Digital Lessons from China: Messaging as a Platform

Digital Lessons from China: Messaging as a Platform

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Brands who mastered WeChat best practices are able to consistently gain an edge as the technology moves west.

The following article is part of our ‘Digital Lessons from China’ series, where we outline best practices and takeaways from China’s advanced digital ecosystem.

Let’s do a quick exercise: Go into your phone settings and look at your power usage stats.  What app is taking up the most amount of power?

Over the past 7 days, 52% of my battery has gone to powering WeChat, with the next biggest user, Chrome, taking a measly 6%.  After a quick check around the office, I found an average of around 45% going to WeChat. I would be willing to bet the vast majority – if not statistical whole – of China see’s the same result.

This is a level of usage-monopolization for which we can find no comparison in the west.  This goes beyond the rise of messaging apps which we have seen worldwide.  WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger may have over 1 billion and 900 million MAU’s respectively, but the scope and duration of usage still pales in comparison to WeChat.  Why is that?  And is this the future for western messaging apps?

Putting the name aside, WeChat is actually not just about chat.  Its most direct competitors are not Line, WhatsApp or Snapchat.  WeChat is competing to bypass every other icon on your phone’s home screen, be it retail, taxi hailing, restaurant reviews, travel, and even financial investing. WeChat is literally competing with your phone’s Operating System. It was built to be a platform, a central hub for almost all of your daily digital interactions. And judging by the battery stats on my iPhone, it is winning.

Messenger, WhatsApp and Line know that looking east towards China is where they will find their own future.  Brands therefore should be doing the same.  In this article we will take you through the “platformization” of WeChat and show how brands have taken advantage of the new opportunities so you will know how to react when the transformation comes to the West.

Chat Bots from the Beginning

WeChat invested very early in the idea of conversational interfaces, and quickly recognized their potential for brands and businesses.  Therefore, well before Messenger made headlines for launching chat bots in April 2016, WeChat launched its own early chat bot APIs in 2013, known as Official Accounts.  This marked a significant change in moving WeChat from a closed messaging system to an open platform.

What do we mean by an open platform?  Originally, WeChat (like WhatsApp and others) behaved just like SMS: messages sent and messages received.  The conversational interface was limited to just that: conversation.  However, by opening up the messaging system through a number of developer APIs, WeChat became a platform, a space for others to ‘build’ applications that communicate both within the WeChat system and connect to outside systems. Suddenly brands could integrate their WeChat account with their CRM systems, booking/e-commerce systems, customer service platforms and even with their connected hardware. It is within this space, known as Official Accounts, that WeChat apps could be built, the same thing we now call chat bots.

When most of us think of chat bots, we think of AI powered systems like Microsoft’s Tay or Xiaobing. However, what WeChat has shown us is that the intelligence behind these chat bots does not need to be AI-powered to be successful – if anything, it is quite the contrary. The majority of official accounts on WeChat are powered by a simple combination of command-line response and human agents. The choice on what technology one should use to power their chat bot depends on the function they need it to perform. Command line is usually better suited for simple data/content retrieval and ecommerce, whereas AI shines in more complex marketing, entertainment, and customer service situations. Experience from WeChat has shown, however, that both solutions should be prepared to have human agents as a backup, as neither technology is perfect.

From a brand point of view there are a number of benefits to launching a messenger-based application as compared to a more traditional mobile or web app.

Better UX: Online brand interaction and communication has been far too limited with text and scroll based web-pages and apps.  Messenger’s UX best mimics natural conversation, using not only text but also images, video, and voice message interaction.  Using readily available APIs to easily connect to your phone’s camera or speaker make the process seamless.  The best UX has always been the one where users do not have to “learn” how to use it; but with messengers, people already know how to chat.

APP Fatigue: Time and time again our research has shown a huge reluctance among consumers for downloading a new app that will be used maybe once or twice.  With messenger apps, there is no download required, making adoption a frictionless affair.  This means much lower customer acquisition costs for brands compared to apps. On WeChat we can find two types of official accounts for users to ‘follow’, whereby consumers can see these chat bot messages either directly in their feed or in a dedicated ‘subscriptions’ folder.  Brands that require more frequent contact are assigned to the subscriptions folder so notification fatigue will not replace APP fatigue.

Speed and Efficiency: With a messenger app, there are no OS updates required, and there is a greatly reduced workload – especially on the front-end development side, which allows for faster development and iteration.  Changes to one’s service can therefore appear in real time, without having to go through a cumbersome approval process. For many startups in China that are working against the clock to get out an MVP, WeChat has been a godsend, radically shortening the time it would usually take to develop an approve an traditional app.

Limited Technical Knowledge Needed: Chat bots can literally be as simple or as complex as you need them to be.  They could rely purely on chat interactions and have no ‘visible UI’ other than text responses, or they could integrate links to rich H5 pages and more traditional ‘app-style’ interfaces.  Most brands, however, tend to embrace the minimalism of chat-based conversation, allowing designers and developers to focus purely on the user interaction and not worry about the visual appearance.  We are seeing VC-funded companies worth tens of millions of dollars that exist entirely within WeChat, not even bothering to develop their own standalone APP.  Erecting low barriers to entry is something we see commonly in China, and is a part of China’s unique emphasis on “innovating for everyone” which you can read about here.

Coming to America

Now in 2016 chat bots are clearly not a WeChat-only thing. Facebook and Snapchat have already pushed into this space, while Telegram and Kik already have well-supported and thriving bot platforms. If we were to bet on a single messenger to become the ‘OS’ of the future, however, Facebook owned Messenger/WhatsApp would have to be our pick. Despite taking their time compared to their Asian peers, Messenger and WhatsApp already have a captive global audience. Facebook’s dual ownership also means they can be free to experiment more freely on Messenger while more cautiously applying what works on WhatsApp. Change will be slow but the effects will come quickly.

We do see other notable contenders in this space however.  Apple Messenger, with its large installer base and integration with Siri, offers a strong combination of text and voice based communication.  Amazon Echo has already shown itself as maybe the strongest voice-based user experience on the market, extending across ecommerce and IoT, to function as both a platform and interface for brand relationships.

Those brands that have been paying attention to WeChat – or even better, are already experimenting with it – will be much better prepared for Messenger’s slow but sure API roll-out. Dutch airline company KLM offers a telling example. While operating an official account on WeChat for a number of years, in 2015 they upped their game with full customer service integration. Within the WeChat interface, travellers can now check flight prices, book a flight, manage their reservation, chat with a representative, access boarding passes, receive flight reminders, and check flight status. Powering much of this customer service innovation was WeChat’s timely launch of an API allowing for Salesforce integration. Fast forward 9 months and Messenger launches the same API for its own platform. It is no surprise then that KLM, already flush with experience, was one of the first brands to launch a bot on Messenger.

The Lesson

WeChat has been a trailblazer when it comes to messenger “platformization”, carving a path that its western counterparts are all but certain to follow. Every step may not be in the footprints of WeChat, but it would be surprising for them to not advance along the path of least resistance set up by WeChat. It is our recommendation then that western brands use WeChat as a blueprint for Messenger, WhatsApp, and Snapchat, and work these platform development expectations into their 2-year digital roadmaps. For those brands already operating on WeChat, the process is even simpler: build a dialogue between your China digital teams and your global team, making sure they are prepared for future API rollouts. As we like to say, it helps to look east.