1wechatThe opportunity for interactive marketing professionals to reach and win Chinese consumers via social media is tempting, but the threat of failure looms just as large for brands with a shallow understanding of Chinese consumer behavior, cultural expectations, and digital platforms. Vice versa, Chinese internet companies struggle to get a foot into the international communications services playground. So far, China has been more known to copy global Internet phenomena such as Facebook, Google and Twitter and make it compatible for the Chinese market. That, however, could change now with "WeChat", a communications all-rounder from the Middle Kingdom that is set out to succeed in the global market.

WeChat combines individual communication tools, as known from Facebook, Skype or WhatsApp, to a single all-round service. It started out in China early 2011 under the name "Weixin", that means translated micro-message. In April 2012 there has been launched then an English version of it called “WeChat”. Telcent, the company behind the product, gives an indication of their direction, namely getting out of the Chinese market and up onto the international stage. Right now, it even seems that the Chinese new media innovation intends to rival Facebook.

The service is "one for all", by melting a variety of communication tools together to create an all-rounder: "VideoCalls" are possible, as we know them from Skype; the "Moments" feature is reminiscent of the photo-sharing app "Instagram"; and "Shake", an equivalent to "Bump", facilitates the exchange of contact information - just by shaking the phone. In addition, there is a "Web WeChat" and a "Group Chat", and if the desired person with whom users wanted to talk is simply not available, they can leave that person a "Voice Chat" - a spoken message. There is further the feature "Look Around" which is created kind of similar to the location-based social network "Foursquare" that allows informing your friends about where you happen to be. Last but not least, users can make chance acquaintanceships via "Drift Bottle", meaning that like a message in a bottle you can throw messages into the virtual sea of data, which can then be picked out by any person.

Instead of a lot of individual apps and communication channels, "WeChat" promises the full range of micro-messages in a single service: Whether alone or in a group, by video or photo, in direct contact or via a message you have left, with friends or strangers - messages can be exchanged in any imaginable ways of communications.

To no surprise, the number of "WeChat" users has grown rapidly, so that it seems right now as if the new service could rival Facebook. In March 2012, there were still 200 million people using the service that currently is allegedly enjoyed by 300 million people already - an increase by half in about nine months only. By comparison, Facebook made the jump from 200 to 300 million users within three months, but that was in 2009, when Facebook already existed for several years.

Due to the fact that the service exists in English for ten month now clearly shows that the product should gain ground internationally - and such an approach is new. Until now, Chinese communications services, such as the social network Renren or the search engine Baidu, seemed to have the sheer purpose to serve as an equivalent to Western communications services, satisfying the Chinese market. The same step towards an international orientation has been done recently by the Chinese micro-blogging service Sina Weibo. Founded in 2009, the company started its English speaking user interface just this year.

By and by, we will see if WeChat has a strong will and manages to succeed in the international market. Unfortunately, Tencent gives no insights on how the service is developing in the various regions, although exactly these numbers would be interesting for an assessment of how and where WeChat is used. Worth knowing would be the development of the number of users outside of China or outside of Asia and how the service already spread in the European and U.S. market.

However, it doesn’t have to be mentioned that a focus on a version of its service for the Asian market alone could achieve a considerable number of users - Sina Weibo proved it. According to the micro-blogging service, they had in the first quarter of 2012 already more than 300 million users – and during that time there was no English-language version of the service. If WeChat allegedly recorded 300 million users, this remarkable statement could have been achieved even without a large number of English-speaking users.

However, beware of euphoria just because of the numbers. It’s still a moot point whether WeChat will make it on the international stage. If you consider that there are currently barely any media innovations from Asia that were able to prevail in the international market, it remains questionable if foreign users will accept the service and trust the Chinese censorship regime at all. Just a few weeks ago Chinese dissidents questioned the security of the service and made allegations that messages were censored.

How much buzz the internet company Tencent will create for their WeChat, and how their service will flourish on the international parquet, we will see.

By Daniela La Marca