Can WeChat Reverse Declines with Their Answer to Instagram Stories?

WeChat recently announced their first major system upgrade since 2014 – a much-anticipated event that stirred millions of discussions on Chinese social media. One of the most noteworthy features is “Time Capsule,” the platform’s answer to Instagram “Stories” which allows users to post instant videos of 15 seconds or less on user homepages for a 24-hour period. But will the feature become as successful as Instagram Stories has in the West?

This looks like a strategic move by WeChat’s parent company, Tencent, to stand out in the social media war over short video. As China’s booming short video services are starting to take user attention away from WeChat, its readership already declining year-on-year, Tencent is trying all sorts of different initiatives to remain in control of China’s massive social media market – from launching different video apps to limiting rival platforms from accessing WeChat users. “WeChat Story” is their latest attempt at keeping Chinese social media users in the fold.

Luckily, Tencent only has to look at Instagram for a blueprint for success. In June, Instagram had 400 million people using the Story feature daily with a hefty ad budget flowing into the feature. On Instagram Stories, functions like survey pools, questions, and swiping up to link calls for a deeper engagement than just “likes.” According to Marketing Week, the volume of brands posting on Instagram Stories has quadrupled over 2018, and 25 percent of brands’ Instagram ad budget now goes to Stories – a trend that will likely continue to grow through 2019.

In China, multiple luxury brands have quickly latched onto the short video trend, namely Michael Kors and Dior, each having established official channels on popular short music video platform Douyin this year, and Louis Vuitton, which launched a Christmas advertising campaign that saw significant engagement in terms of click-through rate.

But if brands are drawn to WeChat’s new story feature instead, could it bring monetization opportunities back to WeChat? WeChat expert Matthew Brennan, wrote on his blog that WeChat Stories can be monetized with ads and full-screen auto-play video ads, giving WeChat a third way (besides WeChat Pay and mini-programs) to leverage their massive amount of social media traffic.

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Adding video isn’t a slam dunk for WeChat. Their rival Weibo tried to implement a similar story feature in 2017, but it hasn’t gained popularity so far. Based on WeChat users’ experiences thus far, it looks as if adoption of this new feature may take some time. It has been less than a month since the launch of Time Capsule, and users have already taken to Weibo to complain about their challenging experiences. “I can’t access it on my own WeChat group,” “How do I delete my post?”, and “Who dares to play without even a facial filter?” are just a few of the criticisms. Others mocked how it looked as if WeChat simply bought Douyin.

WeChat's new "Time Capsule" feature is similar to Instagram Stories. Jing Daily illustration.

WeChat’s new “Time Capsule” feature is similar to Instagram Stories. Jing Daily illustration.

Chief Marketing Officer of influencer marketing agency ParkLu, Elijah Whaley, echoed similar sentiments, saying, “I think the user experience is super lacking. It might be one of the worst features on the platform.” For now, users can either upload their existing videos or record new ones through the new feature, as well as add descriptions, emojis, music, and location information. To view the videos, users simply tap on the bubble icon on top of the profile image.

But despite a somewhat slow or clunky entry into the video social media marketplace, it might not be wise to bet against WeChat. “Mini-programs were widely considered dead on arrival, and look how they are flourishing now,” Whaley added. “WeChat seems to take an iterative approach to development, so who knows what WeChat Stories might look like in the future.”

Bloggers are likely to be the early adopters of this feature as they vie for more intimacy with their VIP fans on their private WeChat accounts, said Whaley. But he also observed that very few KOLs have fully adopted the feature and are still just testing the waters.

“I honestly don’t believe WeChat Stories will ever be as significant as Instagram Stories,” said Whaley. Social media users in China are now sophisticated, and they’ll go to the platform that best suits their needs. “The continued popularity of Weibo and the rise of Douyin and Xiaohongshu [Little Red Book] is a testament to social media users desire to be connected to people outside of their direct rings of influence and engage with content creators instead of family, friends, and co-workers,” said Whaley.

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Social Media, Tech