When you talk about chat, WeChat will invariably pop up in conversation. At 1.1 billion accounts and 650 million MAUs and hosting a multitude of services from paying your water bill, booking a doctor’s appointment, getting a McDonald’s delivery and even buying a car, WeChat is an exciting vision of how messaging could be the portal to all services in the future.
Is WeChat really the future?
It’s unclear if WeChat’s ubiquity and centralization can be duplicated. Even with WeChat’s amazing statistics, only 100 million out of their 1.1 billion accounts are used outside of China.
Many of their core features such as City Services require coordinating with government agencies and utilities to be successful. For America to have the same level of service, it would require federal and state organizations to update and overhaul their entire infrastructure for chat.
The second issue is ubiquity. China’s ‘leapfrog’ into mobile was shaped by historical circumstances. While America and Western Europe were enjoying the rise of personal computing in 1970s, China was just beginning to stabilize under Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms. Even in 1990s, with privatization and Special Economic Zones, a personal computer was still mostly unaffordable to the masses. Mobile phones however, were ubiquitous. They were cheap, affordable and transportable.
Mobile phones were used not only in communications, but as a quick way to send money and coordinate logistics. Users would “pay” each other by topping their SIM card credit, which only required a phone number. Farming families shared a single mobile phone to coordinate micro-loans and set prices. Text messaging was cheaper than calling, and you could easily share photos to friends and family using MMS. It’s important to remember that these behaviors were shaped before apps and smartphones came into the market.
So when smartphones entered China, users adopted it with incredible speed. Existing behavior around payments, coordinating services and send/receive updates became faster and more accessible with updated software. Mobile penetration is a whopping 93.3%, with 77% smartphone users. That translates to a user population of 600 million.
Different Audiences = Platform Diversity
It’s not the same in North America or even the rest of the world. Unlike WeChat where you have 16 year old users and 65 year old users comfortably on the same platform, Americans self-select themselves into the “appropriate” platform.
For instance, Kik, Yik Yak and Snapchat are known for its younger demographic. Those platforms are viewed as ‘cool’. If Facebook users started migrating over, their users would complain and leave — I don’t want to be on the same platform as my parents! The reverse applies, with Facebook users grumbling about today’s selfie generation and entitled millennials.
On a global level, different messengers dominate based on country. Kakao is popular in Korea, LINE is popular in Japan and parts of Southeast Asia and WhatsApp is popular in South America and Western Europe. Localization and language barriers make it difficult for any single chat app to dominate worldwide completely.
Therefore, it’s unlikely that a single global platform will emerge. Instead, users will cluster around different platforms based on language, interests, relationship context and other psycho-demographic information.