Messaging App, Social Consultant, Dating Platform

– China Succumbs to WeChat Fever

By staff reporter VERENA MENZEL

WHO dares these days to squeeze into the crowd of commuters during rush hour in China’s big cities will certainly come across a new type of mobile phone user. We had already become used to seeing headset-ed and hands-free or Bluetooth-ed folk seemingly soliloquizing in the streets. But recently, more and more people in China are seen holding their smartphones not to their ears, but in a tilted position right in front of them, talking into the small microphone at the bottom of their mobile. This pose has been sculpted by the Chinese messaging app “WeChat” (“Weixin” in Chinese), a mobile text and voice messaging communication service developed by China’s biggest Internet company Tencent Holdings Limited, and launched in January 2011.

 Within only three years WeChat has not only become the most popular Asian messaging app, it has created a new lifestyle. And Tencent’s marketing strategists cleverly promote the typical WeChat pose as a brand label, in the same way that Apple once discovered the marketing potential of the white earphones of its first generation iPod.

 The crowd of WeChat fans is becoming bigger and bigger, not just within the People’s Republic. According to Tencent the number of registered accounts jumped from 300 million in January 2013 to more than 400 million in August of the same year; 236 million of these accounts belong to active users who use WeChat at least once a month.

 The English-language version of the mobile app, launched in April 2012, has more than 100 million registered users to date. Not least thanks to a major advertising campaign in July 2013, for which Tencent signed up Argentinean football legend Lionel Messi as its global ambassador, the number of registered accounts outside China grew by 30 million in only four weeks.

 WeChat is available for Android, iPhone, BlackBerry and Windows Phones as well as Symbian platforms and unites the functions of different popular Western apps in one single application. It enables free multimedia communication on mobile devices like the West’s “WhatsApp” (which announced 300 million active users in August 2013) including text messaging, hold-to-talk voice messaging, broadcast (one-to-many) messaging as well as photo and video sharing, and combines these features with the advantages of social media networks like shared streaming content feeds as on Facebook or Twitter, chat functions as with Skype or MSN and picture-editing functions as offered by Instagram.

 In particular, the inclusion of functions that enable users to share contact information as well as their location via GPS and “make friends” with as yet unknown chatters (similar to “Bump” and the mobile social network “Foursquare”) achieved cult status among Chinese WeChatters. With the help of “Shake,” for example, chatters can, via a random modus, exchange contact information with other users worldwide who are shaking their smartphone at exactly the same time. “Look Around” reveals which other users within a radius of 200 meters are “looking for contact.” An innovative clue forms the function of “Drift Bottle.” It is the modern equivalent of the good old message-in-a-bottle post. Users throw out a message into the vast digital ocean of chat-waves, which can be randomly picked up and read by another user. 

Inventions like “Drift Bottle” have created completely new channels for making friends, fostering new trends of getting in touch especially among younger generations of Chinese users.

 What’s special about WeChat is that its creators have not limited themselves to copying existing international trends and developments in the worldwide communication, software and Internet industry. Instead of only developing adapted versions of foreign IT products and services for the Chinese market as in the case of (as counterpart to Facebook), QQ (Skype), Taobao (eBay) or Sina Weibo (Twitter), Tencent integrated the best features of existing mobile apps and networks into one single application and added new, appealing functions. In this way, they created a completely new IT product, which not only strikes a chord with Chinese users, but also attracts more and more people outside China.

 The fact that the use of WeChat is completely free is a striking argument. While “WhatsApp” sticks to traditional business models that in the long run count on (comparatively cheap) user fees as a source of income, Tencent announced no plans to dip into users’ pockets.

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