Just how vital is Gareth Cliff to making WeChat relevant in South Africa?

CliffCentral WeChat TVC

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the basics of Gareth Cliff’s next independent venture, CliffCentral. Cliff — arguably the most well-known broadcast personality in South Africa — is promising ‘unradio’, and while that may have more to do with giving the heavy-handed regulation of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission a wide berth, the format will probably be very different to what we’ve come to expect from commercial FM radio.

The link with WeChat, where Cliff has an official account, is obvious. Programming will stream live within his channel, along with (the already active) soundbite updates and other multimedia. What is interesting, is that the WeChat angle was seemingly not part of the original plan.

Radio consultancy Ultimate Media, tasked with finding a sponsor/backer for Cliff, confirms it brokered the deal with WeChat. What would’ve been a more typical sponsorship deal has morphed into something which gives Cliff a compelling platform beyond a bog standard online radio station. The result is a natural fit (that’s stunningly obvious in hindsight).

Tencent has won the messaging platform game in China. In mobile, its Weixin product is the clear leader and while the focus in China is on experimenting with the platform and continuing rolling out different routes to monetisation, with WeChat (its international version of Weixin), the focus is “increasingly focused on driving engagement in specific target geographic regions.”

WeChat has achieved (what Tencent terms) “robust aggregate user growth” in markets outside of China. Globally, by the end of December 2013, WeChat (and Chinese version Weixin) had 355 million monthly active unique users, more than double a year prior.

That’s a very big number. But WeChat’s problem, of course, is gaining strong-enough footholds in markets where other large players (or regional ones) are dominant. This is the exact same problem faced by BlackBerry’s BBM (which ironically had a leadership position not too long ago).

WeChat’s been spending big on advertising. The famous campaign featuring football star Lionel Messi flooded television screens in select markets during 2013. In fact, Tencent spent US$200 million on advertising WeChat outside of China last year! South Africa was one of those target markets (it helps that Naspers, which owns a third of Tencent, also owns Africa’s — and South Africa’s — largest pay television service).

TV ads are great for awareness, but I’d argue the jury’s still out on how successful they are on driving app downloads. Who remembers the QQ instant messaging platform and the flurry of non-stop television advertising for it in the early 2000s? (That was also a Tencent product).

Since the Lionel Messi campaign (which was rather poorly ‘internationalised’), WeChat’s shifted focus to producing and flighting region-specific ads (“WeChat guy”) and has made a noticeable push on traditional radio platforms. It’s working with a number of DJs and practically every sizable station in the country. Nicole da Silva (who works for the same station Cliff’s just left), for example, calls herself a “WeChat ambassador”. Radio promotions are mostly competition-diven, but there is a shift to integrating on-air content to WeChat (and vice versa).

Is this strategy boosting relevance and engagement? Probably. But the real trick is to convert those users into regular ones. Enter Gareth Cliff (and most of his team from the 5fm Mornings show). Cliff will give tens of thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of South Africans a reason to use WeChat every day.

Cliff’s build-up to the launch of CliffCentral on 1 May is surely stimulating downloads and giving people who may have downloaded the app a while ago a reason to actually launch it (and perhaps even liberate it from a folder somewhere on their second or third homescreens).

WeChat’s holding up well in the top 10 free Android apps in the South African Google Play store. If it moves into the top 5 in the next fortnight, that’d be a sure sign that Cliff’s pulling power is significant. It’s not doing too badly on the country’s Apple store either, where it’s currently ranked second overall and in social networking.

Expect some very clever integration with other parts of WeChat, so that it doesn’t simply become a streaming platform – that’s probably the last thing it wants! This is a big roll of the dice from both Cliff and WeChat… I can’t wait to see how it plays out.



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