WeChat is an app on a scale that Western markets struggle to imagine - so big that a host of mini-apps has sprung up in its ecosystem. Hot Pot China's Jonathan Smith explores how brands have succeeded.

It’s not surprising that many brands start with WeChat when it comes to marketing to Chinese consumers. With its overwhelming usage numbers WeChat can be a great way in, but too often marketers will turn to it as their default option and not look beyond. WeChat when approached correctly is an exceptional platform on which to reach Chinese consumers, but brands can easily underutilise its many functions, or misuse them altogether.

So, what is WeChat? The platform is a ‘superapp’, with over a billion monthly active users, that covers a vast range of functions and capabilities: WhatsApp-style chats with friends and family, video calls, dedicated content from a range of brands and media outlets, and direct integration of payment through WeChat Pay. (For more read WARC’s What we know about marketing on WeChat)

On top of that, people can buy from e-commerce stores without ever leaving WeChat, pay their local taxes and even make hospital appointments. To the casual observer, it seems to do everything.

However, some brands can struggle to make sales conversions or keep down their CPA or CPM costs due to WeChat being something of a walled garden. Or they might buy ads directly within WeChat and assume that that’s enough to drive the right awareness and engagement. However there is much more to success on WeChat than this.

Mini-programmes on the rise

Dedicated WeChat mini-programmes (apps that are streamed from within WeChat rather than downloaded directly to the user’s device) have now come of age and usage is ingrained. They have really caught on among users since they were launched three years ago and have led to a major shift in the Chinese digital ecosystem.

As a result, what might be seen as high-tech retail innovation in the West is starting to become the norm in China. In Zara’s Shanghai flagship store users can use WeChat to scan clothes on the rack, replace the items then hit “ready” to have them delivered to a waiting dressing room. The user can then pay via WeChat and leave with the items or have them delivered home within 24 hours. WeChat means convenience and many users have high expectations of service levels as a result.

Mini-programmes offer access to the best of WeChat’s capabilities in a highly targeted way. Firstly, with brand-led campaigns, they can offer exceptional creative content opportunities. For example, Selfridges recent created an ‘editorial magazine’ featuring three UK-based fashion-forward Chinese micro-influencers in areas covering sculpture, poetry and style. The mini-programme celebrated Chinese consumers who have built a life in the UK and was designed to be engaging, interactive and shareable. It also drove through to curated product selections on the retailer’s eCommerce site.

Mini programmes also work brilliantly for e-commerce. If you’re looking to sell your whole range in China, you’ll likely need an entire standalone e-commerce site or consider partnering with a Chinese marketplace; but for a smaller capsule collection, a mini-programme offers an entirely frictionless and self-contained offering. Consumers can access and do everything within WeChat, which makes it unlike any digital offering in the West. Additionally, mini-programmes are endlessly shareable, meaning that a store, like a piece of content, can go viral. The commercial benefits of this are obvious.

We worked with Fortnum & Mason, analysing data on what Chinese shoppers bought from its flagship UK store and discovered that almost 90% of those purchases consisted of a small number of SKUs. A mini-programme was then the ideal channel to provide WeChat shoppers in China with a small selection of product lines, including those SKUs that we knew would be the most popular.

Mini-programmes can also provide app-like functionality – without the need to download an app – for retail destinations like Oxford Street, which could use them to guide people to different stores and brands.

It’s worth repeating that the powerfully frictionless element of WeChat mini programmes cannot be underestimated and makes everything we say in Western markets about frictionless activity sound like lip service.

Take the right approach

Jumping in to create a mini-programme, even though they’re hugely popular, isn’t going to be automatically successful. You’ll need to ask yourself what you want to achieve with your digital platform approach more broadly and how are you’re going to achieve that goal. WeChat is a valueless platform if you’re not reaching the right people with your activation.

The answer, as with all the best marketing campaigns worldwide, is to start with the consumer: where are they, what are they doing (on WeChat or elsewhere) and what do you want to achieve with them? Is it about revenue growth, sales or engagement and creating a brand experience?

Marketers need to do their homework and plan their China activity the way they would with any other media channels so that they target the right audience, otherwise there is the risk their carefully developed mini programme becomes a white elephant. A DSP media buy can form part of your strategy to send consumers to your brand’s mini programme. However, a sports/fitness brand might do well to partner or collaborate with a dedicated fitness platform like ‘Keep’, which has 60 million users whom it can drive to your brand and content. Likewise other brands should be looking to seek out and partner with dedicated communities to drive higher quality traffic.

There is no doubt that WeChat – and WeChat mini-programmes – have enormous potential for brands and retailers in the West looking to expand their footprint in the vast Chinese market. But, as with any other digital channels, the brands most likely to succeed are those that combine the basics of good marketing practice with the right insights into which elements of the platform are right for them. Throwing money at WeChat just because of its impressive user numbers is likely to be wasteful and ineffective.