enabler of the Chinese consumer to live their life.

When viewed as a social media channel, what role does WeChat perform? What is the closest Western analog to WeChat?

I would not even view it as a purely social media channel, I would see it as a way of  life. When I was visiting the last time in China, I was the anomaly, as I was still paying with cash or card – everyone else was using WeChat Pay. You would not want to label it only as a payment platform, as you can book doctor appointments, pay electricity fees or traffic fines, book transportation or even track your steps. WeChat is the digital starting point for almost anything in China.

The closest western analog for WeChat is probably Facebook Messenger, but in many ways they are behind WeChat. Facebook introduced Chatbots later than WeChat and eCommerce integration is not as advanced as with WeChat. However, the recent introduction of AI assistant is an example that Facebook is making a push to make Facebook Messenger ‘WeChat Outside China’.

Whatever happened to Kik? WeChat pumped $50million into them 2 years ago and now it seems nobody talks about them. Are they still relevant?

Kik has reached 300 million and as of last year 40% of teens in the US were using it, so for this particular segment it is far from dead. Its promise of anonymity is appealing to a teenage audience but Kik has not necessarily been able to become popular in other segments or markets. Teen audiences are traditionally fickle and move to new platforms when existing ones are perceived as too mainstream.

Anonymity has its flipside and lately Kik has been getting lots of negative publicity as the go-to platform for child predators and that is surely not helping its growth.

Do you think Weibo is being sidelined by WeChat?

WeChat is way more important than Weibo just based on user numbers and the time spent on platform. You can live without Weibo in China, but it is more difficult to live without WeChat. That does not mean that Weibo is trivial as it is still gathering hundreds of millions of users a month. Also their proposition is different: WeChat is a more closed, friends-based platform whereas Weibo is about open distribution. Weibo still has a role in your digital strategy especially as a reach driver, but it is not necessarily the centrepoint of it.

Why do you think WeChat hasn’t really taken off in other countries?

The whole messenger landscape is much more fragmented than the social media landscape. Different countries have different favorite apps and there is no clear leader. In our region there is a different number one almost in every single market: Kakaotalk in Korea, Line in Thailand, WhatsApp in Singapore, BBM in Indonesia, WeChat in China just to name a few. For messaging you tend to gravitate where your friends are; you don’t message just by yourselves so the early mover advantage is strong.

What makes WeChat unique is how it is used in China and what it enables there. When exported to other countries, it is just another messaging app because it is not so ingrained to the culture and society. The current unique features of WeChat in China were built upon a massive messaging user base. If you don’t have that critical mass of messaging users it is harder to create a compelling offering and differentiate from other messenger apps. Western smartphone users have also historically shunned away from ‘swiss army knife’ apps that do it all and have favored apps that do just one thing really well.

Vassinen will be speaking at the LEAD 2017 conferenceAsia’s premium event for the modern marketer, happening in Singapore from October 31 – November 1. 

For speaking opportunities, please write to me at ambrish.bandalkul@terrapinn.com or call [65] 6322 2735.

To discuss sponsorship or exhibition opportunities, please contact stephanie.tan@terrapinn.com or call [65] 6322 2725.

If you’d like to register to attend, click here to book now. Alternately, please contact sunny.wilson@terrapinn.com or call [65] 6322 2340.

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