A version of this post by Thomas Graziani first appeared on WalktheChat, which specializes in helping foreign organizations access the Chinese market through WeChat, the largest social network on the mainland.
Digital marketing in China used to be all about WeChat. Therefore, Tencent could rest on its laurels for a while. WeChat got lazy about making WeChat Official Accounts a good way to access content, it missed the boat on the explosion of online videos and provided a sloppy search engine.
But Tencent is now paying for staying too idle for too long. ByteDance has grown into a content behemoth that is stealing user attention away from WeChat, and the largest social network in China now needs to fight back.
#1: Related content in WeChat articles
The first feature has the obvious ambition of making WeChat more of a content platform: related articles.
The idea is simple: after reading a WeChat Official Account article, users are offered a suggestion of another article to read.
This is the first step for WeChat to catch up in a fight for user attention. ByteDance (the group that owns Douyin) did a great job at keeping users engaged across its different Apps. Toutiao offers five suggestions at the end of each article, while Douyin provides an endless loop of short videos.
In fact, ByteDance has always promoted itself as an AI-focused company. The artificial intelligence at the center of its recommendation engine is the key competitive advantage of the company.
WeChat is still far from this user-customized approach. In fact, only a fraction of WeChat articles currently provide a related article recommendation. The recommendation is also the same for all readers.
The move is nonetheless a step in the right direction for WeChat in order to increase the engagement on WeChat articles and videos.
#2: Integrating WeChat mini-programs in Tencent’s short-videos app
WeChat recently enabled users to link Weishi videos to WeChat Mini-programs.
Weishi was a short video platform launched by Tencent in 2013. It didn’t receive much traction, and was eventually shut down in 2017. It was not until 2018 that Tencent re-launched Weishi as a defensive move against Douyin. Re-directing traffic from other Tencent products such as QQ, QQ browser and Tencent news, it quickly grew Daily Active Users (DAUs) to 7.5 million in June 2019. However, it still doesn’t stand a fighting chance against Douyin.
Tencent recently improved the Weishi experience by including WeChat mini-program integration. For instance, a video featuring a product can include an e-commerce link to a mini-program store selling the product.
A subtle hyperlink first appears, which is then replaced by a more obvious description of the product after a few seconds.
Clicking the link takes users directly to the WeChat Mini-program. They can also go back to the video with one tap.
The UX is very very similar to Douyin—it is likely that Tencent took some inspiration from ByteDance’s product…
Tencent recently announced a target of reached 50 million DAUs for its short videos App by the end of 2020. As a comparison, Douyin claimed 320 million DAUs as of July 2019.
#3: Improved search feature
As WeChat is trying to become more of a content platform, it needs to make content more accessible. A big part of this task is improving its search feature.
The search feature has been renamed and can now filter results between categories such as WeChat Moment Posts, Products, News, WeChat Official Accounts, Articles, WeChat Mini-programs, Videos, Books, Music, Q&A posts (for instance from Zhihu), and even WeChat Stickers.
No matter if you’re looking for a product from Prada, a video of Chanel’s latest catwalk or a cute cat WeChat sticker, the new search feature can help.
There is, of course, a long way to go before WeChat becomes more of a search engine. Improving its search feature is however an important step in becoming a more user-friendly content ecosystem.
WeChat is facing its biggest challenge to date: competing against ByteDance.
This new fight might, however, help WeChat. The competitive pressure is forcing Tencent to look into features which had been neglected up to now.
The largest social network in China is now innovating again, sometimes taking inspiration from its adversary. Will WeChat be strong enough to steal back a share of the short video market? This remains an open question.