Editor’s Note: This post is contributed by Thibaud Andre, manager at Daxue China Market Research, a China-based market research firm focusing on China. He met with Thomas Graziani, founder of WalktheChat, to write this article.

These days there seem not to be a week without WeChat making a big innovation or change to its platform. For some time now, you can see the number of views and “likes” (赞) for each article. But can we trust these numbers? Let’s have a look.

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WeChat traditional approach to views, likes and follows

WeChat used not to make any information available about how popular an account was: you could not know how many people viewed an article, liked it or how many people were following it.

This policy stood in clear contrast with Weibo’s: Weibo would make the number of fans visible for each account, and any Weibo account with less than 10,000 or 100,000 would hardly be noticed.

This is, together with stricter government regulation, one of the reasons of the decline of Weibo: as accounts wanted to attract more followers, they had to first add thousands or tens of thousands of “zombie fans”: fake accounts created for the sole purpose of inflating the perceived popularity of a channel. Zombie accounts soon started being automated to follow real accounts who would sometimes follow them back, thus increasing their marketing impact and avoiding them being deleted. Weibo quickly started looking like a messy place where it would sometimes be difficult to tell real people from spam bots.

By not displaying followers or views, WeChat tried to avoid this problem: as only the operator of the account knew about its popularity, there was less point in inflating the numbers and people cared more about real followers and views.

So, what changed after views and likes became visible?

You can see the number of views and likes for each article. Although these are not equal to the number of followers of an account, they are correlated. We can expect the following things to happen now:

  • Accounts with more followers will reach a higher number of views more easily.
  • More views will have a psychological effect on the perceived value of the articles: people will consider the articles more popular and will be more likely to share them.
  • Accounts with more followers will therefore end up with more views, more shares and… more followers

In a nutshell: the new update will concentrate growth of followers and views on accounts which are already popular.

Why this change?

Several reasons might motivate WeChat displaying number of views and likes:

  • It is a good way for Tencent to introduce more transparency: many WeChat public accounts would wrongly claim millions of followers. By making views visible, WeChat makes such false claims hard to sustain. If an account is supposed to have millions of followers but only has dozens or hundreds of views for each article, they’re most likely lying about something.
  • Weibo also was plagued by an excess of content and messages which overwhelmed users. By reinforcing already popular accounts, WeChat can try to limit the amount of information available (unlike Weibo, WeChat has a limited of number of posts you can send with an account, so limiting the number of popular accounts also means limiting the amount of content viewed).
  • By displaying the number of views per article, WeChat gives incentive to writers to produce better articles: it is likely that views will grow exponentially for an article as it “looks” more popular. Better write such a booming article than a lot of small articles which will end up not being read because their number of views never gets past the “tipping point”.
  • Because they are using phone numbers for registration, WeChat is less concerned about “zombie fans” than Weibo used to be. Clicks on a specific article by a single user also stop being counted after a certain point (5 clicks). WeChat is therefore better protected than Weibo from automated bots trying to produce “fake popularity”. But people, as we will see later in the article, already found ways around that.

The WeChat zombies

WeChat zombie views and likes appeared very fast after the new update. You can already go to Taobao and buy “likes” or “views” at the following rate:

  • 10 RMB for 1,000 views
  • 0.4 RMB for a “like”

The people who buy new likes and views are two type of entities:

  • Companies trying to appear more popular and successful in order to attract more followers
  • Employees of companies which are expected to reach KPIs with insufficient budgets and will have to use dodgy agencies providing fake fans,views and likes in order to meet their KPIs

 What may be the short and long-term consequences?

The new system will certainly give more incentives for fake fans, views and likes (these incentives already existed before but they were more targeted toward employees trying to cheat their management. They now extend to companies trying to cheat their users).

However, as we mentioned earlier, WeChat is much better protected against fake fans: they put much more constraints and time in order to verify the accuracy of the information provided. Tencent is also much better prepared because they already observed the fate of Sina Weibo: there is no doubt that it is a good thing that the topic of fake views and likes is coming into the open so fast. It surely means that Tencent is already working to solve it before it becomes too significant.

What does it mean for companies?

This is actually a healthy reminder for companies using WeChat for their marketing: number of views or followers should not be considered as the sole measure for success of a marketing campaign. In this landscape, it is better to favour user engagement and user conversion as more significant KPI’s.