Tencent's WeChat app charms US

Expat students are driving the app's expansion beyond China. (Petar Kujundzic, Reuters)

Expat students are driving the app's expansion beyond China. (Petar Kujundzic, Reuters)

WeChat, one of China’s most popular mobile-messaging applications, is turning to thousands of students studying in the United States to spread its usage around the country.

One of those is Xiaoxing Han, who graduated last year from Michigan State University. Han, 25, introduced her off-campus church to WeChat, which is owned by Chinese internet giant Tencent Holdings, in which South African company Naspers has a 34% interest.

Now about 15 fellow members are using WeChat to stay in touch with friends and to alert the 4 000-member Chinese community about church events. “WeChat has everything,” said Nick Setterington, the director of international ministries for University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan.
“Maintaining personal communication with the international community through WeChat has helped me stay in touch with people.”

Han is one of about 274 000 Chinese who studied in the US in the past academic year, many of whom have become informal ambassadors for WeChat by introducing it to non-Chinese friends and classmates and helping to lay the groundwork for Tencent to expand in the country.

WeChat has grown to 468-million monthly users worldwide since its 2011 introduction, according to the company. About three million are in the US, according to GlobalWebIndex, a research firm based in London.

The free app combines social and communication elements – a sort of WhatsApp meets Facebook meets Instagram – helping to spur its popularity. The app can be used in Chinese or English, with Chinese messages automatically translated into English with the click of a button.

“WeChat creates fast tracks to connect with Chinese students across borders,” said Han, who majored in advertising and who now works at Michigan State as a communications co-ordinator. “It’s a more intimate and less formal way to connect with people.”

WeChat needs all the help it can get in the US, where competition is fierce as consumers gravitate to better-known American messaging apps, including Instagram, WhatsApp and Snapchat.

WhatsApp, owned by Facebook, had half a billion users worldwide as of April. Tencent’s chief strategy officer, James Mitchell, said on an earnings call earlier this month that the Chinese company, based in Shenzhen, had experienced some setbacks in Western markets with WeChat and had found “it was proving hard to make headway”, given the competition and costs of expansion.

The US, with its huge technology market, remains a target for WeChat. Tencent has opened an office in Palo Alto, California, and a spokesperson, Alexander Verge, said the company had established a small project team in the US to study the market. He declined to elaborate.

WeChat isn’t relying only on informal ambassadors to push deeper into the US. It has also been working to foster student usage in the country, organising a programme at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) last November to spur downloads of the app beyond Chinese users. During the two-week programme, eight WeChat “influencers” used 80 pizzas, 1 000 WeChat-branded sunglasses and 200 WeChat T-shirts to raise the app’s profile.

“WeChat wanted us to take it mainstream,” said Patti Regan, the chief executive officer of Regan Group, a marketing agency in Los Angeles, which worked with Tencent on the programme.

Commercial event
She said Regan was in discussions with WeChat to roll out more campus-based events this year.

One of the UCLA influencers was Kelly Yeo, an 18-year-old sophomore from Los Angeles, who said she was paid $25 an hour for her work. She said the campaign was a “very standard commercial” one and that she persuaded friends to download WeChat. They also participated in pizza party contests.

But Yeo hasn’t continued using WeChat, instead preferring to text and use Facebook’s Messenger app.

“The only reason for using WeChat is primarily geographical,” she said, adding that Chinese immigrants and students use the app whereas non-Chinese students don’t appear to have as much interest in it.

Still, some of WeChat’s American work appears to be paying off, with users increasing elevenfold in the US to three million since early 2013, according to GlobalWebIndex.

WeChat is “like the buzz around Alibaba – a name that looks at us from Asia that we don’t know about but is well poised to enjoy further expansion,” said Jason Mander, the head of trends at GlobalWebIndex. “The race is heating up as other apps start to incorporate WeChat features.”

Chinese students who adopted WeChat while in their home country are now set to be the foundation of the app’s American push. Henry Li, 22, a student from Beijing studying at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, began using WeChat about three years ago.

He and fellow students at UNC and Duke University, including non-Chinese classmates, helped to spread WeChat when they were part of a 39-person committee that planned an annual three-day cross-campus event on China-US relations in February.

“It streamlined work and life – it’s the default communication tool for those interested in China,” said Li, who said a few team members also began spending more time on WeChat. “Group work was made easier and fun.”

Meng Meng, a 24-year-old recent graduate from the University of Southern California, who comes from China’s Shandong province, became a WeChat advocate soon after she sold her car through WeChat this August.

Meng mobilised more students to use WeChat to sell cars, reposting friends’ car sale messages and asking potential buyers to join WeChat.

Building trust
“In WeChat’s intimate setting, it was easier to build trust and ultimately close on deals,” said Meng, who listed her Mazda 2 for $10?800 and quickly found it the subject of a bidding war on “Moments”, a timeline feature in which users can share content.

For Han, who continues to volunteer for her church, she uses WeChat frequently to communicate with Chinese newcomers and non-Chinese church members, as well as liking and reposting content from her church and even finding a photography job through mutual friends on WeChat.

“If not for WeChat, I wouldn’t have bonded with my fellow church members and newcomers,” Han said. – © Bloomberg

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