WeChat's Hot New Feature Will Take Time for Marketers to Figure Out

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WeChat, the all-purpose app from Chinese internet giant Tencent, has gotten a buzzed-about new capability. WeChat's new mini programs are essentially cloud-based apps-within-an-app, which users don't have to download to use. That saves time and space on phones, and people don't have to plug their payment details in each time because they can pay through WeChat.

KFC's mini program on WeChat opens to its loyalty program
KFC's mini program on WeChat opens to its loyalty program Credit: KFC

The first batch of apps-within-the-app were mostly from Chinese companies, although KFC offered one, linking to its loyalty program. Others included e-commerce player JD.com, bikeshare program Mobike, ride-hailing app Didi Chuxing and travel-booking platform Ctrip. Their "mini programs," seen as a challenge to app stores, will also keep people within the WeChat ecosystem even more than they already are. Tencent estimated last year that more than half of users in China spent over an hour a day on the platform, where you can do everything from chat with friends to buy movie tickets to book hotels.

WeChat creator Allen Zhang launched the feature last week on the 10th anniversary of the iPhone, suggesting the company sees the development as a game-changer. And perhaps it is. PHD Greater China's chief digital officer, Lars Bjorge, calls the mini apps a "gutsy and ambitious move."

For brands, he says, there will be creative challenges in figuring out how to use them. "You have to give consumers something useful, but it has to be specific, because with lighter apps you have less space to play with," Mr. Bjorge said. He's curious to see how things evolve, and whether brands' mini programs will eventually be able to tap into some of WeChat's vast troves of consumer data.

Another challenge for brands: mini programs are not easy for consumers to discover. There's no store for them. To find them within WeChat, you have to know what you're looking for. Users can share a link with friends, but they can't share it on their timeline, to all their friends.

Tencent Holdings has historically taken pains to prevent WeChat from getting too commercial; it didn't run its first newsfeed ads until 2015, about four years after its launch.

"Tencent's mission is to put consumers first, and (the new mini programs) are not necessarily a really great tool for brands at the moment," said Dirk Eschenbacher, co-founder and chief creative offer of premium travel agency Zanadu, which was in the first batch of companies to launch a WeChat mini program. "It doesn't feel like a new channel you have to suddenly to communicate with a fan base, it's a bit more tricky for that."

Figuring it out will take time, he said. Because people can pull up the mini programs with a QR code, it could be useful at offline events to lead people into the digital world, said Mr. Eschenbacher, who was previously Asia Pacific ECD of Ogilvy One and Tribal DDB managing partner for Asia.

Zanadu, which received financing from Tencent in 2015, for now offers booking for its hot-selling trips on its WeChat mini program. But later, "we could see mini programs helping us communicate with travelers on the go, maybe get tips on itineraries, booking confirmations, access to travel consultants," he said.

Mr. Eschenbacher's advice for other brands would be to try their hand at mini programs, despite their current limitations, "even if you do something small and can't do something amazing right now that will stand the test of time. You have to be flexible and adapt to new changes, which we are used to from Tencent."