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Tencent Holdings didn’t intend to build the largest social network in China when it launched WeChat in 2011—it already owned the country’s leading messaging service, QQ. But QQ was a PC-based app in a country that was experiencing explosive growth in mobile usage and infrastructure, so Tencent tapped an outside team to build WeChat, known in Chinese as Weixin, or “micro letter,” from a mobile-centric perspective, as explored in a new eMarketer report, “WeChat for Marketers: Branding and Ecommerce Strategies” (eMarketer PRO customers only).
Just five years later, WeChat has an enormous, committed audience. In March 2016, Tencent reported that WeChat had surpassed 760 million monthly active users (MAUs) worldwide, an increase of 39% year over year. More than 90% of those users are in China, according to third-party estimates. And those users access the app frequently: Over 60% open WeChat more than 10 times per day, according to Tencent Penguin Intelligence and China Academy of Information and Communications Technology (CAICT).
WeChat’s popularity in China reflects the breadth of its utility—it offers so many features that casual observers can be left wondering whether WeChat is a social platform, a mobile portal or an operating system. “It really depends on how you use it and what you intend to do with it,” said Alex Mecl, a strategic global advisor for WeChat. “It’s actually all of the above. I call it a life operating system. It’s more than a social platform—it’s a new lifestyle. It connects people with people, services, brands and things online and offline.”
This wide-ranging utility was achieved through WeChat’s app-within-an-app strategy. Unlike smartphone users in most of the world who typically have separate apps for social media, messaging, banking, travel, fitness, ride-sharing, etc., and log into each one independently, WeChat users in China typically use just one app for all of those functions. Through the WeChat app, they have access to over 12 million light apps or “official accounts” housed inside it—a figure likely to reach 16 million by the end of this year, according to Mecl.
Companies can set up different types of apps—known as subscription accounts, service accounts or enterprise accounts—to communicate with WeChat users, sell products, manage customer relationships, offer promotions and discounts and more. These company-owned apps offer access to nearly any product or service they want. Users, for example, can buy movie and airline tickets; reserve hotel rooms; pay restaurant bills and public utility invoices; order groceries, books and cosmetics; book taxis and doctor appointments; make peer-to-peer payments; play games and much more.
Indeed, WeChat is not merely a social network, but a mobile ecosystem with a heavy focus on ecommerce.
WeChat has a built-in mobile payment platform, WePay, that links a user’s bank or credit card to all 12 million apps in WeChat’s ecosystem, so users can seamlessly purchase services and products through the app with one click. For peace of mind, these apps are screened, and users trust Tencent’s platform and appreciate the ease and convenience it offers.
More than 200 million people were using WeChat for payments at the beginning of this year, according to Demystify Asia, and more than 300,000 offline stores accepted WeChat payments as of February 2016. Moreover, Demystify Asia estimated WeChat’s global average revenue per user (ARPU) at over $7, and that more than 8,000 brands are currently using the app.
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