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One year on, how has the mainland taken to WeChat marketing?

In August 2012, the mainland's most popular text messaging service offered its services to brands and retailers for the first time. Now, 12 months on, we assess WeChat's contribution to the highly-competitive digital marketing sector.

Photo: QR here: bridging the on- and off-line world.
QR here: bridging the on- and off-line world.

In the 12 months since WeChat opened its public platform, the mobile text and voice messaging service has been widely adopted by a number of brands and retailers across the mainland and has become an important addition to their marketing armouries. One of its most popular manifestations has been in the use of QR codes to build online WeChat communities, with many of them focused on brands or retail destinations.

The WeChat membership card service (life.qq.com) was launched in June 2012. The move was backed by Tencent, the mainland's largest Internet business and WeChat's parent company. Tencent also developed QQ, the PC-based instant messaging software most favoured by mainland users. This multi-platform approach has been a key element in developing WeChat as an effective marketing tool.

As part of the strategy QR codes (matrix barcodes) have been used as a link between the real world and the virtual world. This has allowed users to access online content from brands and retailers by scanning smartphone-friendly codes in stores or in other public locations. These special QR codes link users to specific WeChat communities containing promotional messages, discounts and other special offers from the brand owner.

At present, such WeChat membership cards cover more than 1,000 brands and nearly 10,000 retail outlets in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Chengdu.

QR code ubiquity

The success of the initiative has seen QR become ubiquitous in major shopping malls in Beijing and other tier one cities. Their distinctive patterns are now a feature of walls, shop windows, dining tables, posters, floors and even staff uniforms in many outlets. Once a customer has scanned the appropriate QR code, he or she can then access promotional offers from the company concerned via four different online routes – brand promotion, grassroots advertising, discount offers and interactive advertising.

While WeChat brand promotion can take many forms, the China Merchants Bank (CMB) made a particularly effective use of the service's Drift Bottle function. This allows users to "throw" or "recover" a virtual "bottle" containing a message or greeting. The CMB campaign saw the bank make an automatic contribution to a children's autism charity every time a user responded to one of its "bottle" messages. At the height of the campaign there was, apparently, a one in 10 chance of accessing such a message while using WeChat.

Photo: Supermarkets have embraced QR technology unreservedly.
Supermarkets have embraced QR technology unreservedly.

In terms of grassroots advertising, a number of brands have made use of WeChat's Look Around feature. In normal use, this feature allows users to connect with other nearby WeChat subscribers. Its adoption as a marketing tool has seen a number of brands/retailers employing teams to wander through shopping malls or other public areas and "broadcast" appropriate sales and product information.

The application's use in terms of discounts has been relatively straightforward, with registered users receiving an electronic membership card entitling them to money-off and exclusive in-store offers. Working in conjunction with this, the interactive elements of WeChat allow brand owners to send "push" messages to users, highlighting special offers or new products. It is a combination of these last two options that have proved most popular with marketeers.

One of WeChat's first membership card initiatives saw it team up with the New World Department Store, APM and Chaoyang Joy City in July of last year. Since then, many other brands have also signed up, lured by the growing membership of such schemes. As a result, WeChat's public platform has now been adopted by an ever-growing number of restaurants, shopping malls, cinemas and clothing shops.

The success of the initiative can largely be attributed to one particular fact – its marketing initiatives have been just as popular with many consumers as they are with brand owners. The experience of two visitors to Beijing's Raffles City shopping mall clearly illustrates its appeal. While eating at Pepper Lunch, a Japanese fast food steak house, the two joined the restaurant's WeChat community by scanning an in-store QR code. This immediately entitled them to purchase two Rmb7 soft ice cream cones at the highly discounted price of Rmb2. Commenting on the success of this initiative, Mr Xia, the restaurant's manager, said: "This new form of marketing is great for attracting customers. About 30% of diners now scan the QR code and obtain membership."

One of the keys to successfully using the service seems to be the discretion that many companies are now applying to supplied content. Explaining its own philosophy, Ms Cao, a marketing assistant at the Mladi Spa in Beijing's EC Mall, said: "As well as promotional messages, we like to send out public service information, typically weather updates and advice on whitening and health care."

The Mladi Spa cautious approach is typical of that being taken by many companies, with the majority of them at pains to only message users with useful and valuable content and to avoid bombarding them with excessive promotions.

