WeChat Explained – Understanding the Chinese Super App

WeChat as a rapidly growing platform from China, which is also gaining in importance worldwide

Understanding the Super-App from China that is used by over 1 Billion users every day. We give you an introduction to WeChat and explain what is behind the app.

The iPhone’s biggest competition is not Android, Samsung & Co. or China’s low-cost smartphone manufacturers. It could be a simple idea: Package apps into a single application instead of having dozens of different apps spread across the screen. WeChat, China’s leading social media platform, has done just that and has the potential to revolutionise the smartphone world the way the iPhone did.

Launched in 2011 by Chinese tech giant Tencent, who would have thought that WeChat could make such waves? With more than one billion monthly active users (by 2021), it has become an integral part of life in China and an influential platform worldwide – all thanks to its concept of integrating everything into one app, with no media breaks and no need to leave the app.

WeChat calls this concept “mini-programs”, and the idea behind it is that users can access handy third-party features – photo filters, translators, taxis, payment services and more – within a single app. – within a single app. The advantage is that these features are available immediately, with no download or installation required. It sounds like a small innovation, but it solves two big problems in the app industry.

History of WeChat

WeChat, or “Weixin” as it is known in China, started out as a simple messaging platform and then evolved rapidly. Tencent was inspired by the popularity of WhatsApp and other messaging apps and wanted to create an app that offered multiple forms of communication – text, voice, video and group chats. Over the years, however, WeChat has evolved into a “super app” with a wide range of features that go far beyond messaging and now combines all the functionalities that are usually only available by using dozens of different apps.

The technology behind WeChat

The genius of WeChat lies in its design and extensive list of features. The interface is intuitive and makes navigating through the different sections fairly seamless. A key feature is ‘Moments’, a timeline-like interface where users can share updates, photos and articles, similar to Facebook’s newsfeed but more like a feed of different apps converging.

Arguably WeChat’s most important feature is ‘WeChat Pay’, a digital wallet that allows users to easily make mobile payments and transfers. The ubiquity of WeChat Pay has made cashless transactions the norm in China, from buying groceries to paying utility bills. Because the user only needs to register once with the app, which also stores the payment function centrally, it is easy for other apps to access it. So you can shop online, buy new features, go out to eat or simply send money to friends without having to register new credit cards, PayPal or other things each time. Because features like authentication, payment, API connections and more work automatically, users only need to have one account, never multiple logins, and never need to provide billing addresses or credit cards again.

The WeChat platform also works for businesses through “official accounts” that allow them to interact with their followers. This feature essentially turns WeChat into a marketing tool, creating a direct channel between brands and consumers, and also enables easy sales of products, services or digital offers (the “mini-programmes”) through the WeChat platform.

For many companies and startups, the “mini-programs” have become their own ecosystem to reach customers and sell quickly. These are sub-applications within WeChat that offer various services such as e-commerce, ride-hailing and food delivery, reducing the need for separate apps.

Understanding the problems of today’s apps

To understand why WeChat is so successful, we should also understand the problems with today’s apps. All of today’s apps are getting bigger and “heavier”. Developers are packing more and more features and media into apps to make them prettier and better designed for the hardware. In theory, this wouldn’t be a problem if you had unlimited storage on your smartphone or unlimited data. But since the majority of active smartphones are older (which in the tech world means 2+ years) and therefore have less memory and processing power, this is a problem for most people internationally.

The second problem, however, is familiar to every user. Registering applications, entering data, opening accounts and filling them with data can be tedious. Everywhere, this is required before you can use the application effectively. Not only does this lead to the problem of having to type so much information on a small screen, but it also means that you may have to enter it in public places to use an app, which can be a security risk.

The “solution” – mini-programs

The “mini-programs”, on the other hand, are undetectable in the App Store. Users receive links via social media, friends, groups, QR codes, etc. Because the apps are loaded via the cloud, there is no need to download the app itself. As the programmes also use services such as WeChat Wallet, there is no need to enter personal details or use payment functions. On Android, these “mini-programs” can also be placed on the home screen and work just like any other app, but without the hassle of logging in again, re-entering data, etc.

WeChat Use in China

WeChat is practically indispensable in China and part of everyday life. It is not only used for personal communication, but also for professional collaboration. Many companies use WeChat groups for internal communication, project updates and even document sharing. A Chinese user gets up in the morning using the app and probably won’t close it until the evening.

Commercial transactions are simplified through WeChat, with e-commerce companies using mini programmes and WeChat Pay to provide a seamless shopping experience. Public services are also accessible through WeChat, such as booking medical appointments and paying fines, or even giving money to beggars. The use of WeChat Pay and Ali Pay is now standard, and there are many Chinese who have not held a single coin or paper currency for years.

