Social Media in China: Explaining WeChat

In the West, when you think about social media, you think of the global giants: Facebook,Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest, etc.  But, with the exception of the latter, all of those services are currently blocked in mainland China.

The Great Firewall, which effectively blocks most western social media, keeps them from becoming truly global, separating them from around 620 Million internet users in China.  Nonetheless, Social Media are extremely popular in China — in their own, homegrown varieties. Competition to win and keep users between these local platforms is fierce which leads to continuous innovation and product improvements. Many experts say that and this is why social networks like Sina Weibo and WeChat have become superior to the Western platforms they were originally inspired by.

When Western companies expand to China, they sometimes underestimate the importance of Social Media and overlook the local peculiarities. mediaman has had a presence in Shanghai since 2006, supporting international brands on their digital move into the Chinese market and in this post I want to share our insights and experiences with one of China’s Social Media giants: WeChat.


People in the West may think of WeChat as a Messenger App, which it originally was when Tencent, one of the three large Internet conglomerates in China, launched it in in 2011, as the “Tencent Messenger”. Today, WeChat has close to 500 million users.

WeChat got popular very quickly, here is why:

  • Tencent already owned the largest social network, QQ, with more than 800 Million accounts (this doesn’t mean that everybody who is online is on QQ, most Chinese have two accounts: a private and a business one).
  • WeChat provides for a more private, direct experience – compared to the more open Twitter equivalent Sina Weibo. Weibo had lost a bit of momentum, and people were looking for something new, and less public.
  • WeChat went mobile first and, for the longest time, existed only as a smartphone app. Just recently, they released a desktop version, which really only replicates the app.

Why I like using WeChat

Voice Messaging: Instead of typing, I can send voice messages, which is super important in China. Typing in Chinese is a real hassle.

Moments: This part of WeChat is very similar to a Facebook wall. Users can share photos, links, stories, and respond to their friends’ Moments by commenting, liking, etc.

WeChat Moments

QR Codes: WeChat has an integrated QR code reader, which has helped QR codes to become popular in China. QR have never really had their big breakthrough in the Western world, but they are extremely useful for people in China: they avoid typing. And help people to connect: Every WeChat user also has their personal QR code.

WeChat Extensions

In the recent years, WeChat has extended its functionality with a swiss-army-knife approach: You can order taxis, pay your restaurant bill, share a bill with your friends, etc. The most central element in this is the WeChat Wallet. It can be connected with your bank account and enables people to pay and receive money.

The perfect local use-case: The Chinese New Year is Hongbao time. Hongbaos are red envelopes filled with money, which are exchanged on special occasions with family, friends, business partners, etc. WeChat offers a Hongbao feature, which lets you send an amount directly via your social network. During this year’s Chinese New Year festival, more than 1 billion hongbaos were sent via WeChat.

E-Tail: WeChat is now starting to feature Personal Online Shops. Users can launch their own online shop and sell goods through WeChat. With this move, Tencent is attacking Alibaba and their dominant C2C marketplace Taobao in mobile shopping.

WeChat for Businesses

WeChat has created a system for companies and brands to interact with users. With either a “subscription “ or a “service” account type, companies can setup website-like platforms and extend the functionality through an API. Through this, CRM, E-Commerce or any other lead generation functionalities can easily be applied.

WeChat - Weimob

WeChat has its own pay-per-click advertising system for their internal search engine, and it has an advertising model where brands can pay to appear in the moment section of users (currently in beta).

With upcoming enterprise accounts, WeChat even gives companies a platform for internal communication and collaboration.

What’s next

Currently, WeChat is the state-of-the-art marketing vehicle, where everybody wants to be. But growth in China is flattening, and Tencent explores new markets, trying to promote the platform in other emerging countries. I wonder, whether a system that has so many different functionalities will lose its USP, and will be replaced by more focused Apps with specific purposes. Another question is how the government might intervene, and restrict some of the functionalities. Last year, for example, payments triggered by QR codes were banned to protect consumers from fraud.

On the other hand, I strongly believe that WeChat’s pace of innovation can serve as an example for everyone. They see an opportunity and very quickly bring a new extension to market. That, combined with their larger user base, makes for a faster adoption of new technologies in China, than in the West. Mobile Payments are a great example for that.

WeChat also shows that Western digital marketing principles, established by Facebook, Twitter, and others, do not apply in China. In order to add Chinese social media to an international brand’s digital eco system, you need local expertise with an understanding of not only the local market, but also of the cultural differences.