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WeChat's targeted ads backfire

News, 03 February 2015

BEIJING: WeChat, the popular Chinese messaging app owned by internet giant Tencent, launched targeted ads a week ago, but users then took to the internet to vent their frustration.

Furthermore, an online survey conducted by China Central Television found more than 80% of WeChat users thought the new ads amounted to commercial harassment, Xinhua reported.

WeChat, which has about 468m monthly active users but has struggled to monetise the app since its launch in 2011, began testing sponsored ads a week ago on Sunday.

Just three brands were involved – Coca-Cola, BMW China and Vivo, the Chinese smartphone brand – and their ads appeared in the WeChat Moments news feed.

They looked like a regular update from a friend, but appeared with a small 'sponsored' button in the top right corner and users were invited to 'like' them and post comments.

Although users were given the right to opt out, some of them commented that they were an annoyance while others cracked jokes, complaining that they either didn't receive an ad at all or that the ads appeared to get their financial status wrong.

Some jokes suggested the BMW ads were targeted at wealthy users, those who could not afford an iPhone received ads from Vivo, while everyone else got ads from Coco-Cola.

This happened in a country where perceptions about financial status remain important.

Dong Xu, a senior analyst with Analysys International, a local research firm, said WeChat's technology is good at targeting specific demographics useful for advertisers, but warned the company had to be careful about how it uses the data.

"It is still too early to say whether or not WeChat advertising will be successful," she said. "If the idea is mishandled, its users will leave the system and they will face the risk of having destroyed the entire WeChat ecosystem."

However, Tencent spokesman Zhang Jun said the company places great importance on the user experience and that ads will "disappear automatically if left unnoticed for hours".

Data sourced from Xinhua, CNTV; additional content by Warc