Tencent: WeChat App Has Gone Global, Now a Growing Ratio of Worldwide Users [INTERVIEW]


China’s Tencent (HKG:0700) calls WeChat its “most important app,” the likes of which they’ve “never seen before in 10 years” at China’s biggest web company – nor ever before from a Chinese web product. And that’s coming from the nation’s social media and gaming giant, which boasts well over half a billion users on its IM-oriented QQ and QZone service. Expressing all this enthusiasm is Justin Sun, director of international WeChat operations at Tencent.

WeChat might have fewer users – just over 200 million – than Tencent has with QQ, but the Whatsapp-esque group messaging app has, Justin says, “great potential to be popular internationally.” And that’s a new thing. It’s started already, he reckons, and reveals that non-Chinese users of the app are increasing globally – to the point that Chinese users of WeChat “several months ago were the majority,” but not so much now.

[UPDATED: To make the context clear, WeChat’s users are still mostly Chinese, but recently that ratio is balancing out much more as global users adopt it. I’ve adjusted my title, too, which wasn’t clear enough].

The actual user break-down is a closely guarded secret at this point, but Justin – from his office in the firm’s Shenzhen HQ – conceded that the “focus is Asia” for now. He adds:

The big [WeChat] markets are Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam. […] We’re really growing in the US and Arabic regions.

As a measure of its success outside of China, it might be useful to look at the number of likes on the official Facebook pages of WeChat and its rivals: Whatsapp has 2.1 million likes, Kakaotalk a mere 45,000, and WeChat fares a bit better with 122,000 likes so far.

Even without concrete numbers for WeChat’s global reach, it’s still a marvel to see a Chinese web product (the app is known as “Weixin” in Chinese) make an impact overseas – especially a social one. We’ve seen it before with apps like UC Browser or Camera360, but a broader service has not before made the leap before.

In terms of languages, Justin says, the Asia focus “doesn’t mean we’re not serving others – we do Arabic, for example, and we’re looking at Turkish and more now.” But expansion takes more than a bunch of translated words…

Expansion partners

Though Tencent doesn’t yet have an overseas office for WeChat, Tencent is taking it on a country-by-country basis with local partnerships on the ground, which provide “operational help” and support with some promotional activities – perhaps as with the professional models promoting the app recently in Kuala Lumpur (pictured above). “We’re going to keep doing things ourselves first and keep those tight business partnerships with others.” But there seems to be no set plan for some formal overseas offices for the app’s operations.

But the company isn’t seeing pushing worldwide as a new thing for them. Justin points out: “WeChat positions itself to be international. And Tencent is international, with lots of investors from outside China.” Plus, the company has game development studios in California – though they’re not part of the WeChat team.

Open to Facebook, Twitter, and more

As if it’s not rare enough to see a Chinese social service expand overseas, WeChat is aiming to do it by being identical for Chinese and overseas users – well, apart from the “Weixin” name in China, and a lack of support for things like Facebook. But it’s an encouraging development in China’s web scene, which often feels like the Galapagos Islands – some fantastical and far-flung rocky outpost of the web where everything has evolved in total isolation. Well, apart from a bit of cribbing.

And so WeChat is emphasizing – as Tencent itself has been doing in recent years – that’s it’s an open platform. Justin stresses, “We must be connected and open to Facebook, Twitter ad Instagram. We must have the same strategy as them – we’re open.”

WeChat does this with plug-ins, sort of like web browsers have add-ons. So WeChat’s Facebook integration is an option for you to actually use, or leave untouched, or uninstall the plug-in altogether. Plus, other apps can use the app’s API to create an easy way for users to share a snippet of info via WeChat.

The teams emphasizes that it’s open to feedback from overseas users too, and the WeChat crew listens tofeedback via email, the Facebook fan page, and various app store comments.

Gaming and monetization?

Rivals like Line and Kakaotalk are pushing monetization hard with things like sticker stores and social gaming integration. And Whatsapp has its faintly ludicrous annual subscription fee. As for WeChat, Justin says that Tencent is not thinking of monetization and “it’s not important” right now. He points to the birth of the company’s huge IM service, QQ, which grew by user acquisition for many years before it then got monetized with everything from virtual currencies to social games.

Justin says that any app or game can already integrate with WeChat to make it easy for users to share info via the messaging app. But that’s not quite the full social gaming platform that we at this blog reckon will eventually spawn from WeChat. But time will tell. Justin reckons that WeChat “will be more open next year to gaming,” though that’s not an admission that it’s a coming feature.

As for the next update to the app, he promises it’ll bring new features – “We have new ideas every month” – so that the app will “become more comprehensive.”

What features would you guys like to see in the app? What can persuade you to ditch Whatsapp, or Facebook Messenger, and get you and your friends onto a new service?

(And yes, we're serious about ethics and transparency. More information here.)

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