The WeChat experience: first-hand insight for Western marketers and a tour of the Gucci 520 Mini-Program
When I took my first trip to China, back in 2011, I didn’t even own a smartphone. I still used my Chinese paper dictionary to look up for unknown words, and I was totally unaware of the existence of an app called WeChat - in Chinese, Weixin (微信). Little did I know that WeChat was set to become a super-app that now Western tech-companies are struggling to recreate, and Tencent one of the world’s most financially valuable companies.
Note: the wide array of WeChat services described in this article are only accessible through the Chinese version of the app - downloadable by using a Chinese phone number only. When downloading the international version of the app through an overseas phone number, most of these services become unavailable.
WeChat started off as a simple messaging app, just a year after WhatsApp was released in the West. However, its success in China was so explosive that it quickly expanded into a multi-purpose app integrating messaging, social media and mobile payment functions, literally turning into an integrated part of life in China. I witnessed this epochal change myself when I returned to China a few years later - this time with a smartphone. It didn’t take that long to realize that it was basically impossible to do anything without accessing WeChat.
The little green app became my loyal companion throughout my life in China. Not only would I use it to message my friends and teachers, but also to buy groceries at convenience stores in and outside the university campus, to hail a ride with Didi Chuxing (滴滴出行) - a Chinese hailing app, like the Western Uber - to book plane and train tickets, and so on. All I needed was a Chinese bank account linked to my WeChat wallet which would allow me to make payments directly though WeChat Pay (微信支付).
In a nutshell, WeChat incorporates a whole bunch of features that perform the same functions as WhatsApp, Facebook, Skype, Uber, Amazon, Instagram, Venmo, and Tinder. The major difference is that these functions can all be performed within one single app. Tencent has created such a well-developed digital ecosystem of services that it almost makes it impossible for you to leave the app.
An unmissable opportunity for business
2013 marked a turning point for WeChat success: Tencent decided to open up WeChat to brand accounts, prompting both Chinese and foreign brands doing business in China to get on board, willing to interact with Chinese consumers in a more direct and intimate way.
Brands operating across different industries rushed to get their own Official Account, enabling them to build brand awareness and attract potential customers through engaging editorial contents posted in the followers’ Moments section (朋友圈) - very similar to the Facebook’s newsfeed.
By letting brands tap into the users’ Moments, WeChat leverages social traffic and word-of-mouth. Beautiful, engaging content produced by brands is king: users will share it with their friends, colleagues, and relatives, generating more traffic that will eventually lead to the brands’ and e-commerce channels - and, with the proper social commerce strategy, turn into sales.
Converting traffic into sales through Mini-Programs
In this sense, early in 2017, Tencent released a new WeChat feature, the so-called Mini-Programs (小程序). They are light apps embedded in the WeChat ecosystem. The Mini-Programs basically save you from the hassle of downloading several apps onto your phone as they offer access to a plethora of services - all serving different purposes - without the need to leave WeChat. E-commerce through Mini-stores is one of these services. As of December 2020, Mini-Programs reached approximately 863 million MAUs, and the estimate is set to grow.
One of the key factors that contributed to the viralness and success of Mini-Programs is the fact that they’re easily shareable within WeChat. According to recent statistics, 34% of Mini-Programs are accessed when shared via WeChat friends: this proves that everything on the app has a social connotation, even the notion of e-commerce itself, which, thanks to WeChat, evolved into social-commerce.
As a matter of fact, they easily enable the personalization of products - a service that is highly sought by the sophisticated Chinese customers. They can help enhance the relationship between brands and customers and increase customer loyalty, for instance by providing access to reserved programs and subscription models that will likely encourage repeat purchases. They drive social selling through group buying and affiliate sales models. Last but not least, they encourage impulse buying through limited edition offers and KOLs collaborations.
Mini-Programs also help brands add a personal touch to their communication with their users, and enable them to keep control over product assortments, campaigns, visuals, contents and brand identity - something that inevitably tends to get weaker when selling on third-party marketplaces, such as Tmall and JD.
An optimized and seamless customer journey
As a matter of fact, Mini-Programs are currently a key touchpoint for all brands, including luxury brands, to interact with Chinese consumers. By creating a closed shopping ecosystem, they contribute to optimizing the buying cycle and seamlessly engaging with customers in highly-targeted ways.
Some of the luxury brands who have successfully leveraged the power of the super-app WeChat through Mini-Programs are Gucci and Moncler - the first, under the guidance of its visionary Creative Director Alessandro Michele, and the second, thanks to the leadership and creativity of its CEO Remo Ruffini. Both achieved remarkable business results in China in 2020, despite the severe global crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Credits: Gucci WeChat Official Account
Let’s take a tour of one of my favorite WeChat Official Accounts: Gucci’s.
Once you access the account, a welcome note for users appears, followed by the typical list of articles recently published by the brand.
520*, a love-themed holiday that takes place on May 20, was approaching, so I decided to read the latest publication, titled “Guess where their 520 is hiding”.
In its series of videos featuring well-known celebrities, Gucci shows that 520 can be celebrated in a variety of ways, regardless of your relationship status. The inclusion of its celebrity ambassadors and hidden details helped to drive traffic to the campaign.
A CTA to Gucci’s 520 limited-edition Mini-Program is embedded in the article, thus enabling readers to be redirected to the store to purchase this special collection.
Once the Mini-Program is accessed, users can see the limited-edition products, dominated by red to represent love. Then they can click on the items they like the most and have a closer look at the products’ details: pictures, price, description and shipping information.
The shopping journey is quite straightforward. Consumers can simply add the desired item to their cart, confirm their shipping address, apply coupons and proceed to payment via WeChat Pay.
The consumers’ journey, started as a reading activity of the brand’s contents, ended with a fast, convenient, and direct purchase of the brand’s products, all within WeChat.
*Fun fact: in Chinese the number sequence “520” (wǔ èr líng) has a similar pronunciation to “I love you” (wǒ ài nǐ), hence, the connection of this holiday with love.
Thriving amid stiff competition
In 10 years WeChat has rapidly evolved from a simple chatting app into a powerful platform that does a lot of different things. For brands that are willing to or are already doing business in China, the app is currently the place to be if you want to tap into the complex yet fascinating Chinese digital world and build a successful digital strategy.
But, if there’s one thing that China has taught us is that it’s a fast-changing world where innovation, especially in technology, reigns: is there any contender out there capable of taking over the throne from WeChat? I guess only time will tell.