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WeChat cannot succeed in Africa if it holds tight to its Chinese legacy

WeChat is blazing around the globe caring very little of what is in its path. In the last year, the platform’s global launch has seen it begin to weave itself into the fabric of Africa’s tech ecosystem and platforms of choice.

I recently started using the platform. Before now, it held no real appeal for me — none of the people I would ordinarily IM with are on the platform and sharing seemed futile if my crowd wasn’t there to share with. That said, the platform has managed to attract a fair number of users, but what are they doing there? What should they be doing there? If you spend any time with the tech elite or the tech obsessed, they will likely tell you that it’s stodgy. I think the common phrase is that it’s a smartphone app that behaves like a feature phone app.

“It is a necessary evil,” Brett Loubser Head of WeChat Africa tells me. “When you are developing an app that works across many platforms and also compensating for older model devices, you have to make some sacrifices.”

This is WeChat’s problem — for too long it has positioned itself as a chat platform, something it is now trying to change. The re-positioning of WeChat in Africa has been ongoing for the last few months. The new message is that it is a social media platform. In many ways it is, but this again is still part of what is holding it back on the continent.

WeChat is bogged down by the legacy of its roots. In China, this service is undisputed as the king because its challengers are nowhere to be found. In Africa, all its challengers arrived years earlier. For Africa, WeChat needs a new strategy.

What seems to be working for the platform right now is its resurgence as a media player, with maverick online radio station Cliffcentral for instance. Content works well on this platform because it compresses everything, making it more data friendly than most apps. For Africa content is key.

The time of the second screen: feeding the reality television hunger

Africans are hungry for content, truly. The success of Nollywood and the subsequent success of iROKO TV is not an accident. That market always and readily existed. Media consumed by Africans is often imported and very few Africans get the pleasure of watching themselves on screen. Nollywood and the local film industries popping up around the continent are changing that. The creators of these experiences provided a platform for Africans to see themselves on screen and, in turn seized the attention of the audience.

As it stands, the audience has become accustomed to watching television with their mobile device in hand, commenting and chronicling what it is happening on screen. For some, this is a good thing but for others, this is spoiler central. This is a space WeChat works well in. No one has really cracked the second screen business with a fully-immersed experience. You can tweet and hashtag and yes, soon you will be able to vote using Twitter, but when will this make it to Africa’s shores? WeChat currently does this with a few reality shows and offers the ability to vote, interact and consume content. This is where it really needs to focus its attention on. It seems to be working for it.

“When we partnered with Big Brother we didn’t expect too much,” Loubser confesses. “But the level of engagement was incredible. We beat out all the other platforms in two weeks.”

The engagement is contained within the platform between people watching and people interested in it.

“There is a powerful idea that shows need to start looking at,” he says. “To deliver content to users and give them the opportunity to participate in real-time.”

Facebook and Twitter offer the same in-app browser experience as WeChat does, but Loubser argues that it’s different. There is a level of interactivity and audience participation that these other social networks just haven’t been able to crack. The ability to vote and truly engage with the content and the show in-app without (at some point) being forced into another platform.

One app to contain them all

That’s something significant WeChat may have stumbled on. While most companies have begun the great unbundling and forcing users into new apps to experience different features, WeChat has contained everything in one place. Some agency person (possibly) got together with all the brands and told them that “they had to have apps.” Why, I ask, why do they all have to have apps?

Our attentions are already spread thin, that’s why most apps end up in the app graveyard. This is something WeChat could really look at as it ramps up its services. It’s already pretty good at compressing content, which means you are not using that much data. The problem here of course, is convincing brands that this a good idea, to create a more engaging and useful service for their consumers through this platform.

“What we are looking to do is build in customer service chatrooms for brands,” says Loubser. “Rather than have customers spend hours on the phone wasting their airtime, you can have a conversation about their problem in real-time.”

Moving towards utilities

If you look at what WeChat has done with M4Jam (Money for Jam) and what is happening with Cliffcentral and the millions of podcasts it pushed out since launch. There is an audience that already exists — they just need more things to do. There is huge potential for the platform to work as a utility platform. If I can make money off WeChat using M4Jam, why can I not, in the same breath, send money or pay for things with it?

“We will soon become a transaction platform,” Loubser explains. “If you think about what we do already like voting it is a transaction. Those votes count towards someone’s future so you have to take it seriously. It is as serious a transaction as sending someone money.”

When it comes to mobile payments a platform, Africa hasn’t really won with the unified payment system that can work across borders. This is mostly due to regulation and banks. WeChat has a lot pull (and cash) to fight the battle that many startups cannot.

WeChat has built trust through other interactions on the platform, such as voting and making money through M4Jam and, according to Loubser, when the money is finally plugged in the behaviour already exists with the users.

If we go back to mobile payments, while they were still figuring out this platform, could they not have perhaps replaced my wallet and made payments much easier for me? Take SnapScan for instance: using QR codes, which WeChat does so well already, and existing credit cards, is it possible for WeChat to work as a unified payment gateway? It already exists in most markets in Africa so the users are there. Almost every country accepts MasterCard or Visa, and payments via QR Code has been proven to work.

WeChat is not a chat platform and I will likely never use it for chatting. It’s not a social media platform — I already have too many of those. What I need is an app container that I can consume content on, a utility engine I can pay electricity with and a payment gateway.

Author | Mich Atagana

Mich Atagana
Mich started out life wanting to be a theoretical physicist but soon realized that mathematics was required. So, she promptly let go of that dream. She then decided that law might be the best place for her talents, but with too many litigation classes missed in favour of feminist... More

12 Comments

  1. Murray

    October 15, 2014 at 11:33 am

    I was involved recently in a high-level WeChat pitch to multiple brands and was very impressed by the potential of WeChat. It’s still incredibly clunky and needs some caressing but once mobile payments are available this app could be a real winner, in particular for brands looking to build community. It’s far more powerful than facebook or Twitter in this regard.

  2. Marcus Sorour

    October 15, 2014 at 10:27 pm

    As a communications consultant, I get to work closely with the team at WeChat South Africa and see first hand how brands (via official accounts) and users are enjoying new levels of engagement and sharing not available on other mobile platforms. If you are a brand or marketing manager and haven’t yet considered a WeChat official account, you really should as it’s a smart and cost effective way to direct content and interact with your target audience on their terms.

  3. barney23

    October 16, 2014 at 10:09 am

    Communications consultant? You mean “PR Professional” who probably has a WeChat account? Because that’s what your comment suggests.

  4. barney23

    October 16, 2014 at 10:11 am

    Better than FB how? This btw is a very honest question.

  5. Marcus Sorour

    October 16, 2014 at 12:03 pm

    @barney23, I work in marketing and communications. This includes public relations. I’ve worked with WeChat for four months and have been a user for a little longer. As I travel a lot, I use the WeChat video functionality to keep in touch with my family. If you are on WeChat, lets connect.

  6. Theo Gregoire

    October 24, 2014 at 12:51 pm

    “For Africa, WeChat needs a new strategy.”

    The only strategy that needs to be adopted in Africa, is its own. There is more than enough talent in Africa to introduce to the world a WeAfrica, a WeMotherland, etc etc.

    Africa, it’s time. Your time.

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