“If you can get ahold of Facebook’s product roadmap, it’s a giant WeChat clone,” says William Bao Bean. “China is behind in a lot of different areas, but one area where it’s ahead is in social content-driven commerce.”
As managing director of Chinaccelerator, one of the country’s most prestigious startup accelerators, it’s William’s job to spot trends that can be exploited by budding new companies. One of the most important of those trends has been the rise of WeChat – not just as a messaging app, but as a place where people shop online.
Starting from last year, Tencent, WeChat’s parent company, began a serious push to open up its platform for developers to build ecommerce stores and a wide range of online services.
Instead of building standalone apps, some developers now build their services within WeChat. All of the chat app’s features are at their fingertips – WeChat’s wallet allows users to seamlessly make in-app purchases; its social networking allows users to influence each other’s purchasing decisions; companies can see precisely how much people are talking about their product, and which people within a community have the most influence.
Moving closer – and further – from Silicon Valley style
“In China – in the past, at least – it didn’t generally matter how great your product was,” says WIlliam. “What mattered was who your friends are and how much money you raised.”
Traditionally, a tremendous amount of startup investment in China has gone directly to user acquisition: advertising, promotions, and the like. But with WeChat-based services, it’s more important – and cheaper – to focus on content with hopes of it going viral on the network.
“It’s a big change. With WeChat, you can do a traditional US-style internet company in China,” says William, noting that many American companies focus on making shareable content, rather than simply pushing out expensive ads. “For the first time, good content and a great product have a chance.”
But while the potential for virality may be similar to US-style companies, there is one big difference that sets WeChat apart from its international competition: the “buy” button.
While it’s possible for a Western startup to go viral on Facebook, that’s only part of the equation. Users still need to be brought from Facebook to a separate website or app where they must be persuaded to turn that viral excitement into a purchase.
In WeChat, everything’s in one place. So it’s simply a matter of building a community – around your product or viral content – and then “everything that you see in that community you can click and buy,” says William.
Take, for example, Better Man. The Chinaccelerator graduate startup that William describes as “FHM, plus men’s fitness, plus Maxim, plus Vice,” engages in typical brand sponsorships and advertising, but also gives viewers the ability to buy anything on the screen, from clothes, to weights, to speaker systems.
Chinaccelerator now boasts seven mentors who focus specifically on WeChat growth hacking, helping companies target potential customers by the millions. In the accelerator’s current batch of startups, nearly every company has a social commerce angle – there is an online art store, a restaurant review service, a parenting-help program, and more. All of them are built inside WeChat.
Today China, tomorrow the world
“We help companies attack the next four billion [internet users]: India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Eastern Europe, South America,” says William. “Those are also mobile-first, mobile-only markets. What works in the US doesn’t work in these markets. What works in China generally has a lot better chance.”
William and his colleagues at Chinaccelerator are banking on the fact that the lessons they’ve learned negotiating China’s social-driven ecommerce will translate to success in the massive potential markets of countries like India, Indonesia, and Brazil.
“We have a year head start in China on the systems, analytics, platforms, approaches, tricks and tools on how to use social to drive purchasing,” says William. Success in markets like India will certainly require different skills than in China – differences vary greatly in income, cultural norms, and the simple fact that Indians don’t use WeChat – but Chinese and China-focused entrepreneurs have already cracked the basic codes of making social commerce work.
What works as a WeChat-integrated app in China may work as a standalone app or website in India. One day, it will likely work as a Facebook or Twitter-integrated app.
Western social networks have integrated ecommerce programs in the works, says William, noting that the companies have scrambled to catch up to WeChat’s success. But rolling those programs out in Western markets has been slow – just try buying something from Facebook Messenger in less than 30 clicks – let alone in developing ones.
“It’s not that Americans haven’t been willing to press ‘buy’ – they haven’t been given the opportunity. It doesn’t exist.” says William. “I think Americans will be willing to press ‘buy’ if somebody gives them a fucking ‘buy’ button. And we’re getting pretty good at getting people to press the fucking ‘buy’ button.”
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