Editor’s note: This was written by Federico Sferrazza, digital marketing manager at Daxue Consulting, a market research company based in China. 

Though losing again this year, Alipay is still a contender to become the final winner in this year’s hongbao war, thanks to its sophisticated innovation ability.

A hongbao, or red packet, is a traditional Chinese gift delivering good wishes and greetings sent by Chinese during the Chinese New Year. Ever since 2014, the date when it was first launched by Tencent’s WeChat messaging app during the Chinese New Year holiday, the digital hongbao has entered a competitive market where the two titans, Alibaba and Tencent, combat with each other. For 2017’s New Year, Alibaba-run Alipay and Tencent-run QQ still face a fierce battle with huge investment, while Tencent-run WeChat did not join the competition, but still maintained its hongbao sending/receiving tradition. However, according to the data, Alipay, once again, seemed to lose this battle. Is a continued losing streak deemed to be the fate of Alipay in the future?

The digital hongbao has become a part of daily life for Chinese people, and this is thanks to WeChat. According to the General Manager of Tencent Holdings’ payment service, Tenpay, Zhiming Lai (Jim Lai), there are 2.2 billion interactions (users sending and receiving hongbao) every day. In this year’s battle, undoubtedly, WeChat still ranked first. On New Year’s Eve alone,14.2 billion digital envelopes were sent on January 27th, 2017, peaking at midnight with 760,000 transactions per second, according to WeixinPai(微信派). Tencent revealed that a total of 46 billion red-packets were sent during the six days of the Chinese New Year holidays this year. And all this without even joining the game.

In 2017, though WeChat didn’t join the war, it still dispatched QQ, last year’s dark horse, to enter the battlefield. This time, QQ invested $36 million, while Alipay gave out $30 million and $4 million cash coupons. 342 million people joined QQ’s hongbao game and incurred 3.777 billion yuan ($500 million) cash hongbao. Alipay, in comparison, attracted about 168 million users to complete its “5 lucky cards collection” challenge and with an average 1.19 yuan awarded per person.

Although Alipay has never been the obvious winner for a number of virtual red packets sent in the past three years, if measured in depth, its creativity has already been proved in various well-designed campaigns. With great innovation and a vast user base (over 450 million users), Alipay’s dream to strengthen sociability, which is presently its biggest weakness compared to WeChat and QQ, will eventually be fulfilled. As a creative and innovative company, Alipay is sure to employ a number of new strategies this year with the ultimate goal of being 2017’s hongbao winner. Outlined below are a number of reasons why this tech giant is expected to make a big splash in China’s red-envelope competition.

Alipay, in a surprising fashion, brought back their lucky cards challenge

In response to WeChat’s digital red envelopes function, Alipay launched the “Five Lucky Cards Collection” hongbao campaign in January 2015. After successfully collecting five virtual “lucky cards” (福卡fuka) before the end of New Year’s Eve, users had the chance to participate in a lucky draw of 200 million yuan ($29 million USD) in cash (hongbao ranged from 2 to 666 yuan, $0.30 to about 100 dollars) and coupons, split between the participants.

The aim of Alipay was to increase the sociability of its app, and the result showed that 1.1 billion pairs of users emerged after the campaign. Before the 2017 Chinese New Year holidays, Alipay first changed the hongbao war by announcing totally new rules. Similar to when the challenge was first launched in January 2015, the goal of Alipay’s game this year was to collect five different types of fu 福(”good fortune”). The five fu were the same:爱国福(aiguofu, patriotism),富强福 (fuqiangfu, prosperity and strength), 和谐福 (hexiefu, harmony), 友善福 (you shan fu, friendship) and the most coveted of all, 敬业福 (jingyefu, dedication to work). But this year, the collection methods have been diversified. By sending hongbao to each other like last year, people could also use AR+LBS technology and play the “Ant Forest Game” (蚂蚁森林) to collect the lucky cards.

Scan the fu using AR+LBS technology

Alipay’s AR hongbao was launched in December 2016, allowing participants to scan the different fu spotted in shops, for example, using AR technology. This rule was supposed to attract participants to stores. To complete the collection in an easier and faster way, a large majority of mischievous Chinese participants merely sent each other a paper containing the majority of the fu.


The biggest innovation this year is Alipay’s location-based Augmented Reality (AR) hongbao campaign (“AR实景红包”), inspired by the Pokémon Go augmented reality technology and geolocation. This allowed users to hide and collect hongbao in real locations by scanning objects using their smartphone cameras. Coca-Cola, KFC, and Procter & Gamble have signed up to give away cash and vouchers to Alipay’s game users. After it launched AR hongbao in December 2016, rival technology giant Tencent, following suit, also released its own location-based AR virtual red envelope game through its instant messaging app QQ in January 2017.

“Alipay made the hongbao-gifting activity more interesting this year to target youngsters. But it seems that QQ has a bigger chance to win the battle because it is the most popular chat app among the post-90s generation,” Wang Pengbo, an industry analyst with Analysys International, told the Global Times. QQ’s AR-featured marketing campaign attracted 342 million users, 68 percent of whom are from the post-90s generation, according to Global Times. However, according to Ant financial services group, its actual intention of launching AR

QQ’s AR-featured marketing campaign attracted 342 million users, 68 percent of whom are from the post-90s generation, according to Global Times. However, according to Ant financial services group, its actual intention of launching AR hongbao is to lay the foundation for connecting offline stores with consumers through AR technology, which is believed to form a huge market in the future. This innovation of Alipay has shown its strategic intent on developing a new purchasing method offline, which is its most adept field.

