WeChat: Loved by the East, Unknown by the West

By Catherine Wei

Instant messaging, digital stickers, payments, services, and more! What doesn’t this app have to offer? WeChat, developed in 2011, has become a revolutionary app for all. It was developed by Tencent, a Chinese gaming and social media firm, and originated in China, where it was introduced as “Weixin.” Later, to accommodate its diverse user base, the company rebranded as “WeChat.” In March 2016, WeChat surpassed 700 million monthly active users, a symbol of its unprecedented growth beyond Asia.

WeChat capitalizes on convenience. Once users log in, they can accomplish a variety of tasks. WeChat connects work and personal friends incredibly easily. In addition to the traditional method of syncing to phone contacts, users can take a picture of personalized WeChat QR codes rather than handling multiple business cards. Individuals can also shake their phone while using WeChat to connect with randomly individuals across the world who are shaking their phones at the same time. WeChat’s Friend Radar, if enabled, displays other WeChat users in the vicinity that you can connect with. The endless amount of ways to connect with others gives WeChat a worldwide expansive reach.

For financing, WeChat leverages its e-commerce capabilities. WeChat functions as a wallet, with options to increase and decrease cash flow. Homeowners can link their bank account and pay bills. They can also hail a taxi and order food delivery and complete those orders on WeChat. Users can pay each other and make purchases through the 10 million merchants who have registered WeChat e-commerce shops. This is a notable advantage since many social networking apps have not been able to increase e-commerce profit due to user reluctance and fear of cybercrime. With increased identity and password authentication and fraud protection, WeChat has gained financial trust.

No matter what you need to do, WeChat is there to assist in any way. The incredible convenience the app offers makes it a leader for all digital media and internet activity. The app has seamlessly integrated itself into everyday tasks, making it a household commodity in Asia.

Yet, that presents a problem in itself: why hasn’t WeChat successfully prevailed in West? WeChat isn’t a common app in the United States; if asked about the app, many have never heard of it. Plus, American citizens who do have WeChat only use it scarcely to communicate with family living abroad in Asia. WeChat hasn’t built a loyal consumer base in America.

There are many reasons that explain this discrepancy between WeChat’s domination in China. First, WeChat arrived late to the social media frenzy. Although China was struggling to find a core social media app to replace their PC-based network, QQ, other developed countries already had their go-to app. In Indonesia, it was Blackberry Messenger. In the United States, it was WhatsApp and GroupMe. Therefore, many Western cultures didn’t feel the need to adopt another social media app. Moreover, if your friends don’t use WeChat, you are less inclined to download the app for yourself.

Second, WeChat focused heavily on consumer analytics solely in China. With a decade of information of the failed QQ social media app, Tencent was able to create an all-in-one WeChat app. Suddenly, it became the app that China was waiting for to fulfill all their needs. Conversely, Tencent doesn’t have the same access and insight to consumer analytics outside of China. As a result, the WeChat app doesn’t tailor to international demographics. One example is stickers. WeChat’s digital emojis do not cater to different cultures. If you search for Western-culture stickers like football or July 4th, no results appear. On the other hand, if you search for mooncakes, multiple stickers appear. Furthermore, in China, WeChat can be used to pay bills, hail a taxi, and make appointments. This is easily done due to Tencent’s connections with Chinese internet services that are limited outside of China due to government surveillance. Poor localization outside of China has led to WeChat’s disappearance in Western audiences.

However, this isn’t a one-way street—many American companies have struggled to enter Asian markets. In particular, China has one of the largest economies and populations, yet it has strict rules for international firms to enter. Due to heavy government supervision and control, many American companies are forbidden to launch their product in China and have to offer a Chinese-specific version instead.

The reason why the Chinese government is restrictive to Western companies is because the government wants its own domestic firms to thrive. Local conglomerates are favored more than foreign rivals. Facebook and Twitter have been shut out of China, but Chinese Internet companies like Tencent have been welcomed. Many American students who study abroad in China are forced to download WeChat due to Facebook being restricted, yet their loyalty to WeChat isn’t consistent because once they return back to the States, they revert to their traditional apps.

As a result, competition in China creates an unhealthy economic climate. Of the 496 Western companies that responded to a survey published by the American Chamber of Commerce in China, 57% say the biggest challenges in China are inconsistent regulatory practices and murky laws that favor locals. Many believe that anti-foreign stigma is increasing from the government, and 83% of technology companies say they feel less welcome in the country.

For the Chinese community, WeChat has enhanced the way people interact and carry out their everyday needs and tasks. The app capitalizes on convenience and is known as a jack-of-all-trades. However, WeChat’s success story exemplifies the disparity between how Western apps can enter Asian markets and vice versa. WeChat hasn’t prioritized international demographics to grow outside of China, and Western technology companies struggle to enter China due to governmental control. The bottom line is that WeChat works for China, but for China only.