Many in the West have long disdained Chinese firms as copycats. Some believe that no innovation from China can be called original. Baidu looks like Google, they argue, Alibaba is a version of Amazon, and Tencent imitates Facebook.
Wrong. In the example of Tencent’s WeChat, the Chinese social media platform, Western equivalents such as Facebook Messenger, What’s App, or Twitter look hopelessly inferior.
As I wrote two years ago, there is nothing like WeChat in the West. A super app, as some call it, WeChat is a mobile messaging board offering free video calls, group chat, and many fun features such as a shake function to link contacts with other users. Now it boasts 700 million users. Each user has a personal QR code that serves as a digital ID. Over half of users have linked their bank accounts to its mobile payment system. They can shop, hail a ride or book a hotel – right there while they are chatting with friends.
At an event in Shanghai last year, Elaine Chow, communication manager of the global digital consultancy Razorfish, demonstrated how she went about her day without her wallet. She took a taxi to work, went to lunch with friends, shopped for clothes for a business meeting, and hopped into a bar after work – all paid with a few finger taps on the super app (see a video from NYT to learn more).
While a cashless economy is still the “next big thing” in the West, the Chinese are living it right now. For example, during the Chinese New Year, people usually send money in a red envelope to families and friends. Now they send digital cash on WeChat instead. This February, more than 400 million WeChatters participated in a “red packet” campaign and sent 32 billion packets of digital cash to their families and friends during the celebration.
WeChat is so intuitive and user friendly even some of my Silicon Valley friends have opted out of Facebook or LinkedIn for WeChat. No wonder Facebook is monitoring WeChat closely. In fact, Facebook’s billion-dollar acquisition of WhatsApp in 2014 was inspired by WeChat.
A recent article by The Economist indicates that WeChat offers an array of rich features such as advertising, e-commerce, digital content, online-to-offline services, and finance. In comparison, Facebook Messenger offers none of these, while WhatsApp has just started on finance. In the first quarter of 2016, WeChat generated $1.8 billion in mobile revenue, dwarfing WhatsApp’s $49 million, and Facebook Messenger’s embarrassing nil.
WeChat’s impressive rise demonstrates Chinese firms’ abilities to innovate. Back in 2011, Tencent spotted the coming trends of the mobile internet, and challenged its internal teams to design and develop a smartphone-only messaging app. That’s how WeChat was born. Originally named Weixin in Chinese, it soon adopted the English name WeChat with global expansion in mind.
In an effort to compete with Chinese e-commerce juggernaut Alibaba, Tencent allowed brands to open accounts on WeChat and introduced a payment system. By 2014, WeChat launched in-store cashless payments. All these efforts have proved to be fruitful. Three years ago, very few people bought things using WeChat. Now, about a third of WeChat users are making regular online purchases directly through the app.
Necessity is the mother of innovation. Today, more Chinese use mobile phones to access the internet than those in America, Brazil and Indonesia combined. Many leap-frogged from the pre-web era straight to the mobile internet, skipping the personal computer altogether. About half of China’s online sales take place via mobile phones, compared to barely a third in the U.S.
Thus, many problems in the mobile internet sphere do not exist in Western markets. Chinese firms have no choice but to innovate in order to compete. As they forge ahead, we can expect more innovations to come from China.
Perhaps it’s time that Facebook should copy Tencent’s WeChat. In fact, David Marcus, VP of Facebook Messenger, has openly expressed his envy for WeChat, calling it simply “inspiring.” He plans to “transform Messenger into a platform where people can communicate with businesses and buy things.”
After all, ideas are free, and they should flow both ways. Why reinvent the wheel?