While the coronavirus pandemic has been a difficult time for everyone in terms of safeguarding our health and learning to live with restricted social freedoms, it has undoubtedly afforded us an opportunity to revolutionise the way we work.
While China’s closed ecosystem has certainty aided WeChat’s rise to the top, the app didn’t grow to more than one billion monthly active users for this reason alone.
In this article we’ll be looking at some of the factors behind WeChat’s meteoric rise and what UK start-ups can learn from one of the greatest success stories of the digital age.
China’s rapid adoption of the smartphone has seen the number of smartphone sales explode from 36 million in 2010 to over 660 million in 2017.
Scaling to customer demand
WeChat’s success can be directly tied to how the app effectively scaled to take advantage of the enormous upswing, growing to over 1 billion monthly users.
But what was the secret behind WeChat’s explosive growth?
Well, according to a research group within Tencent (WeChat’s parent company) part of it is due to WeChat’s strive to design for groups rather than the individual.
WeChat founder Allen Zhang is a promoter of developing products around the ‘Group Effect’ and striving to implement features that will be adopted by groups, which will (in turn) attract individuals who want to be part of the trend.
On top of this the research group suggests that members of the WeChat team strive to pay close attention to the needs of their users and offer solutions to problems users didn’t realise existed. One example of this is WeChat’s insanely popular red packet system, which allows users to digitally gift money traditionally handed out for lunar New Year.
Tencent originally created WeChat as a direct competitor to its own flagship desktop messaging service QQ, when Tencent founder Pony Ma Huateng took a gamble on the smartphone becoming the primary access point for the majority of Chinese internet users.
Never stop innovating
Success didn’t come overnight however, with WeChat struggling to find traction against its more established rivals as a simple message app.
But the WeChat team persevered, expanding the app to become the first to also include voice messaging (three years before Apple added the function to its iMessage app).
Since then WeChat has been at the forefront of global app development, adding a continuous stream of new features. Some of the new features can appear to contradict existing ones at first, reflecting the fact that the team behind the app follows the ethos of: ‘If you don’t create a culture of disrupting yourself, then a competitor is likely to disrupt you.’
In comparison Western app development is often more narrow in scope and revolves around refining an app’s core functions, which leads to some very stable and robust software, but also results in incremental improvements that fail to engage users.
While most western apps are built around one particular niche, splintering users between apps such as WhatsApp for messaging, Instagram for photo sharing, and Android Pay for virtual payments, in China smartphone users simply turn to WeChat.
One app to rule them all
While WeChat may have started as a messaging service, the willingness to innovate and adapt to the needs of its users has seen the app reach a point where it can be used to pay bills, order a taxi or even make doctors’ appointments.
To top things off WeChat has begun its ‘mini programs’ initiative, allowing mini-apps to be launched from the main app and letting others capitalise on WeChat’s massive user base while also keeping users from straying outside of the WeChat ecosystem.
WeChat is now so dominant that many Western brands targeting the Chinese market forgo their own apps in favour of launching their products directly through Webchat’s ‘mini programs’ system.
While the west looks unlikely to achieve this level of app singularity anytime soon, WeChat demonstrates how important a seamless experience is for users, and how it can benefit developers to look at ways to break down the current boundaries that leave smartphones cluttered with dozens of different apps.
Outside the app space, innovation, persistence, and a problem-solving, customer-first mentality are some of the biggest lessons that can be learnt from WeChat.
If you want your company to thrive, add value to your customer experience, try to pre-empt future needs and dare to be different!