Can Celebrities Help Monetize China's Popular WeChat?

Mobile App Has 236 M Active Users But Little Revenue

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Chen Kun
Chen Kun

When Chinese heartthrob Chen Kun offered his fans morning wakeup calls over WeChat for a fee, teenage girls weren't the only ones who snapped to attention. Marketers started calling their digital agencies, trying to gauge how the latest innovation on China's hot social app might affect their future strategies.

Mr. Chen, an actor and singer, is asking fans to pay about $3 a month for a VIP subscription service on the free WeChat mobile app to gain access to exclusive songs, personal photos, musings and recorded morning greetings. It's the first offer of its kind on Chinese internet giant Tencent's WeChat, which has expanded to 236 million monthly active users in under three years without a big push to make money off the service.

"Everyone is discussing how to use this emerging channel to do branding and marketing, and Chen Kun is giving the industry a sense that Tencent is willing to try something new, willing to create some commercial value on WeChat," said Jason Zhan, founder of China's Vitamine social media agency.

WeChat blends elements of WhatsApp, Skype, Instagram and Facebook into an all-purpose communication app that has revolutionized cell phone use in China and has been spreading abroad. Many in China now avoid sending SMS messages in favor of WeChat's free voice or text messages – a trend that sparked griping from China Mobile.

The social app has prioritized user experience and building a strong fan base over monetization, though the 5.0 version launched last month adds features like games, payment services and an emoticon shop. Banner and pop-up ads don't appear on WeChat, marketing tends to be subtle, and brands are limited in how they can use the service – for example, on how many messages they can send followers.

That explains the buzz over Mr. Chen's foray into subscription services. Mr. Zhan said some clients have asked him to check when Tencent might allow companies to try similar initiatives. Tencent did not return emails from Ad Age requesting comment on Mr. Chen's VIP service.

Vitamine's Mr. Zhan said he foresees similar openings down the road for brands – for example, a mobile phone company might offer a subscription for VIP customers so they can buy new products before other consumers.

Chris Tung, CEO of Chinese digital agency im2.0, can envision product placement on celebrity subscription feeds – perhaps Mr. Chen might write about dropping by a fast food restaurant, or post a photo of himself eating a burger.

Mr. Tung thinks next year will be pivotal for WeChat.

"I think they will take time, be patient, and they may use a few cases like Chen Kun so that content creators can really see the model and smell the money," he said.

Many marketers are still unsure how best to make use of WeChat, though some brands have been creative. Starbucks, often praised for its innovations, asked users their mood, then sent them a song to match.

For now, people use WeChat mostly to connect with people they actually know, similar to how people use Facebook, while Sina Weibo resembles Twitter.

The VIP content from Mr. Chen, a star of the film version of "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress," also launched discussion on which network would win the battle to draw big names.

"One way to attract people to Weibo is celebrity content," said Sam Flemming, founder and CEO of Shanghai-based social-media research and consulting firm CIC. "If that's moving to WeChat, that could be significant."

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