WeChat: A Shortcut To Mobile Relevance And Loyalty Among Chinese Travelers

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With a little luck, and a ton of hard work, Tencent’s WeChat platform can serve as the mobile marketing and customer relationship management (CRM) channel by which to reach traveling Chinese consumers that brands have long craved.

Anxious to penetrate China’s crucial online world, global brands tend to focus first on Sina Corp.’s ubiquitous Weibo.com social media platform, because there is a demonstrable pathway to success on this well-established and powerful four-year-old service.

In addition to Weibo, however, brands now realize that anyone who’s anyone in China — and the majority of luxury brands’ best potential customers — uses WeChat obsessively. This is now the hot platform to engage, and traveling Chinese tourists, businesspeople, and other shoppers are perhaps the best customers to engage via WeChat.

Is WeChat a “magic bullet” for brands?

Microblogging platform Sina Weibo is most similar to Twitter, with significant differences. You need to be a Weibo user to read posts, but once you have jumped this hurdle, posts are public to any Weibo user, and like Twitter, you do not have the function to broadcast to a smaller group of people. Unlike Twitter, Weibo allows for comments and threads to a post, making it more interactive than Twitter, and far more ‘sticky’.

But Tencent’s WeChat takes social interaction to a much deeper level, with a number of compelling functionalities that operate in concert to delight users, including voice messaging and location-based applications. Several best-practices and tips have been discussed previously on Jing Daily.

When Chinese customers visit the American and European boutiques of their favorite luxury brands, they invariably bring out their mobile device while shopping — to snap a photo, check a comparable price, or to connect with travel companions or friends via WeChat.

In an ideal case, customers are already connected with your brand via WeChat from previous interactions in China. Given that the majority of luxury purchases by Chinese customers are made while traveling overseas, brands would be crazy to miss the chance to take advantage of these direct customer relationships, especially with WeChat’s location awareness.

But more likely, the boutique staff has an open opportunity to connect with a newly acquired customer, creating a warm association with the shopping experience and almost effortlessly fostering a natural loyalty to the brand.

We are beginning to see this type of interaction and its early results within the CRM platforms of major luxe brands. For brands with inadequate or poorly executed CRM capabilities, WeChat has the potential to provide an immediate bridge to a solution for one of the most important  — and most difficult-to-trace — customer demographics in a generation.

Mobile is where it’s at.

While China has 591 million Internet users as of June 30th, 436 million of them use a mobile device to access the Internet. WeChat is inherently tied to users’ phones, which makes it a compelling vector into the tricky mobile market.

Sam Flemming, CEO of top social media monitoring agency CIC Data, summarized WeChat’s functionality and appeal: “Tencent has given Chinese netizens, especially white collar netizens, a Facebook-type ‘strong link’ social network that allows them to keep tabs on their real friends, which also brilliantly gets them addicted to the app with a WhatsApp-like walkie-talkie function.”

“It’s mobile, it’s social, it’s private and it’s fun.”

Although many brands are asking whether they should be on Weibo or WeChat, Flemming notes, “it’s not an ‘either/or’ question of Weibo vs. WeChat. Weibo is still the water cooler of China, the Zeitgeist, where netizens and observers of China can take the real time pulse of popular culture and sentiment and where brands can show off to the world.”

“WeChat, on the other hand, is the private social network where you hang out with real friends, who are found in your mobile phone address book, and share personal moments with them. While WeChat is more ‘social’ and Weibo is more ‘media’, both platforms are social media and in the end netizens will use both for different reasons, although the jury is still out about which one they will use more than the other.”

WeChat is a content driver, and a CRM magnet.

Many brands have been experimenting with how to best create compelling content so that WeChat users will allow brands into their inner circles. Starbucks has been running a campaign where users send them an emoticon to describe how they are feeling that day and Starbucks sends them a song that accompanies their mood via WeChat. Coach has run innovative games that help build substance and depth to their New York heritage.

However, perhaps the best use of WeChat is for customer relationship management and loyalty programs that allow a more intimate conversation with customers. A simple QR code can allow users to opt in to a customer database and allows brands to engage in a one-to-one conversation with users that can blossom into a rich two-way conversation and loyal customers.

As Flemming posits: “Imagine if one of your VIPs could text your store manager 10 minutes before they arrive so they can arrange for VIP service upon arrival. Not only does your store manager know who is about to visit to the store, but you have just created a deeper relationship with your VIP customer and allowed them to show face to their friends, who are also likely good customers as well.

Big picture implications for brands.

China’s social media landscape continues to evolve and adjust at breakneck speed, and it is difficult to predict exactly which platforms will be useful in the future. However, the sheer size of user bases of Weibo (close to 500 million users) and WeChat (close to 400 million users) demands laser-focused attention from brands seeking to interact with China’s valuable consumers.

Brands should view this challenge from a global perspective, not just within the borders of mainland China. With more than 60 percent of China’s luxury goods being purchased overseas, it is just as important for a boutique manager in Paris to maintain contact with VIP Chinese customers via WeChat as is it is for the boutique manager in Shanghai.

New applications such as WeChat can potentially help brands leapfrog expensive and bulky legacy CRM solutions, allowing brands to interact with their best customers in an intimate, private manner in a mobile environment, wherever they happen to be in the world.

Opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Jing Daily editorial team.


Renee Hartmann is co-founder of China Luxury Advisors, a boutique consultancy that helps luxury brands and retailers to develop China-related strategies, ranging from market entry to social media to attracting, converting, and retaining Chinese tourists. Renee has been focused on the China market since 2000, with a specialty in understanding and selling to the emerging Chinese consumer. She has worked as a brand owner, retail operator, consumer researcher, public relations specialist and market entry strategist in China. Follow China Luxury Advisors on Facebook and Twitter.

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Mobile, Tech