The Renaissance Of Marketing In The WeChat Age

Today, the word WeChat means many things to different people. To users, it means irreplaceable convenience and infinite entertainment. To marketers accustomed to the traditional way of writing ads, the app presents unprecedented challenge. The top-to-bottom marketing norm of using media to speak as a corporate self is falling apart in the WeChat age. Similar to the decline of authorial voice in the 14th-century art world, a call for humanism in marketing continues to rise.

The first change factor is the whole WeChat-as-lifestyle concept. Though Facebook is already considered an invasive tool in the West, it is still a nice-to-have social implement. In China, however, WeChat is indispensable for a citizen to live and work. The video “one typical day with WeChat” demonstrates just that. It has become a platform that merges the private and the public.

The second factor is WeChat’s commercial logic that contradicts the digital marketing norm. Social media salesman’s common techniques, such as consumerist language and aggressive audience reach, face the risk of content ban from WeChat. Adjectives like “best” “high-quality”, or “life-changing” are considered untruth and blocked from a sponsored post. There are lots of restrictions on inserting external links, too. (Jing Daily has published a comprehensive guide on this topic). The canonic marketing idea of monetize user traffic has inevitably gone sour.

As a post-90 Chinese who witnessed WeChat grown from 0 to 100, a marketer, a WeChat publisher myself, I find media coverage of the app often missing one important point – WeChat has radically changed the language of marketing. It doesn’t only change the way we distribute ads, but also the way we write ads. In a platform when users expect a one-to-one communication, marketing language has to change its direction. It used to be all about how the brand looks and what brands want to tell. But now it has to be all about how users feel and what they like to hear.

User value seems to be TenCent’s all-time favorite word. In April 2018, I visited WeChat’s headquarter in Guangzhou. My guide, who works in the WeChat product team and attended high school with me, assigned me homework prior to the trip. She sent me a 160-page-long PPT from a WeChat staff meeting and a speech on “WeChat’s 4 core values” (full translation in this link). She said, “Understanding what are WeChat’s user values will save you a lot of time.”

I did what she said and found out she was right. Failing to understand WeChat’s logic did waste me a lot of time, especially as a marketing professional. According to Allen Zhang, the four core values are:

User value is more than everything else. To protect user values, we are avoiding things more than accepting things.

The user supremacy of WeChat explains everything they do. Its frequent updates aim to enhance users service, content, or ways to connect. Outside of China, however, marketers are facing huge information asymmetry about WeChat. Although there are a lot of “experts” writing about WeChat, it is increasingly hard to select accurate and neutral information.

In fact, some agencies have taken advantage of this information asymmetry to sell services that are invalid. For example, some promised China-hungry brands to improve their WeChat search ranking. But unlike a traditional search engine such as Google, you simply can’t pay your way up the latter.

Being aware of WeChat’s priority on user value will make us more immune to such market noises. For primary source learning, Tencent’s online academy allows us to brain-pick WeChat’s developer team and stay tuned with updates.

Meaningful content doesn’t equal big traffic in the Internet age. So we want our innovation to stand on the side of meaning.

“善良比聪明更重要 (Kindness is more important than cleverness),” said Zhang. He acknowledged that algorithm doesn’t always reward good content in the digital age, but showed his take on the content side.

As in any social media platform, fear, hate, and extremism always grab attention more than everything else. As a way to encourage good content, WeChat allows users to give monetary gifts to authors of “original”-tagged articles (原创), and dedicates an entire team regulating extremist posts.

This logic also explains why commercially aggressive behaviors common to Facebook don’t work the same on WeChat. For example, copywriters need to be attentive about using traditional ad words like “irreplaceable” or “irresistible.” Incentivizing users to click likes or follow in exchange of monetary reward is also unacceptable.

This content regulation is challenging brands to move towards the user’s side –by encouraging a concrete, detailed, “show, don’t tell” kind of narrative. The traditional way of treating a social media as a traffic site is failing. It’s time to do something creative and meaningful.

“A real good product is one that users use it and leave it.”

Allen Zhang said that people spent too much time on WeChat these days. So in WeChat, you won’t find the “relevant content” or “what’s next?” tab after consuming a content, a common practice in YouTube’s algorithm.

A recent update of the “floating window” tab, however, is seen as a tactic to retain users. Now users can put a WeChat article in a floating window, and go back to that content later. Perhaps what Zhang really means, is that WeChat will not create extra stickiness factor.  

“Commercialization should not contradict user value and experience.”

Zhang said, “While others (tech companies) rush to monetize, we believe that our commercialization shouldn’t go against user value and user experience.” In May 29 of 2018, TenCent launched its own digital marketing platform – WE+. Now brands and marketers can reach their target audience in a more direct way.

To me, what differentiate WeChat from the western social media are its social aspects. Social ambition comes first in mind. Tencent, like China’s other tech Giants, has executed a scale of social ambition unparalleled in the West. WeChat is much beyond a social media platform. “Our ambition is to connect everything. When you buy, you think of Alibaba. We want you to think of WeChat when you connect,” my guide said.  It reminds of what Alibaba’s co-founder said in a speech, “soon, Chinese could go everywhere in the world by just three words: Hello, thank you, Alipay.” In fact, both companies have somehow achieved – today’s China is more or less cashless.

But how about strict control and censorship, issues that Europeans concern mostly about? I asked my guide, “Many Europeans suspect that WeChat’s dominant role in our lifestyle made the surveillance easier, what do you think?”

She was surprised, and commented, “That is such a very different mentality!” I offered my own opinion that after the Cold War, the idea of surveillance and Big Brother gives chill to many in the West. She said, “but even in the old days of paying cash and credit cards, do you think we are not being tracked?” Then it was my turn to be surprised and shut up.

Later, I asked her for some practical insight for brands that are currently using WeChat to reach Chinese consumers. She said, “Always put the user value first. Think about, what can I really give to users? Many merchants fall into the trap of zihai (自嗨).” Zihai, roughly translated as “self-entertaining”, means marketing for marketing’s sake. With the ad fatigue caused by the overload of commercials, we are now reminded that marketing was once done for customer’s sake.

As the main protagonist of China’s digitalization, WeChat changes how people live. Just like artists from the Renaissance period, marketers must now adapt and centralize human in their work. The first step, may best be forgo the idea of “consumers,” and treat audience as “readers.” Here are my biggest takeaways from this WeChat visit:

Brand communication needs a persona. Instead of concerning about corporate image and brand perception, ask: “Do I sound like a real person talking?” “Could my readers tell me apart from others?”

Invest in relevant and genuinely good content. Ask: How do I tell the story of my products in an emotionally impactful way? What could I gift to my readers? Is this something worth spreading?  

Make the marketing language people-based, not brand-based. Ask: Will I read a corporate-sounding email in my spare time? What kinds of news will I voluntarily sign up for?

After the WeChat visit, I have shared my learning with a group of export managers at a seminar in Milan. As I talked about how WeChat penetrated lifestyle in China, I said, “You don’t ever have to exit WeChat.”

One lady in the audience seat couldn’t help but burst out laughing. She explained, “Excuse me, but you know for us Europeans, this is a lot to take. The idea of never being able to leave something is scary!” We all laughed. It fascinated me to see how technology could bring out completely different feelings to cultures with different values.

Another lady helped the situation by saying, “It is better to say that we are not obligated.” All nodded in agreement. That is indeed a better, more humane way to put it.

Photo Credit: Jiaqi Luo

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