Will the West get a WeChat?

For those unfamiliar, WeChat (微信, or, “micro letter”) is the dominant messaging platform in China. But, it’s more than a messaging app—it’s essentially the mobile operating system of China. WeChat is different from messaging apps popular in the West simply because it does so much more. It is a payments app, a hookup app, a lottery app, and, most importantly, it’s a platform for third-party apps. Official Accounts on WeChat can be heavily customised for users to navigate and interact, essentially replacing the need for a website. In China, the most important layer of the mobile stack is not operating systems like iOS or Android, it’s WeChat. This is because most of the essential apps in China’s mobile stack are not iOS or Android apps, they are WeChat apps. With WeChat available and dominant on both platforms, mobile operating systems are left with very little opportunity for software differentiation. This could partially explain why Apple has struggled in the Chinese market.

In the West, nobody dominates in the same way, but platforms are inching closer. Facebook and its subsidiaries have a clear lead and are taking inspiration from WeChat. Mark Zuckerberg has announced that messaging is the future of Facebook. He expects “future versions of Messenger and WhatsApp to become the main ways people communicate on the Facebook network”. For many small businesses, Facebook pages have replaced websites and Facebook Messenger has a slew of commerce functionality. Apple’s iMessage platform has received R&D attention in recent years but is yet to break out as more than a messaging app. WhatsApp is ubiquitous but limited in functionality. Google has repeatedly fumbled. Instagram seems to be in the lead for millennials. Hospitality venues around the world are using highlighted stories to add content and navigation to their Instagram profiles in place of a website.

Recently, Instagram announced Instagram Checkout, a significant expansion of their commerce capabilities. Already, merchants have been able to push their product catalogues to Instagram (via Facebook), allowing audiences to browse their selection in-app and allowing merchants to tag their posts with links to relevant products. But, the in-app experience has always ended with browsing—with shoppers directed to a brands website to complete any purchase. Instagram will now begin to allow users to complete transactions in-app, bringing consistency and expedience to the experience at a fee to the merchant. It is not yet clear whether merchants will be able to opt-out of this new flow and continue to drive users to their websites to complete transactions.

While this may come across as Instagram muscling its way into a transaction it has traditionally had no claim to, I think this will be positive for many retailers. In a world where just a few marketplaces continue to consume the ecommerce market with the online store taking a backseat to other channels, competition should be welcomed. Further, many of these dominant marketplaces focus on commoditising all merchandise, focusing heavily on price and convenience over customisation and specialty—product lines become offers and brands are all but relegated to a note on the buy box. A world where all online shopping takes place on these commoditised marketplaces, while convenient, could turn out incredibly dull for consumers and difficult for specialised brands.

Instagram, however, has always been brand-focused, if not obsessed. Even personal users with no ambitions to become an influencer are considering their personal brand and how the content they post can establish it. The Instagram user-interface is very friendly to brands seeking to stand on their own, control how they are represented and reach out to their audiences. For the most part, Instagram users are generally pretty happy to subscribe to marketing and advertising from the brands they like, with 80% of people following at least one business account. As a result, Instagram seems to have fallen into a place where it has become the dominant platform for specialised retailers to market their goods to their existing audience and grow their audience through paid advertising and collaborations with influencers. It’s inevitable for Instagram to seek to better monetise the relationships they are facilitating and advisable for merchants to take advantage as early adopters of features that can make transactions easier for their audience, keeping them from instead browsing today’s dominant marketplaces.

Following suit, WhatsApp Payments (which apparently will not be developed in Silicon Valley) has been announced, alongside WhatsApp Product Catalogs

While there is not yet a single app dominating this layer of the mobile stack, the battle is well underway, and, while Facebook probably won’t be replacing government IDs anytime soon, they are leading the race.

5 April, 2019

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