Welcome to the 'everything app'. While some predict the death of apps, and other instant messaging (IM) services like WhatsApp, Apple's iMessage and Snapchat are busy bringing in encrypted communications, the Tencent-owned WeChat – called Weixin in China – and Japan's Line are slowly making themselves integral to daily digital life in Asia.
These two big players are adding shopping, smart agents, cab-hailing and much more – and it's clear that in the messaging wars, Asia is streets ahead. In this slideshow, we'll explore some interesting facts and figures concerning the explosion in WeChat and Line, and what all this might mean for the future.
- Also check out: The Messaging Wars: Who gets to choose how we talk?
WeChat has 762 million monthly active users
Oh, and 83% of online adults in China are WeChat users. Why? "It's the Swiss army knife, the Inspector Gadget and MacGyver of apps all rolled into one," says Tim Gibbon, cofounder and editor of the Social Media Portal.
"The East has totally bought into OTT, and they'd be hard pressed to live without it … they message, chat, share images, stickers, game, videos etc, and more importantly, they shop," adds Gibbon. "Can you imagine us doing that in the West right now?"
There's also the little matter of the Great Firewall of China; Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are all blocked. Outside of that wall, WeChat isn't nearly as popular. In fact, only about 70 million of WeChatters are outside mainland China.
You can use WeChat to buy anything
Thanks to its WeChat Wallet feature, WeChat is becoming much, much more than a mere messaging app. "WeChat allows payments from within the app itself for Chinese users, which is genius," says Gibbon. As such, WeChat Wallet has become a serious rival to Baidu Wallet and Alipay. A massive 87% of WeChat users shop online, and 75% buy digital content every month, according to GWI.
"Tencent is positioning and building WeChat as a platform play, with the core feature being messaging," says Magnus Jern, president, DMI International. "Shopping, money transfers, location, dating, maps, gaming and services are all enabled through the messaging interface."
Line is big in Taiwan, Thailand and Indonesia
The West tends to see China as a standalone – albeit massive – market, and that's pretty much how it's viewed in the rest of Asia, too. Japanese messaging app Line – launched in 2011 – recently became 2016's biggest tech IPO, and has 218 million monthly active users.
"Line's user base has not grown as quickly and gained as much scale as WeChat and is heavily reliant on four main countries – Taiwan, Japan, Thailand and Indonesia," says Arnold Ma, founder of Chinese digital marketing agency Qumin, who adds that the Line app is blocked in China, as is Facebook and Twitter.
However, it remains a fascinating platform, relying largely on digital stickers of cute characters (very much en vogue post-Pokemon Go), advertising and games. "Line's value stretches beyond pure user numbers," says Ma. "Its value is also in its characters, as they are licensed out beyond simply existing as emojis." Coming soon to Line is cab-hailing and music, too.
WeChat users are subject to military-grade surveillance
Post-Edward Snowden revelations about the NSA Prism surveillance – soon to be a movie – there's a trend in the West for messaging apps that promise encryption. Not so in China – not only is WeChat one of the only messaging apps left that doesn't offer any encryption, but it's an open secret that everything can be monitored by the Chinese government.
"WeChat is so ingrained into a way of life in the East, surveillance, privacy and personal freedoms have taken a back seat," says Gibbon. On the other hand, Line does offer end-to-end encryption, as almost all IM apps do these days.
WeChat has an integrated QR scanner
The QR code is central to the WeChat experience, predominantly used for adding new friends, following accounts and accessing web pages. "Utilising the camera to scan another users' QR code means people can connect in seconds without the need to exchange a phone number," says Ma.
"A bridge between analogue and digital … it's created the world's most advanced offline-to-online, or O2O, marketing in China," notes Ma, who expects Snapchat's Snap Codes and Facebook Messenger's circular scans to follow suit, and to prove popular in the West.
Asia sees apps and money differently to Europe
Apps have evolved very differently in the East compared to the West. "In Europe and the US, we have an 'app for everything' philosophy," says Kevin Dallas, Chief Product and Marketing Officer at Worldpay. While the likes of Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google have produced separate, highly specialised apps, that's not happened in Asia.
"In Asia we see the reverse, with a small number of super-apps integrating themselves into every aspect of consumers' daily lives." The ease with which China has embraced WeChat as a payments platform has a lot to do with development; China was able to go straight from cash sales to mobile commerce and payments.
WeChat and Line are platforms, not apps
In Asia, messaging apps have become a hub for internet activity. "Whereas apps in the West are purely focused on social interaction with friends, the likes of WeChat and Line are built as platforms for broader internet enablement," says Karl MacGregor, VP Digital Content, Worldpay.
"Having integrated both the supply and demand for goods and services within their applications, it is simply a natural progression for these businesses to close the loop by bringing payments into the ecosystem too."
WeChat Shake lets you find strangers
"WeChat's oddest feature is 'Shake' which adopts a roulette style of engaging with random strangers," says Jern. It's seriously weird – in its Discover section, you shake the phone and up pops users 'nearby' who are also shaking their phones.
That's the theory, but it doesn't work all that well outside China; a random shake in the UK found someone in Armenia. What it does highlight is button-less interaction, which is being used by marketers as a way for potential customers to trigger interaction with social channels and mobile ads. There's also a proximity option to find other WeChatters in the area, shakers or not.
Huge rise in Asian WeChat usage
Since 2015, there has been a 97% rise in users for WeChat in Asia and APAC outside of China, according to GlobalWebIndex (GWI). Hotspots appear to be South Korea, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia.
GWI also discovered some valuable nuggets of information for anyone planning on using WeChat for marketing and sales: 75% of WeChatters are under 34 (and a third are 16-24), and half of WeChat users in Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, India and Hong Kong follow brands on social media.
Western brands want to use WeChat Moments
You might think that any app associated with surveillance by the Chinese government would be swerved by companies outside of China, but you'd be wrong. "WeChat has more than 700 million monthly active users, with the majority of those residing within its domestic market, China," says Brian Cooper, chief creative officer at Oliver Group UK. "Brands in the West would be insane not to tap into this."
However, how brands should use WeChat depends on objectives. "Like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, brands can place sponsored content in WeChat's Moments timeline," explains Cooper.