Earlier this week, WeChat released its annual statistics report, proving again how closely China’s biggest social networking app is entwined with users’ daily lives. On the same day, Zhang Xiaolong, WeChat founder and president of Weixin Group, the unit that runs the messaging platform, gave a four-hour speech, defending the app’s features and projecting further growth.

Over the past eight years WeChat, known as Weixin in Chinese, has become one of the most widely adopted messaging platforms in the world. As of September 2018, it had reached 1.08 billion monthly active users. But with mass use has come misunderstandings and criticism, Zhang said.

“I think that in China, every day there are 500 million people saying we haven’t done well, and also 100 million people who want to teach us how to make a product,” he said.

Nevertheless, the latest figures show that WeChat’s growth remains steady. Neither concerns over privacy nor AI-enabled domestic censorship appeared to have deterred users of the ubiquitous app. While Tencent’s core gaming business suffered under increased government scrutiny last year, WeChat has continued to make inroads among users of all ages—roughly 6% of its users were aged 55 or above.

The social networking platform also still dominates areas from communication to payment services. In 2018, users sent 45 billion messages daily, an increase of 18% over the same period last year. The number of daily voice and video calls saw even more significant growth, doubling to 410 million per day in 2018, while consumers using WeChat Pay rose 50% over 2017.

Reflecting the increasing adoption of the app by public transportation networks, figures for users who used WeChat to ride buses and subways, as well as travel on highways, increased by 370% and 530%, respectively.

Another set of figures reinforced how essential WeChat has become in users’ lives. The recent report profiled user behavior according to their decade of birth, revealing each age group’s favorite emojis, reading materials, and even sleeping habits based on app usage.

Teen and tween users born in the 2000s, for instance, were found to be most active between 10 p.m. and 12:30 a.m., while those born in the 70s preferred to go to sleep around 11:30 p.m. The latter group, as well as those 55 and up, enjoyed using WeChat’s News Feed-like Moments feature; users born between 1980-1989, by contrast, mostly used WeChat for work in the daytime.

The analysis even showed each age group’s reading material of choice, ranging from “emotional life” for post-90s millennials to national affairs for those born in the 80s.

The post-00’s generation (left) logged the shortest sleep time, while the post-90’s (right) used WeChat on public transportation 25 times a month. (Image credit: WeChat)
Post-80’s users (left) spent most of their daily WeChat hours doing work, while post-70’s users (right) preferred to check Moments in their spare time. (Image credit: WeChat)

Big plans for mini-programs

WeChat’s innovative mini-programs, first announced in January 2017, have since been mimicked by fellow tech giants Baidu, Alibaba, and Bytedance. The feature allows developers to create small, in-app programs, which now number in the hundreds of thousands.

According to Zhang, the strength of mini-programs lies in its decentralized ecosystem. “Our team from now on will invest more manpower and resources in this area, so we can treat all companies equally, including the ones we’ve invested in.”

Matthew Brennan, co-founder of China Channel said that the concept of decentralization was “a bit counterintuitive” compared to Apple’s carefully-curated App Store. But mini-programs have proved a “great way to acquire users that wasn’t there before.”

The feature banks on WeChat’s widespread adoption to draw in older or less tech-savvy folks who don’t usually download many apps, Brennan said. It’s spawned successes like a popular mini-program for public dancing—a popular pastime among middle-aged people, particularly women—that otherwise wouldn’t exist. Their small size also lowers the barrier to entry for developers, saving them time and money.

In 2019, according to Zhang, priorities for growth include improving the search function for mini-programs to better connect them with users. Two other potential developments would make programs more app-like: enabling users to leave “social reviews” of mini-programs that can be viewed by their circle of contacts, and allowing the app replacements to send push notifications.

Growing pains

Zhang addressed criticism of the long-running Moments and official account features, as well as some of WeChat’s latest add-ons.

As users’ number of contacts has continually increased, so has social pressure. “Many people are saying they want to escape Moments, or say they don’t really use it anymore.” However, Zhang said that the feature has grown steadily to 750 million users per day. The average user still accesses Moments over 10 times daily, making for roughly 10 billion hits every 24 hours.

To make the social media experience more spontaneous, the latest update allows users to create temporary three-day posts on Moments or display short videos—a la Instagram’s Stories feature—on their profile pages.

The change comes in part because Zhang foresees Chinese users, too, turning towards videos over photos to communicate. He also says users won’t have to worry about their posts being visible for long periods of time.

Improving the experience for official accounts, WeChat’s in-app media ecosystem may be harder. “It looks like, over the last few years, official accounts’ traffic disappeared.” Average reads per article fell 24% from 2016 to 2017, one report shows, with average open rate ending up at under 5% two years ago.

Zhang attributed the decline to growth in the sheer quantity of content, as well as the difficulty of ensuring its quality. WeChat’s attempts to battle plagiarism have proven ineffective, according to Zhang. “So how to encourage the production of more quality content is the next step the official account platform will face,” he said.

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Bailey Hu is based in China’s hardware capital, Shenzhen. Her interests include local maker culture, grassroots innovation and how tech shapes society, as well as vice versa.

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