Key Takeaways from the WeChat Developer Conference

    China’s single most important app, both socially and commercially, has some surprises in store for 2018. Here are some of Jing Travel's takeaways from the most recent WeChat Developer Conference.
    China’s single most important app, both socially and commercially, has some surprises in store for 2018. Photo courtesy: Shutterstock
    Jing TravelAuthor
      Published   in Technology

    Editor’s note#

    : After years of losing traffic to third-party apps, WeChat is finally creating a new app to help brands manage their official accounts. And Tencent has much more in store for 2018. This story was originally published by our content partners at Jing Travel.

    Much akin to Apple, Tencent holds an annual WeChat Developer Conference where it announces changes to the platform, new features, and insights into how users (and how many users) are using its platform. Last January it unveiled mini-programs, a type of in-app apps that are launched from inside WeChat, and in a sense gradually making WeChat into an operating system in its own right—despite living inside Android or iOS.

    This year, Tencent didn’t announce any new products or features with the same level of ramifications for digital marketers as last year’s mini-programs. Instead, WeChat is doubling down on mini-programs and hopes that this is the road forward for both the platform as a whole—but also for businesses who want to engage with WeChat’s enormous Chinese user base.


    According to Gerald Hu, a WeChat manager presenting at the conference, users can now find 580,000 mini-programs on WeChat. The company claims as many as 1 million developers are currently developing mini-programs for the platform, indicating that there is much more to come. Worth noting is that WeChat’s mini-programs are far from a niche space for small app developers, with many international brands having already launched mini-programs since their roll-out last year. McDonald’s, KFC, Longchamp, Coach, Swarovski, Tesla, Peninsula Hotels, etc., are all well-known international brands that were quick to embrace mini-programs.

    For destinations which are vying to get in on WeChat mini-programs, WeChat started rolling out its own mini-programs called CityExperience—in essence, travel guides that live inside a mini-program—late last year. Among the first takers were Sydney, London, and Dubai, with more destinations all but guaranteed to come throughout 2018.

    As for how many people actually use WeChat to access mini-program offerings, Tencent was a bit less enthusiastic. According to Hu, there are currently 170 million daily users, and Allen Zhang, president of WeChat, said that the they “have plenty of patience for mini-programs.” According to Zhang, mini-program adoption among users is “fully in line with expectations.”

    Much like Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store, it can be difficult for brands to stand out among hundreds of thousands of other apps of varying quality available on WeChat. It remains to be seen if WeChat’s CityExperience mini-program will be effective in helping international destinations better communicate with Chinese consumers.

    One thing is for sure: mini-programs are here to stay and are worthy of consideration for brand’s looking to grow their digital footprint on China’s largest social network.

    Independent app for WeChat Offical Accounts#

    WeChat’s Official Accounts can be clunky to deal with, not least for travel brands who continue to struggle in opening Official Accounts if they don’t have any corporate presence in China. While it’s now possible to open Official Accounts without a corporate presence in China, the process remains notoriously slow and is substantially more expensive than “local” Official Accounts.

    To make things worse, updating Official Accounts with new content and engaging with one’s audience requires using a desktop interface rather than being updateable directly from the WeChat app. In response to this, Tencent is preparing to roll out an independent app that’ll help brands keep things rolling content-wise on the go.

    “WeChat is designed as a mobile-first product, but the operating platform of Official Account is highly reliant on PC. Moving from what we have on PC platform to the app or creating a whole different mobile experience. We were torn between the two options. But luckily, we are finishing the app now, and it will be released very soon,” Zhang said.

    While details on the new app remain scarce, it’ll likely mirror much of the functionality that Facebook offers in its Pages Manager—an app that helps brands take care of their Facebook Pages on the go.

    The return of tipping#

    In the past, it was possible to “tip” WeChat Offical Accounts across WeChat on all platforms, but the feature was discontinued on the iOS version of the app after Apple found it in breach of its App Store rules. According to the company, “tips” were to be considered an in-app purchase, and thus subject to Apple’s 30 percent cut on all in-app purchases.

    Zhang announced that Tencent had now reached an understanding with Apple that would reintroduce this “feature with Chinese characteristics” to iOS device users in China. The reintroduced tipping button will be tweaked with Apple’s rules in mind, meaning that “tips” will go to individual authors rather than what may be entire businesses behind Official Accounts. This way, the logic goes, WeChat “tips” will remain “tips,” and not in-app payments that may go from a user to a business.

    The company did not announce when the feature will be reintroduced.


    becoming a mobile gaming platform#

    Tencent doesn’t only want WeChat to become more of an operating system in terms of applications, but also a platform for mobile games. According to the company, 310 million users have already played WeChat games—and the company wants to grow that number even further.

    A new partnership between Tencent and French video game developer Ubisoft was announced, with the latter’s mobile gaming subsidiary Ketchapp due to start launching WeChat games in 2018.

    The move makes sense for Tencent as it makes much of its revenue from video games through its Tencent Games subsidiary—a highly acquisitive business unit which has gobbled up various well-known mobile game companies and made “strategic investments” in video game developers such as Epic Games and Activision Blizzard. Combining the enormous WeChat userbase with Tencent’s revenue-generating business activities in video games certainly makes sense from a business point of view.

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