WeChat team members/Renmin Photo
Tencent’s WeChat blew past MiTalk and Feixin to become China’s most popular mobile messaging platform in 2012.
As of last March, the service had 200 million users. Tencent says it expects WeChat to have more than 300 million users by the end of the month.
That means roughly 70 percent of China’s 3G mobile Internet users choose WeChat.
“WeChat entered the mobile messaging market at the right time,” said Zhang Xiaolong, its founder.
The smartphone revolution has seen China’s netizens switching to their handsets when it’s time to communicate, game and conduct business. More than 388 million are using mobile Internet, according to the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC).
With its access to Tencent’s existing QQ user base, it’s no surprise WeChat won.
In 2011, QQ had more than 145.4 million users, half of whom connected from their phones. That shift in the market inspired Tencent to put its efforts into a new mobile instant messaging platform.
Unlike QQ, WeChat was accepted by office workers who have been married to MSN Messenger on the desktop.
The first version of WeChat went mostly unnoticed, since being able to send free messages and photos is nothing new. The second version, which added audio messages, made it a hit.
In August, Tencent added location-based features.
WeChat allows users to shake their phones and discover nearby users, and to send out “floating bottles” that may be discovered by strangers.
“It’s like an adventure. I made several friends using the ‘shake it’ function,” said Christina Chen, a student at Peking University.
Last year, Zhang’s team took further steps to transform WeChat into a social platform. The “friendship circle” function allows users to share photos and short journals with their friends.
Corporations pounced on WeChat as a way to build brand awareness.
Using verified accounts, companies and brands can post “rich media content,” including video, text, audio message and photos, to their WeChat streams.
WeChat’s Membership and barcode scanning functions further link online and offline activities. It lets brands target users with specific offers during certain seasons.
“Consumers can build a relationship with every restaurant, theater and hotel they visit in WeChat,” said Dai Zhikang, manager of WeChat’s Membership card business.
And with its upcoming integration of Tenpay, Tencent’s online payment system, business-to-consumer retailers are getting involved too.
WeChat is Tencent’s first product intended to win abroad.
The software is available in more than 100 countries and regions, and in 16 languages.
“China got a late start during the PC era, and it was difficult for us to lead in innovations abroad. The mobile Internet is a new opportunity,” Zhang said.
The international scope of mobile software stores, such as Apple’s App Store and Google Play, helped WeChat to reach consumers abroad.
However, international downloads still account for less than 5 percent of WeChat’s daily downloads. The majority are from Southeast Asia and the Middle East.
Similar products, such as WhatsApp in US and Kakao Talk in Korea, are tough competitors.
Zeng Ming, product manager of WeChat, said the biggest challenge for the team is how to explore WeChat in the European and US markets.
As many as 100,000 people in the US became WeChat users last September, but that is only a fraction of its yearly 1.2 million downloads.
“Why is the US market the most difficult to enter? Aside from the product itself, it’s the cultural differences,” Zhang said. “We have to match the demand for technical quality, and then break the foreigners’ preference for using their own products.”
To improve the user experience, the team opened data centers in the US and Southeast Asia, said Liu Lejun, WeChat’s program manager.
Tough as it may be, Zhang sees hope.
He said he believes the superior product should win in the market, and WeChat’s next version is only two months away.
“We want WeChat to go beyond the culture where it originated to become a universal symbol,” Zhang said.