Some companies have become more cautious still, choosing to opt out of WeChat's services altogether. Mr Sun, a member of the marketing department of the New World Department Store, one of the first users of the public platform, said: "We have now stopped co-operating with life.qq.com. This is because of our concerns that Tencent might decide to impose charges in future. We also want to safeguard our customer data."

E-membership catches on

With some estimates indicating that WeChat now has around 400 million users, it is perhaps not surprising that most companies have not joined New World's boycott of the service. Zhang Yue, a member of the marketing team of Master Kong Chef's Table, a beef noodle restaurant owned by the Dicos Group, is a firm believer in its advantages. He says: "WeChat has many users and is accessed far more frequently than the apps developed by individual companies."

Overall, Tencent remains confident in the future success of its WeChat marketing service. Zhang Ying, General Manager of the company's lifestyle e-commerce department, said: "Many retailers are now more than happy to replace traditional membership cards with e-membership. It allows them to improve communications with customers and to conduct more targeted marketing."

It is an assessment that a number of companies are only too happy to agree with. Chen Yilin, a marketing assistant in the Zhongguancun branch of Jinyi Cinemas – one of the co-branding merchants of the life.qq.com membership card – said: "E-membership saves members a lot of hassle and means they don't have to carry cards. At our cinemas, you can enjoy discounts on tickets and other special offers just by presenting your Jinyi membership. We currently have over 100,000 WeChat subscribers."

Aside from the sheer volume of potential users, speed of access has been another major factor leading many companies to open public accounts. It was primarily for this reason that b+ab, the Hong Kong-owned women's fashion chain, signed up about a year ago.

Explaining the thinking, one b+ab staff member said: "In the past, we had to contact loyalty club members individually. Now we can use our public account facility to announce our promotions in a far speedier fashion. As well as signed-up members, anyone who has scanned our QR code will be able to access the information, giving us a much broader reach."

While many companies are clearly impressed by the subscriber numbers offered by WeChat, there remain some concerns as to how best to convert this online awareness into actual spend. Chef's Table's Zhang said: "WeChat is not really an open platform, so this form of marketing can only retain existing users and increase brand loyalty. It has yet to generate any significant increase in sales revenue for us."

Zhang's concerns are shared by New World's Sun. He said: "WeChat's influence is mainly in terms of online awareness at present. It will take time to convert this into genuine offline spend."

Photo: Is scanning a QR code opening the junk mail gateway?
Is scanning a QR code opening the junk mail gateway?

Junk e-messages deter users

Prior to the launch of the WeChat public platform, Weibo (the mainland's nearest equivalent to Twitter) was the preferred choice for network marketing activities. Weibo's open access and low costs made it possible to widely disseminate information, but it only created relatively weak merchant-customer ties and was often undermined by the amount of clutter on the service. Its "one-to-many" mode of communication also made it difficult for companies to target specific customer sectors.

As a "one-to-one" messaging service, WeChat attaches great importance to end-to-end communication and has a delivery rate of close to 100% for public account posts. Its end-to-end delivery ensures that information is sent to targeted users in as timely a fashion as possible. The greater segmentation offered by the services also boosts the possibilities for highly targeted marketing. Again, though, WeChat marketing does have a number of inherent limitations, with some users already disillusioned with the service.

Explaining her growing dissatisfaction, Ms Song, a long-time WeChat user, said: "The first time I scanned a QR code, I thought it was quite cool and highly practical, especially with all the discounts and other special offers that came with it. Now, though, I get lot of junk ads and I'm planning to remove it from my contacts."

According to iiMedia Research, a Guangzhou-based Internet marketing agency, junk mail is the main reason that a number of users have quit WeChat's public platform. There are also concerns about the usefulness of many mailings and the lack of new offers/information.

Anecdotal evidence also suggests that a number of users are also disillusioned with the one-way traffic of information, with all of it coming from companies to users. Customers have voiced some frustration that companies fail to engage with them regarding queries or complaints sent via WeChat. At present, it is thought that most companies lack the manpower and facilities to offer such two-way engagement.

WeChat has been quick to take many of these criticisms on boards. The company is looking to restrict the number of "one-to-many" messages sent via public accounts and to reduce the number of "push" notifications. This policy has already resulted in the forced closure of a number of public accounts.

Explaining the company's draconian approach to those misusing the system, Zeng Ming, WeChat's product division assistant general manager, said: "WeChat is more than just a marketing tool, and information bombing will lead to the loss of users all round."

Sun Ruonan and Song Yazhen,
Special Correspondents, Beijing

(Photos: Sun Ruonan)

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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