SERIES: Chinese social media 101

You’ve taken our Chinese social media quiz and you know where you stand. Maybe you’re an expert or perhaps you’re still a complete newbie. Either way, you'll learn something new with this week’s post - a brief introduction to one of China’s most popular social apps, WeChat.

You may have read plenty of recent news regarding Alibaba, which earlier this month launched its Australia / New Zealand office. However if Alibaba is the only Chinese tech giant you’ve heard of, you’re missing out on a few crucial pieces of the Chinese technology ecosystem. In August last year, Tencent, one of the 3 biggest Chinese technology companies (the so called ‘BAT' (Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent)) became the most valuable tech company in China. Tencent's success is largely due to WeChat. Launched in January 2011 as a standalone messaging app, WeChat grew exponentially and now has more than 800 million monthly active users.

WeChat's amazing success can be attributed to the app's streamlined design and Tencent's strategy of creating not just a social tool but a fully integrated ecosystem. The classic, paired down interface is easy to use and understand, making it suitable for all age groups. It also comes with a desktop app, which although limited compared to the mobile version, gives users more flexibility.

Like most social platforms, WeChat supports chat messages, audio and video calls, and even short voice messages. However it also has uniquely Chinese features, like red envelopes (giving e-money as a sign of good luck). You can share photos, files, locations and contacts (called name cards) and each user has a 'wall' which allows them to broadcast a status to their friends and followers who can then comment. There are a variety of account types, including Official Accounts, which other users can subscribe to for notifications whenever the owner posts an update. As a result, Official Accounts are used by a number of businesses and celebrities as a second website and blog.

The app is also home to a complex network of connected features. These are a combination of Tencent acquisitions and partnerships, as well as tailored solutions developed in-house. You can use it to shop online, pay your bills, buy your Startbucks drink, order and pay for taxis, send money to friends and family and donate money to charity. Beyond these functionalities, WeChat allows for some of its features to be spun out and integrated by other services (for example, an e-commerce site wanting to accept WeChat as a payment method). Most recently, Tencent announced “mini programs” which will allow companies to develop native features for WeChat such as photo filters and language tools. Users don't need to leave the WeChat app to use these features, which threatens to seriously disrupt the app store model.

But perhaps the most widespread and integrated part of this ecosystem is WeChat Pay, a digital wallet built into the app which allows users to use QR codes to buy goods online and in-store. Having achieved this level of flexible integration, WeChat has unsurprisingly become part and parcel of users’ every day life.

The business community was quick to adopt the app. Today, business negotiations are regularly conducted via WeChat and you're as likely to be asked for a business card as you are to be added on the app.

If this post hasn't made it obvious yet, know that should you be looking to do business with China, your first step should be to download WeChat. “Guanxi” (relationship building) is a crucial aspect of business in China and WeChat is likely to be the best way to connect with your Chinese business partners. As with Facebook and Twitter, creating an account is completely free and there is an English version of the app for both Android and iOS which you can download off Google Play and the App Store.

Throughout the course of our Chinese Social Media for Dummies series, we'll go over the WeChat features you need to know to really make the most of your business' expansion to China, so if you haven't already, subscribe to the blog now for your weekly updates! Next up in the series, account types and how to best promote your brand and products on WeChat.

Credit for the header image: Álvaro Ibáñez, Flickr