One Billion Users

The Old Switcheroo

Hardly anyone in the Western world is familiar with the WeChat app. However, this Chinese text messaging service ranks as the world’s third-largest social network (after Facebook and WhatsApp), with 1 billion users. Social media expert Yinyuan Liu explains how Chinese companies use WeChat’s network and reach for marketing purposes.

Mr. Liu, WeChat is an app that brings many Chinese people together. What’s special about it?

WeChat is an ‘all-in-one’ chat app developed by the Chinese conglomerate Tencent, which specializes in Internet-related products and services. Text, audio, and video chat functions comprise the core of the app. WeChat also features a ‘Moments’ timeline analogous to the Facebook homepage where posts, articles, pictures, videos, and news are displayed. It also features the ‘WeChat Pay’ function. This allows users to pay their power, water, gas, Internet, and phone bills online. Plane, train, movie, and other tickets are sold cash-free via WeChat Pay, which can also be used to make bank transfers. On mainland China, WeChat IDs are now also used for personal identification. WeChat is an important means of connection for many Chinese individuals – after all, Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp are blocked in China. That’s why having a presence on this platform is particularly important to Chinese companies.

How do companies use the app?

WeChat is of interest to companies on the Chinese market because they also see it as an online platform, not just an app. They can create posts to introduce themselves to customers, sell products and services, and establish and maintain contact with users. Content or influencer marketing strategies involving WeChat are also common.

Influencer marketing on Instagram and YouTube is playing an increasingly impor­tant role in the West. What does this type of marketing entail?

Influencer marketing involves companies making targeted use of trendsetters (‘influencers’) with a far-reaching community for marketing and communication purposes. Influencers enjoy the trust of and authority over their followers when it comes to certain topics. These communities accept the value and credibility of a brand’s message when it comes from an influencer. Influencers don’t necessarily need to be celebrities such as movie stars, either. Anyone can influence the purchasing behavior of another person by sharing their opinion.

What is the appeal of influencers?

Ideally, influencers are experts in their particular topic, and want to pass on this expertise to their followers. In doing so, they’re usually driven by the desires to accumulate the largest possible number of followers, attention, and fame. The more followers and influence an influencer has, the more lucrative the financial contributions or material gifts made by the companies who would like said influencer to advertise their products. Companies and influencers enjoy a symbiotic relationship, and aim to portray one another in a positive light in the public realm.

So influencers act as effective multipliers. The more followers they have, the more attention drawn to the products they promote, right?

That’s the idea. Stars with millions of followers might not be the most effective influencers at all, since their audience is far too diverse. Ideally, influencer marketing involves experts on a given topic with a homogenous target group. But then it also depends, of course, on what the goal of the campaign is.

What constitutes an ideal social media marketing campaign?

The ideal marketing campaign – whether it involves advertising, discount deals, or influencers – is one that reaches the greatest possible number of users. It should be as easy as possible for users to take part in or view the campaign. Last but not least, the campaign costs need to remain within budget, and the campaign’s impact must be measurable. Of course, all of that also applies for conventional marketing strategies. However, social networks such as WeChat enable the companies involved to enjoy maximum transparency and the widest range of analysis options. They can identify, analyze, and evaluate points of sale, which is rather difficult for traditional marketing campaigns.

To what extent have social media such as WeChat, Facebook, and Instagram shaped our understanding of marketing?

With smartphone apps, users are essentially online 24/7 these days. WeChat represents an extreme example as far as this is concerned. It’s a crucial element in the lives of a billion users, who use it to make phone calls, write to others, go shopping, or make payments – they use it constantly. Social media represent an additional marketing channel that has risen to unbelievable prominence over the last ten years. Brands and companies have recognized that development: Chinese companies have presences on WeChat, where they operate online shops and come into contact with customers. Chatting with customers means winning and keeping customers. Social networks facilitate an unbelievable proximity to users. The channel isn’t the only new thing, though; the target group is, too. We’re focusing on the younger generation, which doesn’t really interact much with traditional media such as TV or radio. Digital natives feel at home in social media, and contemporary marketing strategies take that into account to reach this demographic.

Is WeChat also worthwhile for companies and brands outside of China who want to crack the Chinese market?

Absolutely. To do so, companies outside of China need to set up public WeChat accounts. Unfortunately, that’s currently only possible for companies with at least one subsidiary in China. If they don’t have one, they would need to collaborate with a local partner that sets up public WeChat accounts for non-Chinese countries and offers related services such as setup and management. Either way, companies who want to promote their business in China and introduce themselves to customers there should take advantage of the marketing possibilities that WeChat has to offer.

Picture credits: TÜV Rheinland/Michael Haggenmüller