"For any company operating in China, the only question regarding its WeChat presence is how, not whether. Asking whether would be like a company here considering whether a website makes sense or business cards are necessary," says Fabian Bertschinger, Creative Director at Process Zurich. "Chinese companies do their WeChat presence first and then the website." So if you want to do business in China, you need a presence on the super app, which is fondly referred to as the digital equivalent of the Swiss Army knife. "I experienced how established WeChat is when I tried to pay with cash at a food stall in China - it didn't work. Even at the market, people in China pay with WeChat wallets. That makes it clear how firmly the app is anchored in everyday life."
"One billion people already use WeChat today. That's argument enough, I think. Even if the app doesn't yet have such a big impact outside China, China plays a role in the world, and that role is becoming increasingly important," adds Martin Fawer, Consulting Director at Process Zurich. "We have to learn to meet the Chinese where they are, to communicate with them the way they communicate. If I want to sell something, I have to be where the target group is, and in China that's WeChat."
Many companies are now aware that WeChat is not simply a Chinese version of WhatsApp. But what the mega-app can do and how companies can use it for their own purposes, and indeed how they must use it in order to be perceived in the Chinese market at all, are still a lot of question marks. "There is often a lack of knowledge about how WeChat works, how content needs to be tailored to the platform - and more fundamentally, how Chinese people communicate with each other," Fawer says. "I've had the app on my phone for a while, of course I can look around and click around, but to really go in depth and understand, I can't," Bertschinger says. Without language skills, knowledge of cultural customs and preferences of local people, a WeChat profile is practically impossible to operate in a meaningful way, he says. "Users expect WeChat to know them very well. The content and the message should therefore be tailored to the respective recipient," explains Chantel Huang, Managing Director of Process Shanghai. The fact that users have this expectation has to do with the fact that WeChat has valid data that is not even available in Europe due to much stricter data protection regulations. "What we have for possibilities here in targeting is a joke for the Chinese," says Bertschinger. Chantel Huang adds: "The most relevant difference in terms of targeting is the data that the integrated payment function provides. It starts with income and goes all the way to movement profiles." It is precisely these data volumes and the very lax handling of them in China (WeChat parent Tencent is said to have a "close relationship" with the state) that are repeatedly the subject of criticism in the media. Most recently, it became known that the Chinese state wants to connect all private and state databases by 2020 in order to feed a social credit system that evaluates and then rewards or sanctions any behavior of Chinese citizens. Pilot cities of "good" citizens already exist today.
However, everyone at Process agrees that not having a WeChat account is not a solution due to the prevailing conditions in China. You have to adapt to the local conditions, which sometimes involves extra work, but is ultimately the only solution. Anyone who does business in China knows from other contexts that things work differently there, and has adjusted to that." There is simply no good reason not to have a WeChat presence," says Consulting Director Fawer.
Games, red envelopes and history
And so you do well to engage with the preferences of your audience. "Interaction with other users plays a significant role for Chinese, it can be served, for example, via gamification features built into the company account, or via virtual gifts and greetings," says Huang. "Red envelopes," for example, are very popular, continuing the tradition of handing over physical red envelopes with money, as a symbol of good luck, in the digital age. On Chinese New Year 2017, 14.2 billion of these "Hong Baos" were sent. Exclusively in China, because: In order to activate WeChat Wallet, two requirements must be met: a Chinese cell phone number and a Chinese bank account. Anyone who logs on to WeChat with a foreign cell phone number will not even be shown the wallet.
Another preference that should be taken into account when presenting a company on WeChat is the Chinese people's fondness for history. So if you still have photos of days long gone in your company archives, you should not play them under the radar, but rather in a prominent place.
"What needs to be packaged, and how, and which channels need to be used to play it out? These are essential questions - not only in China, of course," says Martin Fawer, adding: "Ideally, content planning will enable companies to manage their accounts independently. But until then and also later, in-depth knowledge is needed."
Thought into the future
At Process, they want to further develop their expertise in dealing with WeChat and are thinking ahead to the future. "We are currently working intensively on the questions: 'How can companies here be made fit for WeChat? What can we offer our customers in this direction that points the way to the future?'" The central topic in-house at the moment is tourism, he said. "Numerous Chinese visit Europe and, of course, Switzerland every year. Those who come are wealthy and spend a relatively large amount of money here in a short time. Oriented to the customer journey, we have now developed a concept of how to accompany this 'journey' as a company or, for example, as a city, as a tourism region." The Chinese, who visit Europe as tourists, encounter an infrastructure here that seems very old-fashioned to them and does not meet their expectations and habits. A missed opportunity, says Process-CD Bertschinger. The goal is therefore to offer them an infrastructure that they are familiar with. Roughly, he says, there are three areas: "The pre-trip phase: First, a company must have a WeChat channel, design products and content to suit the target group, and target the target group specifically," says Fabian Bertschinger. What then plays a big role here on site is certainly the establishment of WeChat Pay as a means of payment in relevant stores or regions and their communication. This is no longer pie in the sky, but has recently become reality. The German company Wirecard is one of the first official partners of WeChat-Pay and is now giving European merchants the opportunity to accept payments via WeChat-Pay. "QR codes haven't caught on as much in our country, but in China they are ubiquitous and used everywhere. But simpler things, like a WeChat wallet sticker next to those for credit cards, also need to be thought of." On the ground, community stories are also an issue, he said. "Finding each other again and networking, that's a need for Chinese people. Even when traveling." Back in China, he said, you have to try to get them back on your own channel. "One sensible idea would be to resell products directly via WeChat," says Bertschinger.
The thoughts about the future are justified in view of the potential and the forecasts. Tencent, the group behind WeChat, is one of the most innovative companies in the Chinese Internet business and currently the most profitable tech company in Asia. "Experts expect that WeChat will not continue to grow at the current rate because the app is already so mature that there are no more low hanging fruits. Still, WeChat should reach the 1.4 billion user mark in the not-too-distant future. That is the entire population of China," concludes Chantel Huang. (Nora Dämpfle)
This article appeared first in the print edition of Werbewoche from October 6, 2017
Photos: Header: Fabian Bertschinger, others: Process