WeChat: The most popular messaging app you’ve never used

Popular Chinese mobile messaging app WeChat is launching a charm offensive in South Africa this week aimed at raising the profile and winning new users across to its networking tool. And the funny thing is that it might just succeed.

You know how it is: just when you think you’ve mastered the art of social networking and are on top of your Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, LinkedIn, Skype, Google+, Vine, Vimeo, YouTube, Mxit, Binu, BBM and WhatsApp accounts, along comes The Next Big Thing which all your friends are using and it’s time to reboot your online social habits once again.

Is WeChat one of those? Quite possibly, and when it comes to South Africa it has several things in its favour. Firstly, it’s made by Tencent. That’s the Chinese company which dominates casual and social gaming for Asia, and which is partly owned by Naspers/MIH – the guys behind the Media24 group and Mweb. Tencent already have an outstanding track record with instant messaging, with almost 800 million people using its QQ messaging client. It also owns a stake in Gears of War developer, Epic Games. Combined with Naspers’ local media know-how it’s impossible not to take seriously.

WeChat, meanwhile, launched two years ago and already has 400 million registered users of whom around half are active monthly users, and 50 million of which come from outside China. It’s also available on all major mobile platforms including Nokia’s Symbian Series 40.

Brett Loubser, Managing Director for WeChat South Africa, says that one of the main reasons the app has been so successful in China is that it features a quick ‘Push to talk’ feature for sending voice clips rather than text as IMs. Typing Mandarin characters on a phone keyboard is time consuming, while voice clips are quick and easy to send – and the same feature could also be useful for populations with relatively low rates of literacy.

Most importantly, however, WeChat already has local offices in South Africa, and is planning a big push via traditional marketing in a way that Facebook, Google and Twitter would never dream of over here.

Loubser told that in the six months since the firm launched here, its run TV ad campaigns and encouraged viewers of Boots & All to take part in WeChat chat rooms with presenters during live broadcasts.

The way WeChat works is as almost a hybrid of all the chat clients and social media you may already be using. It’s built around a simple one-to-one messaging service, just like WhatsApp or BBM, but you can also post status updates to a social feed called ‘Moments’ which looks unnervingly like the new Facebook (although there’s some debate about whether Facebook or WeChat was first with this design).

You can also sign up to follow celebrities, news organisations or other brands and receive updates through your IM feed, although there’s a careful separation of personal messaging and other types of update.

“Users take their privacy very seriously,” says Loubser, “You’re always in control of who can see what you’re doing and how much you give away.”

That said, there are some interesting features built around geolocation. A ‘shake’ feature will put you in touch with any random strangers anywhere in the world who are open to chatting with new people at that moment, and you can also open up your location to others in order to find nearby WeChatters who might accept you onto a friends list.

If that sounds a little creepy, there are some safeguards built in. Neither of the features are switched on by default, and time out within a couple of minutes of accessing them. And since you can’t be anonymous on the app – it’s tied to your phone number, like WhatsApp – there’s less risk of it being used for nefarious means. Parents whose children have smartphones, however, might want to keep an eye on who their kids are WeChatting with.

Another feature which might help to unseat more established chat clients like WhatsApp and Mxit is that there’s a web interface for your account which you can use to chat from while at a desktop PC.

Whether or not you’re convinced, you can expect to hear a lot about WeChat over the next few weeks as Loubser is taking the app on a charm offensive among local press. What do you think? Are you already reaching your capacity for managing your personal social media or is there a real opportunity for a company to come in and woo users in South Africa and beyond? I’m curious to hear your thoughts below – after perusing the obligatory WeChat infographic.

WeChat infographic


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