What’s WeChat?

You may have heard of it, “It’s like the Chinese WhatsApp, isn’t it?”. That’s maybe the best description for people who don’t live in China, but here WeChat is more than just a messaging app. It’s well known that there are some differences between Chinese tech culture and the Western one and WeChat is the best practical example for that.

It all started in 2011 when Tencent decided to create a mobile app for messaging. At that moment the company was focused on their ICQ competitor QQ which was at that moment the biggest messaging app in China. In 2011 Tencent released WeChat and in just one year it reached its first 100 million users. The support of the Chinese government and the multiple services it offers right now has made it the second biggest standalone messaging app in the world, with almost 940 million monthly users.

But WeChat is more than just a messaging app. Right now WeChat is THE app you need to have if you want to exist in China. From calling a friend to transferring money, booking plane tickets, ordering a pizza, rent a bike, buy used stuff, post pictures and share them with friends, pay your services, ask for a loan, order a Didi Taxi (Uber competitor), and many many more things. WeChat is the app that you never knew you need it.

At the beginning, it can be a little bit overwhelming for foreigners, if you don’t take the language in the count. We are used to having one app that does one thing and that’s all. WeChat multiple buttons, sections and options can confuse people, but once you start learning how to use it, then things start to change and you wonder why we are not used to this kind of apps.

Messaging is the main reason why WeChat exists and its core function. Either you are messaging friends, talking in a group, asking for help to the official WeChat account of some company or service; messaging is why WeChat exists. The message service isn’t that different from others. You can send text and audio messages, pictures, videos, you can send some reaction gifs called ‘stickers’ (WhatsApp users are just getting used to this, but it’s pretty common in Asian markets). It’s the best way to communicate with your friends and family. Adding someone is as easy as scanning a QR code (yeah, those exist and are used here in China) and you are ready to go.

Another great function of WeChat is the Wallet. As described in China Already Went Cashless, WeChat Wallet is the best way to use your money in China. Along with Alipay, these two apps offer you all the services a banking app can offer to you. Direct and easy transfers to your contacts, online payments to stores and restaurants, bill sharing, pay services, using your money with WeChat is the easiest way to do it here in China.

Then you start getting another kind of services. WeChat wallet is connected with thousands of third party services which let you use your money to book flight and rail tickets, book a hotel, rent a car or bike, order a taxi, buy movie tickets and a lot of other things.

WeChat is also re defining the Chinese app market. Native apps are less and less popular in China because WeChat has created their own development environment. Chinese companies can now offer mini apps inside WeChat, where the user can access to multiple functions without needing to create an account (usually it uses your WeChat info) or download an app (which is considered as a pro in China). This is changing the way of doing business here, companies are not looking for native developers anymore, they are looking for WeChat developers, who can create simple or complex mini apps to offer their services or give information to users without leaving WeChat.

Not only that, big companies in China have official accounts, which can be very simple or use AI to have their own integrated chatbot in order to offer a more customized experience to their clients. This kind of accounts can use integrated buttons to give basic information to the user, and maybe share some news or articles with them. But they can also create their own chatbots to give a better experience to the user, and they can give links to embedded websites or mini apps in order to continue with the already started process from their official account.

But even with all these functions, WeChat has found a lot of troubles to get outside of the country. At this moment only 8% of WeChat users aren’t based in China. And most of them are located in countries around China. While Tencent can live very well only in the Chinese market, they have shown interest in growing outside of the country, and they even offer the wallet option to other countries like South Africa. But still, the app hasn’t being used as expected.

WeChat offers a “simpler” version of the app to the users who aren’t located in Asia Pacific. Most of the users in The Americas and Europe would see a simple messaging app with new sections that they don’t really know how to use, at the end very similar to WhatsApp, Line, and Telegram. Maybe that is the main reason why it is not as important for them as it is for Chinese people, it’s just another messaging app, but once you live in China you can’t imagine your life without it.

Originally posted on Shanghai Living.

Luis Fernando Mata

Luis Fernando Mata is a mobile developer at ReignDesign. Fernando is from Mexico and is currently based in Shanghai, China.

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