WeChat may be the default app for almost every Chinese person, but not long ago its older sibling, QQ, had a similarly formidable position. For years, QQ had been the biggest social networking app in China. It wasn’t until Q1 2017 that WeChat, growing at 23% YoY, surpassed QQ for the first time to take the crown with 938 million monthly active users (MAU). QQ, on the other hand, saw a 2% decline to 861 million MAU. Even with the slowing growth, QQ still stands as the country’s second most popular social app, and it wants to make sure it maintains its edge.

Instead of engaging in direct competition with WeChat, Tencent’s 18-year-old instant messenger QQ has repositioned itself to be the one-stop entertainment portal for young Chinese, a generation with a propensity for subcultures. Last month, QQ held its third ACG (anime, comic, and games) convention, QQJOY, amid Chengdu’s scorching heat. Thousands of enthused Chinese youths dressed as their favorite “2D” characters (二次元 in Chinese, nijigen in Japanese), a term referring to manga and anime subculture.

“We are transforming QQ from a pure messaging app into one that supports chatting, sharing, interest groups, and digital content like games, anime, literature, music, live streaming, and so on,” says (in Chinese) Liu Xiankai, general manager of value-added products at Tencent’s social network group (SNG), one of the tech giant’s seven business groups. “These functions are aimed at building an ecosystem that captures QQ’s young users.”

In 2011, Tencent’s Zhang Xiaolong introduced WeChat with a clear goal: it will be the IM for China’s rapidly expanding mobile users. The mobile-focused app caught up quickly and already out-competed QQ in number of mobile users back in Q3 2015 (in Chinese). As QQ’s early adopters come of age, they are spending more time on WeChat, a pragmatic app that helps manage daily life, from paying for utilities to ordering food.

But Chinese people haven’t left QQ behind; not only did they grow up with the app’s iconic penguin mascot, but they also now see it as a complement to fill in WeChat’s gaps. For instance, many office workers still use QQ every day to transfer large files—WeChat can’t handle files bigger than 20M.

“QQ group chats are way more powerful than WeChat’s,” says Lingyu, a 48-year-old HR officer at a Shenzhen-based tech company. “QQ group chats support polls, photo albums, bulletins, f ile sharing, event organizing, all the tools you need to effectively run your company. . . But that all happens on a PC at work. After work, we are back to WeChat and I rarely use QQ on my phone.”

Compared to WeChat’s streamlined interface, QQ can almost seem user-unfriendly. Clicking on a friend’s profile can lead you on an endless journey of discovering her popularity level, zodiac sign, hobbies, songs she’s recently listened to, photos, diaries, along with other information that might seem excessive for users above 25. QQ’s literally stunning design might be intentional, however, as the app tries to appeal to picky young Chinese ready to pay for value-added services like background music, virtual items, and memberships to show how cool and unique they are.

QQ vs WeChat
QQ (left) and WeChat (right) profiles of a 16-year-old

“WeChat is so dull. I can do a lot more on QQ to show off,” says Hongzhun, a 16-year-old high school student from Chongqing; he spends a monthly average of RMB 100 ($15.48) to decorate his Qzone (QQ’s Myspace-like offshoot), purchase fancy emoticons, and unlock stylized fonts.

60% of all QQ users were born after 1990, a QQ spokesperson told TechNode. And 60% of the users who spend money on Qzone were born after 1995. It is not exactly that the youths are paying but rather a generation of parents who have only one child to coddle financially and emotionally. Research shows that the ratio of only children among China’s post-95 generation is higher (in Chinese) than previous generations.

“On WeChat Moments, it’s easy to find out whether you have blocked people from viewing your posts, but on Qzone, they can’t tell,” Hongzhun adds. According to a report jointly published by Penguin Intelligence and China Tech Insights (CTI), 70% of Qzone users make their digital photo albums private. To young Chinese, QQ is a haven for social interaction free of helicopter parents. In fact, 32.9% of the post-00 generation see WeChat as an “app for the adults” (in Chinese).

But China’s young generation are also using WeChat as they start to mature. Based on data published by third-party app tracker QuestMobile (in Chinese), WeChat’s penetration rate among post-90 Chinese is at a staggering 83%, dwarfing QQ’s 59.8%. Young people are also spending much more time on WeChat than on QQ: 1642 minutes compared to 921.3 minutes per month.

Mobile app penetration rate for post-90s Chinese users (Source: Quest Mobile, October 2016)
Mobile app penetration rate for post-90s Chinese users (Source: QuestMobile, October 2016)

“QQ is too childish for me,” says 21-year-old Cynthia, a university student in Shanghai. Once a heavy QQ user in high school, she now uses QQ only sparsely to contact friends who don’t have WeChat. Qiqi, a 20-year-old avid gamer studying in the US, also finds QQ’s interface “disorienting”, and only uses QQ to play video games with friends because it supports multiple chat windows.

This speaks to QQ’s ever-aging, niche user base. As soon as the post-90 generation grow old enough to take on more adult responsibilities, they cut back on QQ and move to WeChat. That WeChat requires a phone number to register means it automatically filters out young users who don’t own a phone yet. A new report published by QuestMobile shows that QQ remains the top app for post-00’s generation (in Chinese).

QQ has essentially reincarnated itself into a young and playful app. Though overshadowed by the glory of its sibling WeChat, QQ will remain an essential user acquisition channel in Tencent’s roadmap to build a content empire of social networking, fintech, and cultural content—the three pillars of Tencent envisioned by CEO Pony Ma. While WeChat hooks China’s grown-ups, QQ will stay forever young.

Telling the uncommon China stories through tech. I can be reached at ritacyliao [at] gmail [dot] com.

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