How long can DingTalk, China’s most popular workplace collaboration platform, sustain its lead without a successful consumer social app?

DingTalk held a 90-minute live-stream event Wednesday evening to announce the release of DingTalk v5.0. CEO Chen Hang took the first half-hour to highlight the team’s efforts pushing rapid-fire product updates in response to the Covid-19 epidemic. For example, DingTalk’s new employee health app, used by companies and regional governments to collect infection exposure data, was the fastest product release in their history: from initial product scoping to release in less than forty hours.

Online workplace collaboration software in China has seen a surge in use during the epidemic, in what is undoubtedly the world’s biggest-ever experiment in remote work and learning.

Most of the product announcements were what we would expect from DingTalk: a major overhaul of their online document collaboration tools, new centralized project management resources, upgrades to CRM capabilities, and a new curated marketplace of third-party enterprise apps and services.

Andrew Schorr is the founder of Grata, a made-for-China live chat solution for WeChat Official Accounts, mini programs, and websites. You can download their latest publication, a comprehensive guide to WeChat Work, from their blog.

Chen isn’t expecting customers to download an enterprise app to connect to a business, is he?

Chen did have one surprise for us, however: a community management platform called “Circles.” The concept is that enterprises, teachers, and small businesses can use tools like group chat, live streaming, broadcast messaging, and a WeChat Moments-like newsfeed to drive engagement with their users

For teams that have already adopted DingTalk at their workplace, especially remote teams, Circles is a natural fit for helping foster company culture. After all, DingTalk competitor WeChat Work has had an internal company newsfeed app, “Forum,” for years. It was the conceit that Circles will help businesses interact with their customers that had me asking questions:

  • Which Alibaba app do customers use to join Circles? Alipay? Taobao?
  • Chen isn’t expecting customers to download an enterprise app to connect to a business, is he?

Actually, he is. Customers need to download DingTalk to use Circles.

Depending on your perspective this is either very bold or extremely naive. DingTalk’s recent experience getting fifty million students online virtually overnight may have given them the confidence that they can actually pull it off.

Personally, I’m skeptical that the experience of getting students online during an emergency quarantine is applicable to the consumer market generally. I found Chen’s example of a restaurant waitress showing her DingTalk QR code to a customer to scan in DingTalk entirely unconvincing. It reminded me of when Alibaba essentially tried to reverse engineer a social app from their popular payment app Alipay. That same flawed logic seems to be at play here.

One can’t help but compare Circles to how WeChat Work connects businesses and customers. The crucial difference is that Tencent built the dominant consumer messaging app WeChat before connecting it to a separate but interoperable business app. WeChat is the default app to connect to a friend or business acquaintance in China, not DingTalk. Network effects like these are the single most difficult challenge for any business to overcome.

With the exception of interoperability with WeChat, DingTalk and WeChat Work are basically at feature parity. For companies that regularly interact with their customers in WeChat, which is most companies in China, why would they choose anything other than WeChat Work?

One might be tempted to argue that with more than 200 million users (maybe 250 million now if we include the new students), DingTalk already has a decent userbase from which to launch Circles. But the difficulty is more fundamental than getting app downloads (for perspective: Alipay had 400 million users when they tried to break out as a social app). The crux is the premise that an enterprise app like DingTalk can somehow become an appealing app to non-business users, or, for existing DingTalk users, that they will suddenly start using the app in a non-business context.

In any case, DingTalk and WeChat Work should both come out of the Covid-19 epidemic with an enduring new market in online learning. Circles, however, won’t give Alibaba its long-sought win in social.

DingTalk ended its live stream with a pitch for Real, a campus social networking app also from Alibaba. Both apps have origin stories that start with Laiwang, the app that was supposed to be Alibaba’s WeChat competitor. Real is the latest effort by some of the original Laiwang team. DingTalk was built on the re-purposed code of Laiwang after it was shut down. They haven’t given up yet.

Andrew Schorr

Andrew Schorr is the founder of Grata, a made-for-China live chat solution for WeChat Official Accounts, Mini-Programs, and websites. You can download their latest...

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