How WeChat is creatively turning online users into online consumers

WeChat screenTencent’s announcement last month that its popular mobile social network, WeChat, has reached a milestone of 500 million monthly active users didn’t only grab people’s attention because of the four-year-old app’s impressive growth figures. Within both emerging and developed markets, WeChat has become a symbol of a mobile social network’s ability to monetise by providing a space where users and brands can connect. 

Tencent did not provide data on where WeChat’s users are located, but the vast majority are understood to be concentrated in mainland China, while the app’s comparatively small international user base comprises up to 100 million active users. And, while the pioneering approach that WeChat has taken to marketing is working at home, its impact internationally has been limited.

One of the biggest, yet often underestimated, explanations for its localised success is that China occupies a cultural and socio-political position unlike any other – one that can be difficult to categorise or apply rubrics to. The country’s market economy began developing 35 years ago, but it is still fairly new today. Marketing as a discipline is an even newer concept, and has only recently become integrated into Chinese workplaces, with Chinese characteristics of its own. Combine this with the phenomenal investment in internet infrastructure and wireless connectivity – with 500 million of 618 million internet users across the country accessing internet services via mobile devices – and you have a petri dish for completely new and innovative developments within the creative economy.

It is somewhat ironic that Tencent – a company that is leading trends in digital marketing –started off without a Chief Marketing Officer of its own. “This was because the whole organisation was set up with this customer-led approach from the start,” said SY Lau, senior executive Vice President at Tencent.

“Without us really knowing it, the customer-led philosophy of marketing was installed at the company through the use of key ideas like market segmentation, benchmarking of user experiences and putting a focus on customer needs across the business, rather than just within those teams that are customer-facing.”

Tencent has shown that being in tune with your customers can help brands to judge their potential to use social networks as a full sales conversion tool, or to adopt a softer approach that aims to raise brand awareness.

WeChat demonstrated how flexible it could be in delivering marketing solutions via a campaign conducted with Mercedes-Benz around their Smart car line, through which WeChat made a limited edition version of the vehicle exclusively available through their platform. In excess of 600,000 users followed the launch and 6,677 qualified sales leads were generated, but the real proof of the campaign’s success lay in the number of actual sales made. More than 1,751 people paid a deposit on a Smart car through WeChat, with 338 vehicles sold within three minutes of sales commencing.

Frantic purchasing of this kind is a trend in itself in mainland China, with plenty of high-demand, high-status products disappearing in record time during “flash sales”, or 秒杀 (miaosha), which literally translates as “killed in a second”.

One way to understand the psychology behind online consumer behaviour in China, and the incredible growth of mobile as a channel for e-commerce lies in the internet’s function as a “leveller which mitigates the uneven regional developments in this huge country,” as SY Lau puts it.

“Through the internet, people in all cities can buy the same products, enjoy the same discounts, get to know the latest fashion, and live the way that people in the first-tier cities do, given that there are only three first-tier cities in China: Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou.”

It’s the Chinese Dream, gone digital – and as income levels continue to rise along with internet usage, we can expect these two forces to transform digital consumer culture into something beyond recognition.

Featured image by Álvaro Ibáñez via Flickr

This post was originally published on The Future’s Muse.

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