WeChat is the long-reigning king of social media apps in China. With over 1 billion monthly active users, 600 million daily active users, 200 million apps built within WeChat and a market penetration in China of 85.5%, if you’re going to enter the Chinese market, you need to be on WeChat. In fact, many businesses run their sole digital presence in WeChat.

So what exactly is WeChat? How does it work, and how do you use it to market your business? Here is our beginner’s guide to WeChat, to help you get up to speed.

WeChat: The origin story

With most Western social media apps blocked in China, WeChat started like many others – as a copy. When WeChat began, Whatsapp was one of the most popular chat apps on the market, with tools like Facebook Messenger barely in their infancy. WeChat began as a direct copy of Whatsapp, but has long since eclipsed Whatsapp with many, many more features.

Many social media apps and platforms in China have come and gone, some with extreme growth as they went viral in one of the biggest markets of the world. However, most quickly faded into obscurity with a newer, more fun versions taking them on, or simply because they were built around one core trend or activity that went out of fashion. However, WeChat has remained at the top of the social media charts for years, and shows no signs of slipping down the rankings of top social media apps.

What makes WeChat so sticky is that it is evolved to include a crazy amount of functions. So many, that WeChat has gone from a copy of Whatsapp, to something more like a copy of your entire iOS with thousands of apps. Actually, 200 million if we’re being specific.

WeChat’s core functions

For such a powerful app, it’s almost surprising that when you first log in to WeChat it presents as a simple version of Whatsapp – with your list of chats and conversations. However, look a little further and you’ll see that among your chats (including the all important Group chats), will be the Official Accounts of businesses and brands you follow. Dig deeper, and you’ll see a menu of other features within the app that really get into the full features of WeChat and why it is so powerful.

For the rest of this article, we’ll provide a guided tour of WeChat. We recommend following along by opening up the WeChat app. If you haven’t already got the app downloaded on your phone, you can download it from the Apple Store here or the Google Play store here.

WeChat personal accounts

Chat

The core function of WeChat is, as the name suggests, to chat with your friends! When you open the app, the first thing you will see is your list of chats. You can open one to send a message to a friend, or click the + at the top right of the screen to begin a new chat. WeChat has gained a foothold among Western consumers largely through people in other countries wanting to communicate with Chinese friends, family and business contacts, so you’ll be glad to know that when you download the app, it’s all in English. The interface is very familiar if you’ve ever used almost any other messaging app.

Calls

WeChat is also a great platform for making calls. Open a chat, and tap the + next to the emoji icon in the bottom of the screen and you’ll get a bunch of options – file uploads and video or voice calls. If you’ve got friends in China, WeChat is a great way to call them free of charge.

Moments

Going back to the Home Screen, you’ll see 4 options down the bottom:

  1. Chats
  2. Contacts
  3. Discover
  4. Me

Click on Discover, then Moments at the top of the screen and you’ll get to what is WeChat’s version of a news feed. It’s where people post photos, quick updates, videos, links and highlights, and the most recent are at the top. Scroll through to see updates from your friends, and like and comment on posts.

Discover

Under the discover tab, you’ll see there are quite a few options. Key highlights are:

  • ‘Top Stories’, where you can see what’s trending in China
  • ‘Search’ – where you can search for topics, content and brands
  • ‘Mini Programs’, where you can find the apps you subscribe to
  • Fun ways to discover new friends: Shake, Scan and People Nearby. Shake connects you instantly to a conversation with someone else random who is shaking at the same time as you, and People Nearby lets you start conversations with others in your area. Scan allows you to scan a QR code – many people in China have a QR code that links to their WeChat on their business card.

Groups

Groups are a very important function of WeChat. Like most popular chat apps, you can add anyone into a group to chat to. However, WeChat takes it one step further – people can publicly share groups so anyone can subscribe. Groups are one of the most popular ways businesses share information, and they are popular in Australia too. For example, schools will create a group of parents to share important links to, Real Estate agents create groups to share their latest listings to, and friends LOVE a group chat. Groups are almost professionalized in WeChat, with millions of groups for almost any topic. Groups are like the new mailing list.

QR Codes

There are almost no links in WeChat (except for one solitary link at the end of an article), it’s all done through QR codes. Your own WeChat account generates a unique QR code for you that you can show to people so they can quickly add you. Every official account has a QR code to scan and follow and every post can have a QR code to scan and open the post. If you can link to something, you can create a QR code. The reason the QR code works so beautifully in WeChat is that when you open the app, you can click the + at the top of the screen to scan a QR code (or ‘Scan’ under the discover menu) and when reading a post you can hold down a QR code to open the link. Unlike the Western world where they just haven’t taken off, by integrating QR codes so well with the app, it takes links to the next level – every business in China has a QR code outside their shopfront, at the counter, on their billboards, in print advertising, on signage and more, so you can seamlessly integrate your online WeChat presence with your offline marketing.

