WeChat: China's Tencent Reinvents the Web Portal for Mobile

Audience: 600 million monthly, active users

Top Markets: China, Malaysia, Hong Kong, India, Taiwan

Demographics: Majority of users aged 16–34 years

Key Features: Connect to friends via nearby “radar”; “shake” phone (see glossary for definition) and connect with whomever else is shaking at that moment; enter walkie-talkie mode (see glossary for definition); official brand platform with CMS; free and paid stickers and coupons; share multimedia files; works on all major mobile platforms and PC/Macs.

Launched in 2011 as Weixin inside China, WeChat is the global version of the chat app, owned by parent company Tencent. It has 600 million monthly, active users,10 the vast majority of whom call China home. While Tencent doesn't split out the figure for the number of users WeChat hosts outside of China, we understand the figure is between 100 million and 150 million active users.

It is undoubtedly very appealing to try and reach a Chinese audience through WeChat, and several news organizations have launched channels inside the platform with this intent. However, it is important to stress that WeChat and Weixin are separate entities. People inside China don't have access to WeChat and foreign news publishers don't have access to Weixin, unless they are able to pass a local registration process, which is often prohibitive.

Nevertheless, WeChat does provide a means of reaching Chinese diaspora outside the country—and those users can provide a route to reaching people inside China through social connections and sharing. WeChat has traditionally positioned its focus in Asia and Africa, with its recent investment in Kik—a rival chat app founded in Canada—indicative of its desire to gain a foothold in Western markets.

WeChat is probably one of the most sophisticated chat apps. In China, it strategically offers itself as a one-stop-shop for everything a person might want to do on a phone—from messaging and social networking, to buying goods and services, to mobile banking. The app outside China doesn't have all these features.

Cliff Central Builds First Radio Channel on a Chat App

Gareth Cliff is a former South African radio talk show host turned digital media entrepreneur. In 2014, he founded cliffcentral.com, which aimed to merge online radio broadcasting with social media and instant messaging platforms.11

He partnered with WeChat, then at the early stages of establishing a presence in Africa, to launch the world's first full radio and audio channel inside a chat platform. Cliff noted:

WeChat has been great to work with. We worked with them to develop an instant bespoke platform where users could stream our radio broadcasts live and listen to our podcasts on demand. We update the channel daily, with new podcasts and pictures. It gives our audience direct access to our presenters and DJs—we have our WeChat channel plugged in to our studio so we can respond to messages in real time on the air.

Cliff's shock-jock style remains part of the DNA of his digital radio network and it seems to be a good fit for the medium, with the channel currently boasting around 140,000 subscribers. It requires a daily production effort to keep it updated, with additional attention to the automated audio streams pulled into the channel. The platform is optimized to take into account that many potential users may have limited data plans: it offers both low- and high-resolution audio streams.

“Being a digital-only operation, we're able to turn on a dime and be agile in our strategy. You need to be able to pull in an audience across all these digital platforms, and so it ultimately comes down to your content,” Cliff said.

One of the most exciting aspects of the project for him is the potential for commercial revenue in the future: “We're still at the early stages, but I can see a time when we could add click-to-buy functionality, as well as offer sponsorship and advertising opportunities for the channel.”

As many radio stations around the world look toward their digital futures, the pioneering work of Cliff Central on WeChat is a fine example of how messaging platforms can help the radio industry.

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