WeChat has also made great strides around the world, especially among the Chinese diaspora who use it to stay in touch with friends and family back home, and as a result the community is growing internationally. However, it has not yet been able to compete with existing platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc.

What can WeChat do?

Users can use a range of services that are all integrated into the app. From simple chats that replace WhatsApp, to interaction with authorities, combined with social media functions otherwise offered by Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Foursquare, etc., to online stores and payment applications. The app is a complete ecosystem that provides a user with everything that would otherwise require dozens of apps. It’s a “one-stop” app for everything, and you don’t even have to leave the app.

An example of how a WeChat user spends his day

According to the WeChat study, a typical WeChat user’s day looks like this:

WeChat Explained - Understanding the Chinese Super App 1

Another simple example is that a customer can get a restaurant recommendation on WeChat. He starts a group chat with his colleagues, reserves a table at the restaurant, orders the drinks before he arrives so that they are already at the table, orders the food at the restaurant, shares a picture of it on his timeline, pays with a click of a button, reviews the restaurant online and his colleagues transfer him their share of the bill.

All of this without ever leaving the app.

Key features and services integrated into WeChat

These are some of the services and features that WeChat integrates into the platform without the need to install another app or service. Like the “basic operating system features”:

  • Messaging: Text, voice and video messaging capabilities, similar to WhatsApp or Messenger, but integrated into WeChat for seamless communication.
    Social Media (Moments): A feature for sharing photos, videos and status updates with friends, similar to Facebook’s News Feed.
  • Payments (WeChat Pay): Digital wallet service for mobile payments and money transfers, enabling cashless transactions across a wide range of services and merchants.
  • Mini Programs: Apps within the app that offer services such as e-commerce, ride-hailing, food delivery and more, without the need for separate installations.
  • Official accounts: Platforms for businesses and celebrities to engage with followers, publish content and offer services directly within WeChat.
  • City Services: Integration of various public services, such as booking doctor’s appointments, paying utility bills and paying traffic fines.
  • WeChat Work: A suite of office collaboration tools, including document sharing, project management and communication for professional environments.
  • Health Code: A health and travel status feature developed back then for COVID-19 tracking and now other security measures.
  • Games: An in-app gaming platform offering a variety of games that can be played directly within WeChat.
  • QR Code Payments: Use of QR codes to make payments, add friends, or quickly access information and services.
  • E-commerce: Shopping feature that allows users to purchase goods and services directly through WeChat.
  • Ride-hailing: Integration with ride-hailing services, allowing users to book rides without leaving the app.
  • Travel and ticketing: Services for booking flights, trains and cinema tickets, among others, directly from the app.
  • Food delivery: Integration with food delivery services, allowing users to order food from local restaurants.
  • Live streaming: Ability to view live streams or broadcast to followers for entertainment or e-commerce.
  • Location sharing: Allows users to share their real-time location with friends or access location-based services.
  • WeChat Out: VoIP service for making low-cost calls to mobile phones and landlines around the world.

Criticism of WeChat

Despite, or perhaps because of, its success and popularity, WeChat is often criticised. The main points of criticism are privacy and security. Due to the sheer size and data sovereignty of WeChat, it is possible to completely screen a user from morning to night and create a “perfect persona”. The extent to which the app has access to all user data is unclear, as is whether this data is shared with the Chinese government.

WeChat’s censorship policy is another issue, especially in Western circles. It is reported that certain keywords and topics are filtered or blocked, which is in line with China’s strict internet regulation policy, and Tencent, the manufacturer, is apparently closely monitored by the Chinese government.

Prospects for WeChat and Super Apps.

On closer inspection, WeChat is almost like a mobile operating system. As it becomes more powerful and comprehensive, Chinese customers will increasingly think about which system WeChat works best on. Whether it is iOS, Android or another system will become secondary. It just needs to provide the best system to run WeChat as quickly as possible, and that has a big impact on the industry in the long run. So WeChat’s dominance in China is unlikely to be broken, and companies like Google and Apple are struggling because their ecosystems look weak in comparison.

This is exactly why giants like Facebook (WhatsApp), Google and Apple are also looking at this principle and want to promote it in the Western world. The road may seem long, but Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter and his vision of “X” are the first important steps.

Benjamin Talin, a serial entrepreneur since the age of 13, is the founder and CEO of MoreThanDigital, a global initiative providing access to topics of the future. As an influential keynote speaker, he shares insights on innovation, leadership, and entrepreneurship, and has advised governments, EU commissions, and ministries on education, innovation, economic development, and digitalization. With over 400 publications, 200 international keynotes, and numerous awards, Benjamin is dedicated to changing the status quo through technology and innovation. #bethechange Stay tuned for MoreThanDigital Insights - Coming soon!

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