Hot tip: The best way to market your WeChat account and grow followers is to add it’s QR code to your signage and advertising.

Adding Friends

Adding friends is easy, and there are loads of convenient ways to do it. The fastest was is by using your personal QR code, which conveniently can be found on your profile page. It’s common in China to see QR codes on business cards, that you can quickly and easily scan to connect. You can also add people by typing in their account name, add in bulk by connecting your email account or mobile contacts, or from a mobile number.

More fun ways to add people are to go to ‘Friend Radar’ which shows people in your radius. This is great to do at a conference or meeting, so you can quickly add everyone in the room.

Business accounts

When it comes to promoting a business on WeChat, it’s a whole different kettle of fish. Business accounts on WeChat (called Official Accounts) are more like a blog, with businesses publishing longer form articles. Consumers follow the accounts to get regular updates in the form of longer articles. When thinking about how to use WeChat as a business, the best comparison is a mailing list – customers and fans subscribe to your account, and get regular alerts in the app as you publish articles.

How WeChat Official Accounts work

There are two kinds of official accounts businesses can have. One is called a ‘Subscription’ account. In this account, businesses can post once a day, with up to 8 articles at a time. These posts go into a folder in WeChat called ‘Subscriptions,’ so they are a few steps removed from the main WeChat home screen. The other Official Account type is a ‘Service’ account. With a Service account, you can post once a week, with up to 6 articles in a post. Service accounts are front and center, next to your chats on the home screen, and users get a notification every time you post. Service accounts also have advanced customer features available including chatbots. While a service account can publish less frequently, each post gets much more exposure.

Mini programs

Mini programs are apps within WeChat. WeChat is designed so any company or developer can create advanced apps within WeChat, which is one of the main reasons it has become so popular. businesses use mini programs for all kinds of functions – from ecommerce stores, food delivery, advanced website style apps within the WeChat interface, creating competitions, splittnig bills/paying at the table in restaurants, providing offers and more.

Advertising

WeChat has a built in advertising platform, that allows companies to promote themselves in a range of placements – banners on articles, in the moments feed, at the bottom of articles and more. However, there are some strict rules on who can and can’t advertise, for example foreign real estate or anything that encourages overseas investment is prohibited.

How to market on WeChat

With the Chinese market being such a lucrative one for overseas audiences, the question on everyone’s mind is how to use WeChat to build an audience and grow your brand in China. The first thing to understand is that the Chinese audience does not respond to advertising in the same way Western audiences do. Doing business in China is all about building trust and relationships, which is why creating and sharing content is at the heart of WeChat.

WeChat allows you to build trust and long term relationships with your prospects by posting regular content updates that allow them to get familiar with not just your products or service, but who your brand really is. Posting at least one article a week will build a loyal audience over time, that you can convert with specific offers.

While you can advertise on WeChat, usually those ads will drive followers to your account, but not necessarily sales right away – they still want t get to know and understand you. The good news is that WeChat users are more likely to follow accounts they’ve just discovered, and give you a chance to show them what you’re all about.

There are a range of ways to build your followers online. First, WeChat has search engine-like features, meaning people will find you based on the keywords in your content. Second, ad campaigns to build your audience work well, and finally, influencers, or KOLs as they are called in China (meaning Key Opinion Leaders) are one of the most effective ways to gain followers – getting influential WeChat accounts to share content about you is a great strategy, given how important referrals and word of mouth are in China.

It’s important not to forget offline marketing, too. If you have a retail presence or produce any print marketing or flyers, these should all promote your WeChat account QR code and encourage people to follow you. Don’t be shy about incentives or competition to get people to take action, too. Offline marketing works wonders to grow your WeChat account.

How to get started on WeChat

For a personal account, it’s easy. Simply download the app, sign up, and you’re ready to go. For a business account, it’s a bit more complicated. As an international business, you’ll need to apply directly to WeChat and submit a range of documents to verify you are rightfully able to use your brand name. The WeChat application can be lengthy and confusing, so if you’re not sure where to start, or having trouble, reach out to us and we can help manage the process for you! Simply fill out our contact form to find out more, or you can sign up with WeTools and we’ll walk you through the whole process!