Written by: Fengge Zhao
Key Word: social media; WeChat; marketing strategy; subscription account; China
Chinese consumers keep pace with Web 2.0 and use their Chinese-based social media to network and communicate with people. WeChat has been seen as the Facebook of China (Johnson, 2015) due to its huge user base in China. According to the statistics, WeChat had more than 600 million monthly active users in 2015 (Johnson, 2015) In comparison with another Chinese social network giant, Weibo (Chinese Twitter), which only had around 200 million monthly active users in the year 2015 (Smith, 2015), WeChat has become the biggest social media in China. As a result, for those companies who want to develop successful brands’ marketing strategies via social media in China, learning how to leverage WeChat can be very effective and important.
2. What is WeChat?
When WeChat was launched in January 2011, it was merely defined as a mobile messaging apps as the Chinese version of Whatsapp. Users send texts voice message and pictures to their WeChat contacts individually or through the chatting group. In 2012, by launching the function of WeChat Moments, WeChat began to transmit from a messaging app into a social networking sites. Users can share their text status or pictures to all of their contacts on WeChat Moments. Later on, after WeChat introduced official account for organizations, business started to be engaged with WeChat as well, and since then, WeChat become a real social media because it allows all types of social actors (individual, group and organization) to communicate along dyadic ties (Peters et al., 2013, p.282).
WeChat offers three types of official accounts, they are subscription account (Figure 1a), service account and enterprise account. In this case, only subscription account will be discussed as service account is designed for providing service rather than message broadcast, and enterprise account is not designed for marketing but for communication inside of an organization.
Through subscription account, a company can push frequent content to their followers. The content includes texts (Figure 1b), images, video, blogs (Figure 1c) and the link to the other webpage if company plans to promote campaigns in WeChat. Followers interact with the subscription account through sharing posts to their contacts or on WeChat Moments (Figure 1d), making comments to posts and chatting directly with the subscription account. There are two ways in which users can follow the subscription account, searching account ID (or scanning QR code) or follow the account after reading the posts shared by their WeChat contacts.
3. User Experience of WeChat
What users can experience from interacting with WeChat subscription account decides how to develop the strategy. Highly connected and exclusive user relationships and intentionally less commercialized business engagement are two designing ideas that aim at protecting user’s privacy and avoiding excessive commercial message harassment to users. Based on the two principles, WeChat’s user experience can be explained by Kietzmann et al (2011)’s model: honeycomb of social media.
According to Kietzmann et al (2011), identity represents to which extent users would reveal their identity to social media. On WeChat, real-name registration is not required. Users can register either by real name or nickname, and on user’s profile page, only nick name, gender, location and profile picture can be shown. How the users are connected with other users or subscription account will not be disclosed. On the other hand, the WeChat networking is based on the real-life networking. As a result, user always contact with each other as they knowing the contact’s real identity even though all the contacts’ profile information can be fake. In addition, the subscription account operator has no authority to check their followers’ WeChat Moments or their dialogue records.
The basic function of WeChat is for messaging, therefore, it completely facilitates conversation among individuals and groups (Kietzmann et al., 2011), but how users start conversation with subscription account or on WeChat Moments is more relevant to a company. When the contents are posted to followers, WeChat build a private conversation page that makes users feel like they are talking to an individual. In fact, it is the company’s subscription account that represents the whole business.
Sharing represent the extent to which users exchange, distribute, and receive content. (Kietzmann et al., 2011, p.245). WeChat users’ sharing behavior is achieved by sharing subscription post to their contacts, chatting groups and WeChat Moments. Therefore, the rate of post sharing decides to which degree the subscription account’s post can reach its non-following users and attract more followers.
On WeChat, there’s no function see neither user nor subscription account is ‘available’ or ‘hidden’. Even though individual users and subscription account can specify their location on their profile, but the physical location will not increase the chance that users and companies connects physically.
In WeChat, the relationship is mostly based on real-world relationship so the users’ relationship is extremely strong (Li et al, 2016). Kietzmann et al (2015) pointed out that what-and-how the information is spread depends on how users are connected. WeChat is more centered on existing relationship maintenance, and people’s information exchanging process contains the consideration of building and maintaining relationships.
Social media brings a new definition of reputation as it uses the quantitative criteria to evaluate trustworthiness, such as the number of followers or how the posted contents are liked. However, in the case of WeChat, it aims at user relationship maintenance rather than relationship expansion, therefore user’s networking information is not disclosed. As for the subscription account, their follower information will not be disclosed to the public as well, which means, users cannot communicate with each other via subscription account. Hence a user’s judgement towards a subscription account is less effected by other users’ behaviors.
