A resident shows off her handicrafts during a live-stream on WeChat from her home in Beijing on April 15, 2020 (XINHUA)
Had Zhang Xiaolong gone out and played pool that fateful night 11 years ago instead of sitting down to write his boss an e-mail about developing a new social media platform, the lives of millions would have been different today.
Zhang got the inspiration for the innovation from Kik, a Canadian messaging app that appeared in October 2010, offering people free chats on their mobiles. The result of the inspiration, WeChat, the instant messaging app developed by Tencent in 2011, is today a one-stop shop for social media, banking, shopping and more.
With over 1.2 billion monthly active users, it has become a necessity and a lifestyle, Zhang said at an event celebrating the 10th birthday of the app. For many, it is also a means to embrace entrepreneurship.
Every day, 360 million users view posts on WeChat public accounts, many of which are run by private, original content creators, according to Zhang.
Fang Yimin is a top fashion and style influencer who started to push feeds about fashion to subscribers to her public account, Becky's Fantasy, in 2014. She offers tips on how to select products such as lipsticks and bags, and has been known as "a friend who recommends things worth buying."
She also answers followers' queries regularly. Besides, her account has sponsored posts introducing designers and skincare brands.
Fang says high-quality content constitutes the core competitiveness of her account.
She has more than 3 million followers and her influence has been recognized by many brands, who seek her endorsement for their products. In July 2017, she sold 100 limited edition bright turquoise MINI Cooper vehicles by German automaker BMW through WeChat in just four minutes.
Fang also has launched a mini program, an applet that runs within the WeChat environment, to sell her own brand.
"From typing at home and sending my posts to close friends to now working with a team of some 100 colleagues and with nearly 20 million people worldwide sharing their lives with me, it has been rewarding," Fang said. For her, her public account is a key that has opened all kinds of possibilities.
A customer scans the QR code to get his order from an unmanned delivery vehicle in Changsha, Hunan Province in central China, on February 14, 2020 (XINHUA)
A former Tencent product manager using the pseudonym Li Ergou started developing his own mini program in November 2018. It is a dating platform that recommends several profiles to its users based on location, educational background and other preferences. Currently, 95 percent of its users enjoy free services. If someone sends a message seeking to chat, the recipient will receive a notification on WeChat.
"I preferred to launch a mini program instead of developing a standalone app." Li told Beijing Review. "It lets me tap into WeChat's user base of more than 1 billion and send messages directly via it."
A mini program's development and operating cost is also more affordable than a standalone app's. Thus, it is virtually a maiden startup. By integrating with the ecosystem of WeChat, the new applets can benefit from its widespread usage in all aspects of life. Though WeChat bans mini program developers from posting promotional advertisements, Li has still attracted over 1 million users so far, and he sees it a success.
Wang Yumei, President of the Business Intelligence and Analytics Unit of Miaozhen Systems, a data marketing technology firm, said as brands today seek to better retain and engage with customers, they invest heavily in fostering private traffic. This is a marketing method where communication with customers is funneled through platforms that allow brands to have full control without costing much.
"This will definitely give WeChat, a platform with strong social genes, a big leg-up," she told China Daily.
For Li, one disadvantage is that mini programs are not stable. They break down from time to time, impacting users' experience. Also, some functions he had designed for his platform couldn't be implemented due to technical issues. "The point is, you have to weigh the pros and cons in growing up on WeChat," he said.
Channeling the future
A report by the China Netcasting Services Association said by June 2020, there were 901 million online audiovisual audience members in the country, 43.8 million more from March. Short videos had the largest market share in the industry. The rising enthusiasm among online audiovisual content users created a highly lucrative market worth 454.1 billion yuan ($70.27 billion) in 2019.
Zhang predicts WeChat's short video function Channels would be the next big thing.
Liu Xingliang, a media personality, is a pioneer user of Channels, posting videos every one or two days, commenting on the latest hot topics. "The popularity of Channels is beyond my imagination," he told The Economic Observer. According to him, the income he gained from Channels last year equaled his earnings from his public account in the past eight years.
Channels provides more direct marketing than public accounts. Users can post advertisements, get monetary rewards from viewers and also sell products. People with a Channels account can add a link to their store. Liu's shop sells books, presents sponsored products and offers consultation services.
WeChat's live-streaming function also has huge potential, especially in drawing organizations and enterprises to set up their dedicated Channels account, according to a WeChat analysis report by new media consultancy Newrank.
For instance, automaker Geely unveiled a new model through live-streaming on Channels in November 2020, and Huawei used its account to broadcast a new smartphone launch in December 2020.
But Wang has a warning: Once more players jump in, the rewards for content creators might dwindle. BR
(Print Edition Title: A Life Changer)
Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar
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