If you view Wechat simply as a messaging app, it would be difficult to understand why as of 2016 Wechat managed to achieve 768 million DAU with half of the users spending over 90 minutes each day on it. It is also difficult to fit Wechat into any individual product category as a user can do so many different things on it. In addition to chatting, social media, money transfer and mobile payment, the functions fulfilled by Wechat itself, products and services enabled by third parties on this platform such as news feeding, enterprise customer service, car hailing and movie ticket purchasing are common use cases too.
In January 2017, Allan Zhang, Head of Wechat Business Unit in Tencent, announced the official launch of Wechat Mini Program, a new function that allows users to access light apps (less than 1 gigabyte) without having to download or install new apps. From the business strategy point of view, this move is widely perceived as an attempt of Wechat to bypass and replace existing app stores. Moreover, the speculation that eventually Wechat’s users can do literally everything on it would make the app essentially an operation system doesn’t sound completely crazy.
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Among some of the early adopters of the Mini Program include Ctrip for travel bookings, JD.com for online shopping, Didi Chuxing for ordering cabs, Mobike for bicycle sharing, Meituan Food Delivery, and McDonald’s Coupons. These Mini Programs covered many of the most frequently used internet services in China. Integrating them into Wechat in this light way will not only save Wechat’s users’ hazel but further strengthen the app’s desired position as a one-stop-solution platform for internet-based services.
Zhang, coming from a product manager background, is renowned for his commitment to user experience centric strategy. When facing tradeoffs between different functions provided on this Swiss-army-knife-like app, Zhang always prioritizes what made Wechat taking off – make communication between people easy. For the sake of protecting this user experience, the Mini Program initiative also came with some ‘unfriendly’ limitations for app developers and operators. For instance, Wechat doesn’t enable Mini Program operators to broadcast messages to their light apps’ followers so that Wechat users would be less frequently disrupted when using the app to communicate with each other.
Though Zhang did not talk about his plan to directly monetize this Mini Program initiative (yet), further improved user stickiness and bigger user data would for sure help Wechat to bargain with those advertisers who want to show their ads on its social media platform. In future, it is also possible for Wechat to charge Mini Program developers for app distribution and transaction enabling.
The question posted to Mini Program developers and operators, as complementors, is how much they are going to invest and rely on Wechat, a already well positioned platform frenemy, if it proved to be an effective traffic driver, especially considering Wechat is a walled garden that does not usually release user data to partners.