The future of social: why you should be looking East

Future of social: WeChat

There is no escaping it. Surveying the marketing press over the past year it has become clear that everyone in the industry has resigned themselves to the fact.  It’s Facebook’s world and we are simply living in it.

Whether you’re messaging on WhatsApp, telling your photographic story on Instagram or still belligerently poking people on Facebook (Yes amazingly you can still do that – #throwback) the social landscape of 2 billion+ users is dominated by the big blue and white F from Silicon Valley.

With Snapchat being copied and imitated at every turn and the stall and potential fall of big rival Twitter, one may look out at this Zuckerberg dominated social landscape and assume that the future of social media will be nothing but an interconnected Facebook vortex.  One that everyone on the planet will eventually be sucked into. Especially if Facebook drones start achieving their lofty goal of providing internet access for all.

Yet something is stirring in the East: something that appears to have been somewhat overlooked amongst all this Facebook euphoria. WeChat.

Maybe it is because there was no WeChat beach at Cannes – yet whilst Snap, Google, Apple & Facebook all clamor for attention and lurch from controversy to controversy (viewability, inappropriate content etc) the Chinese giant quietly goes about its business. That may all be about to change though because the sleeping Chinese social dragon is beginning to stir.

Currently at 850 million active users, WeChat is now beginning to look beyond its borders in order to continue its fast-paced growth and expand their revenue streams.

So what? “It’s all Chinese to me” I hear you say. Yet this global expansion will affect more than simply the ever-increasing Chinese diaspora.

For advertisers, the biggest new development is the opportunity to target WeChat users – mainly Chinese residents and tourists – outside of China. Whilst this service is restricted mainly to Asian countries, it is now available in the U.S., Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and the U.K. Moreover, with parent company TenCent due to open an office in the U.K. soon, this subtle shift towards the West signals the beginning of tailoring communications solutions to Europe and North America.

Whilst this may seem like small beginnings, the truly intriguing possibility is how WeChat could transfer not just its Chinese consumer base and advertising opportunities but its vastly superior user experience to Western social media users.

I’m not suggesting people will suddenly leave Facebook for WeChat. However, as Western consumers become more accustomed to mCommerce there is a real opportunity for the WeChat platform to offer something that Facebook is sorely lacking – the ability to buy products online easily within a social platform. In China if you want to order a taxi – WeChat. Book a hotel room – WeChat. Reserve a table at a restaurant – WeChat. Buy cinema tickets – WeChat. Buy the dress promoted in the “Moments” ads by your favourite store – WeChat. The mobile wallet section of the social platform allows for users to instantly order, buy and book without ever having to leave the safety of their social bubble.

This is where it truly stands out. How is their social activity directly affecting mobile SALES? Not likes, shares, engagements, disputed video views or any other lauded social metric – ACTUAL SALES! Add to that the policy of TenCent to have minimum spend levels for advertisers on the platform to ensure high quality ads that don’t irritate the user too much and you have a viable alternative to using Facebook which offers a clear point-of-differentiation to both the end user and to marketeers – in theory at least.

Of course, this all hinges on WeChat attracting Western users to the platform. Or does it? The next billion mobile users who will sign-up to social platforms will primarily not be European or North American. In mobile first countries – where the first internet-connected device most people own will be a smartphone – the ability to buy products, do online peer-to-peer banking safely and connecting with family will be where social media can offer real value (although I’m sure they’ll take plenty of selfies too!) These places are countries like Indonesia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Nigeria, Bangladesh & many other quickly developing countries. All of which are more likely to fall into the Chinese sphere of influence than the West.

This does mean though that WeChat will have to up its game outside of China. Whilst it dominates its home market, it needs to ensure the user experience transfers as well internationally and provide proper localization of its product. Something it has failed to achieve so far. As China, however, becomes more influential on the global stage there is the opportunity for TenCent to start putting that right. Its current expansion seems to be a first step in that direction.

So whilst Facebook builds drones, puts advertisers’ noses out of joint on the beach and connects the entire world it may find that the other soon-to-be billionaire in the social media clubhouse might just take the mCommerce rug out from under their feet.  If so, they probably deserve Mark Zuckerberg’s full attention.

This piece was by Duncan Bell, senior strategist, Havas Media, Hong Kong.