Play Alipay’s social mobile game Ant Forest (蚂蚁森林) to collect more lucky cards


This social game focuses on carbon emission reduction, which is an innovative concept. When users do low carbon-consuming behaviors through Alipay’s app, such as traveling by metro or walking (the pedometer function in Alipay can record these behaviors), paying bills (water, gas, electricity) save paper, these carbon-saving behaviors will be calculated as virtual nutrients to help their digital trees grow bigger. Alipay promised to plant a genuine tree every time a digital tree was grown.

Alipay added a “green” touch to its hongbao challenge by connecting it with its Ant Forest Game, which was launched in August, 2016. Players needed to water their friend’s virtual tree by giving them some drops of water to get one more happiness card(only 5 to 10 gr a day).

According to the Environomist China Carbon Market Research2017 Report from the UNDP in the United Nations, the number of Alipay’s Ant Forest social game players had dramatically increased until reaching 200 million in February 2017, resulting in 1.11 millionreal trees being planted in China.

Source: Environomist China Carbon Market Research Report 2017 from UNDP

Exchange or request your last missing lucky cards through your friends or social network

In order to increase the playability and interrelationship of the challenge, exchanging or requesting the cards from friends was the third rule this year.

To get the precious 敬业福 (jingyefu, dedication to work) card, a lot of participants joined some WeChat groups or asked on their WeChat moments for friends to send them their last missing fu – in exchange for another. Last year, Alipay was mocked because it was so challenging to get the jingyefu, with only 0.79% of the players completing the challenge. This created a lot of disappointment and frustration among all the motivated players. This year, more people were rewarded after completing their collection.

Screen Shot 2017-03-07 at 12.44.45
One WeChat user asking on his moments for his friends to send him a敬业福 card (jingyefu, dedication to work), in exchange of others lucky cards, to complete the challenge.

After the publication of the new rule for the second edition of the hongbao challenge on January 18th, 2017, over 9 million users finished the task in the first day and the number increased to 35 million by 21 January (Alipay, 2017). This year, participants were quickly hooked on the game and 37% of Alipay’s users (168 million users) finished the collection of the 5 lucky cardson Chinese New Year’s Eve. Most users were awarded 1-5 yuan, the highest, but the least probable winning chance was worth 666 yuan. Apart from that, Alipay also handed out 30 million merchant discount coupons from different business sponsors.

On Valentine’s Day this year, Alipay also launched its innovative love insurance products, and according to Alipay’s official Weibo account, it sold 15,000 insurances on Valentine’s Day. The product contains three grades of insurance premiums, which are $14, $43, and $72. Once the lover buys the insurance, if they are married with each other for an allotted amount of time (3 years-13 years), they will receive an award, which is respectively $290, $870, or $1453, corresponding to their premium. AR hongbaos were still used, in whichone part of the lovers hid the lucky moneyin an everyday location, and the other person could obtain it through scanning the items. Combining both of these aspects of the red-envelope, hiding and finding, allowed users to express their love and have fun doing it.

Alipay’s loving insurance for Valentine’s day

Alipay hopes to finally stand out in the red-envelope war thanks to its sophisticated innovation ability

Alibaba doesn’t have social tools like WeChat and QQ to add value to its financial function, although it has attempted to raise sociability several times. However, it was in the failing and trying that Alipay’s innovation ability was thoroughly demonstrated. From 2014, when WeChat Payment rose in the hongbao war, Alipay had already realized that lacking social interaction was the root reason for its failure. So it searched for a new method to invert the situation to beat WeChat again. In 2015, it introduced the password hongbao (“Kouling hongbao(口令红包)”, a new method of receiving red-packetsthrough entering correct key words, in February, which was copied by QQ in December, 2015. During round 2, in 2015, Alipay developed the “lucky card collection” campaign(集五福活动), and the topic was wildly heated. But the huge input in advertising and the disappointed users (less than 1% of users won last year)led Alibaba to lose the game.

Therefore, Alipay again used its innovative spirit to improve the five virtual lucky cards (五福卡)challenge in 2017, as well as adding AR, a fresh technology. Although AR hongbao was launched in 2016 by Alipay, followed again by QQ in 2017, QQ added some of its own innovative creations, such as AR hongbaos given out by merchants and celebrities. Another innovation to make up its weakness in sociability was Ant Forest (蚂蚁森林), which is a first-person focused carbon product game combined with finance and technology in China and the largest one in the world, which can be seen in the battles this year. Alipay has always been the front-runner in figuring out many wonderful ideas using the newly-emerging technology while QQ has been more like a follower.

With the fun of grabbing and sending hongbao, this strategy, for the foreseeable future, is here to stay. But, according to iiMedia Research, the traditional hongbao mode has encountered a bottleneck at expanding its user base, the growth rate of WeChat’s money-packetsnumber was 75.50% this year, compared to 641.8% in 2016. At this point, the traditional hongbao mode will not be effective enough, and Alipay’s excellent talent of innovation will be extraordinarily important for it to strengthen sociability and eventually, lead the lucky money market. With Chinese citizens now restlessly seeking new kinds of fun during the different Chinese festivals, China is expected to bea universal entertainment era. Apart from hongbaos during Spring Festival and love insurance on Valentine’s Day, Alipay also launched some campaigns onother Festivals, such as adding ‘baby’ suffix after the name of users on 2016’s Children’s Day and scanning the moon to win hongbaos on 2016’s Mid-Autumn Festival. For this year, it’s expected that Alipay will certainly push out more interesting campaigns on different Festivals, maybe the coming Women’s Day will be the first. With their integration of fun and technology and being an industry trendsetter, Alipay has a strong chance to not only win the appreciation of its users, but also emerge as the winner of 2017’s hongbao war.

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