Group represents the extent to which users can form communities and sub-communities. Compare to WeChat Moments that all the sharing post will be reach to all the contacts, sharing on WeChat group is more exclusive because the users in a chatting group mostly share the same consumption characters. And therefore chatting group also can be used to test whether the shared post is welcomed the target audience more effectively.
According to the analysis of each block, we draw to the conclusion that WeChat focus the most on conversation as it is the foundation of WeChat, and build an equal communication system for individuals, groups and organizations. Besides, sharing, relationships and groups are the other three important blocks that demonstrate the core function of WeChat. Figure 2 illustrate WeChat’s functionality model and the darker the block is, the more relevant the functionality is.
4. How to use WeChat
Hoffman and Fodor (2010) believe that users investment is the effective measure of social media efforts. Users investment is explained as users’ behaviors such number of visitors, time spending with subscription accounts and so forth. Behind user’s investment, it is the user’s motivation of using social media that decides whether and how users would like to be engaged with brands (Hoffman & Fodor, 2010). The motivation can be categorized as connection, creation, consumption and control. According to the functionality model of Figure 2, WeChat mainly focuses on conversation, which indicates that WeChat fulfills users demand of connecting and creating. Building connection with follower is a long-term project because online relationship involves interactive “conversations” (Hoffman & Fodor, 2010, p.42), The user’s behavior with contents is key to the success of WeChat management. Parent et al. (2011) propose that user’s behavior includes six progressive level: viewing, forwarding (sharing), commenting, creating, moderating and arbitrating. What a WeChat subscription account can interact with users including the first three stages, hence the times of reading, reposting and commenting are the obvious and direct metrics of evaluate the effect of WeChat. Based on WeChat’s inside research, averagely, for one subscription account’s post, about 80% of its reading amount comes from WeChat Moments, while the followers who read the post through subscription account only occupy 20% of the total reading amount. Viewing the shared post is the first step that a user interacts with the subscription account. And the reading amount will be increased as the more readers are attracted by shared post and decide to follow the subscription account and the participate the process of sharing. Therefore, the key to subscription account management lies in how make the post shareable and how to make reader follow the account after reading the post.
When deciding what content or conversation will be posted, it is essential to figure out the objectives of the contents. Increasing brand awareness, building brand engagement and word-of mouth (WOM) are the three main objectives that social media can fulfill (Hoffman & Fodor, 2010). By implementing the appropriate strategies, WeChat subscription account posts can achieve all the three objectives. However, as WeChat is built for social connection rather commercial connection, the post with obvious commercial purposed are discouraged by both users and WeChat. WeChat would censor the posts randomly and deal with the user’s report if they suspect the posts contain excessive commercial information which will lead to unfair competition. As for users, the obviously commercialized post without relevant information or lack the interests will be neglected by consumers directly. Therefore, here are three general strategies of how to create contents on WeChat subscription.
1. Have an attractive title
As the account follower shared the post on their WeChat Moments, only the title of the post would be shown without the captions or abstracts of the contents, which makes the post presents even shorter than a micro blog when users scan the site of WeChat Moments. A shallow information is needed when creating the title but highly relevant in brand engagement (Weinberg and Pehlivan, 2011). According to a WeChat Moments research conducted by Li et al.(2016), it does not take a long time for a page in WeChat Moments to became popular as long as what the reader see can attract them to click the post.
2. Be timely and flexible
When a company plan to launch the campaign via WeChat, they need to prepare well-planned script, but a improv theater performance is the effective metaphor of branding in social media (Singh and Sonnerburg, 2012). As they explained, Improv theater performance allows an interactive relationship as audience suggestions are used to create the content and direction of the performance by actors on stage. Through communicate with followers, the contents they post can be a feedback towards users’ suggestion, which increase their brand engagement. Shih et al (2014) suggests that company can engage users into interesting topic consumers are willing to engage with a brand beyond just making purchase decisions at the point of sale. Therefore, in some degree, the topic and contents should not always be closely tied to the business or profit purpose, but more casual and relax which reduce consumers antipathetic feeling towards commercial information but increase their willingness of participating.
3. Speak as a key opinion leader
Li et al.(2016) compared the process of repost WeChat contents as the spread of infection, and discovered users are more likely to share if the post have been shared by many of their WeChat contacts. It also indicates that sometimes what people share is not what they believe but what others believe. Hofestede’s cultural dimension index shows, China is highly collectivist culture where people act in the interests of the group and not necessarily of themselves. Therefore, if the contents of post contents the specific opinion or viewpoint that is inspirational. Reader can be more motivated to share and spread.
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