Launched in 2011 by Tencent, WeChat has evolved from a social media app to an ecosystem, an indispensable part of most Chinese consumers’ daily life. WeChat hit 1 billion monthly active user in the first quarter of 2018. According to according to Kimberly Lee, Senior Marketing Manager at Tencent, who presented at the 2018 Asian Marketing Summit on June 6, 2018, in Los Angeles, WeChat has 93% penetration in China’s tier 1 cities and 69% penetration in tier 2 cities. People tend to associate WeChat with social media or think of it as the equivalent of Facebook or Twitter. But it’s Facebook + Twitter + LinkedIn + PayPal + Uber and so much more. You can manage your personal and business communication, personal finances, book hotels and flights, food deliveries, virtually all aspects of your life without ever leaving the app. That’s why it’s so addictive. Accordingly to Kimberly Lee, 50% of WeChat users use the app for more than 90 minutes a day.
WeChat’s relevance to U.S. based companies have increased significantly given that Chinese outbound tourists are the world’s top spender and their spending in 2016 ($261 billion) represents 21% of total receipts in destinations worldwide, according to World Tourism Organization . 2.97M Chinese tourists visited the U.S. in 2016 and spent $33B. U.S. companies are waking up to WeChat’s tremendous power in reaching Chinese consumers in China and abroad, albeit slowly, and Tencent has made it increasingly easier for U.S. companies to target Chinese tourists who visit the U.S. and also Asian Americans of Chinese descent. Tencent set up an ad team inside its Palo Alto office in September 2017 and offers advertising products that help U.S. based clients targeting Chinese outbound tourists when they are in China and also when they reach the U.S. Additionally, according to Kimberly Lee, Tencent also offers ad services targeting Asian Americans via its powerful WeChat platform. The services targeting Asian Americans are currently in beta mode. But Tencent has successfully completed advertising campaigns for Coach, Lexus and Michael Kor targeting Asian Americans, according to Kimberly.
WeChat is no doubt a powerful lifestyle app that represents tremendous advertising potential for companies trying to reach Chinese outbound tourists as well as Asian Americans in the U.S. However, a little discussed aspect of WeChat is how the app has been used in activism among Chinese residents in the U.S. and its far reaching effects. This is the focus of another presentation on WeChat at the 2018 Asian Marketing Summit by Karthick Ramakrishnan, Professor of Political Science and Associate Dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of California, Riverside. Prof. Ramakrishnan argues that given the amount of activism and extreme political views on WeChat, it’s important to monitor activities on WeChat and diversify political views on the platform with mainstream participation so that WeChat doesn’t become a virtual Chinatown. WeChat’s influence in the previous presidential election was well documented in an article on Wire.com, How WeChat Spreads Rumors, Reaffirms Bias and Helped Elect Trump. A WeChat page named The Voice of Chinese America started by Chinese American Xie Bin and several others 6 months before the presidential election with content pulled from right leaning English websites and news sources gained more than 32,000 followers within months after launch. It published articles with headlines such as “Why I Will Vote for Trump: The Issue of Illegal Immigrants Must Be Resolved!” and “Obama publicly encourages illegal immigrants to vote in the election; Virginia paroled 60,000 critics to participate in the election!” What started as an experiment by Xie Bin has proved to be a powerful political campaign tool for vocal Chinese Americans influencing political views and voting behaviors. Prof. Ramakrishnan noted that there is no right or wrong about these political views but there needs to be more participation of parties of different political views so that extreme views don’t fester in this exclusive virtual enclosure and lead to unintended results. Frustrated by the indifference and non-participation by non-Chinese organizations, Prof. Ramakrishnan started a WeChat monitoring service called CRW Strategy with two other partners to provide ethnic social media intelligence and strategies.
Be it for marketing or civic participation, one thing is clear, WeChat’s tremendous power in engaging and influencing Chinese consumers in China or the U.S. can’t be ignored. Marketers are taking notice. There are a host of agencies that specialize in WeChat marketing that have sprung up over the past few years.