WeChat is a phenomenal super app that the Chinese use for everything – to hail a taxi, order food, or buy movie tickets and medicines. After reaching its first 100 million users in just 433 days,WeChat decided to go global with the product. The idea was to take a product that was doing well in China and go global by doing localisations around the brand and ecosystem partnerships, supported by aggressive marketing.
What issues led to the downfall?
Peculiar features like WeChat making it mandatory for users to send “friend requests” which had to be accepted by the other person for the chat to begin, with a similar problem for admins of a group chat.
During initial onboarding when users were just checking app’s features, many would tap the “people nearby” feature, which would switch on location sharing by default including with strangers. But it wasn’t very intuitive to turn it off. Women used to get a lot of unwarranted messages from men, which was a major turn off and many of them left the platform. China probably didn’t have this stalking problem. When this feedback was reported to China, the cultural issue was missed or considered unimportant.
In China, where the internet was cheaper than in India in 2012, sending video files of, say, 4 MB was not a challenge. WhatsApp compresses a 5 MB photo to 40 kilobytes. WeChat did not compress the files and took many minutes and data to send and receive media files.
When it launched in India the size of WeChat app was 40 MB.Most popular mobile phones in India at the time came with less than 200 MB of internal memory.
WeChat was only available on Android and iOS versions at a time when India still had a significant Symbian OS and BlackBerry market. This changed eventually, but came too later after a year and a half.
Rather than fundamentally changing their products to suit the low-end phone markets, which India was in 2013, they assumed that the world would eventually move to better quality phones and internet speeds, where their apps would provide a better messaging experience.
In India, the company’s major focus to promote stickiness remained to get more brands to sign up on the platform, to create an ecosystem where brands ran promotions and gave discounts to users to follow them on WeChat. It involves creating a large base of users that spend a lot of time on the platform, creating segments of these users, getting brands that promote themselves to target user segments.
WeChat had great potential as a brand if the approach to marketing in India had focused on fixing the product design instead of focusing on brands. But alas, it was less keen to invest in product changes that weren’t relevant to the China market.