This story is part of our Digital Deep Dive series, which we worked on with our friends over at Hylink Digital. The rapid rise of the outbound Chinese travel market has brought with it a host of digital platforms and services. Learning who these companies are, and how they operate in the Chinese tourism space is becoming more important all the time for destination marketing organizations and non-Chinese travel companies. 

There is a myriad of social media platforms in China, and they’re growing in number by the day. Still, there is none more important in China than Tencent’s WeChat. The app is a messaging app, software ecosystem and quasi-operating system, social media page, news aggregator, gaming platform, marketplace, and has the popular WeChat Pay mobile payments platform integrated within it. Basically, if there something a Chinese consumer wants to find, learn about, buy and pay for, or play, chances are WeChat will be involved at some stage.

WeChat recently reached the milestone of 1 billion active monthly users. While this is less than half of Facebook’s 2.2 billion active monthly users, the relative importance of WeChat in China’s consumer culture far outstrips that of any other platform in a major Western market.

These aspects of the platform make it mandatory for any actor interested in marketing or selling in the China market to consider making WeChat a part of their strategy. Still, the specifics of the platform can make it difficult to integrate the platform into a marketing campaign.

While WeChat is ostensibly a social media platform, the ways content (messages, ads, games, social posts, etc.) appear on the platform is substantially more segmented than Facebook or Twitter. Most ad content comes in the form of official accounts that can push messages to users but are not integrated into content in the same way they are on Facebook’s newsfeed.

While some still refer to WeChat as “China’s Facebook,” such sweeping statements ignore the many important differences between the two products

In fact, it’s messages, and not a social feed, that takes center stage on WeChat. The platform does have a feed (“Moments”) where users can upload posts and photos for their contacts to view, but this generally isn’t accessible to advertisers. For users to see most ads, they have to manually find and select a specific account, usually among a list of all their ongoing messaging conversations. While the format gives brands and destinations increased ability to reach out and interact with consumers, it also makes it harder to reach potential tourists spontaneously.

So, unlike Facebook where a destination marketing organization (DMO) can simply pay to have ads pushed directly to users, destination marketing has to be substantially smarter and stress interactivity to attract WeChat users, keep them coming back, and get them to share content with contacts  through messages or on WeChat’s social feed.

DMOs have adopted a variety of strategies to reach out to users via WeChat. The most common is the use of an official account, which appears like any other conversation and can send ads, articles, and other digital content to users. Upon opening the app, users can get push notifications from official accounts, but still have to manually interact with the account to view the ad content. Users cannot simply stumble upon sponsored content while browsing their feeds like on Facebook. While this is certainly more consumer-friendly and keeps users’ social media feeds less cluttered with ads, it does make it harder for DMOs and other tourism stakeholders to reach users.

Destination marketing organizations (DMOs) from all over the world are on WeChat, but they have varying degrees of success on China’s premier social media platform

Still, Chinese users seem to have largely embraced this format, and it’s unlikely to change anytime soon. Nonetheless, many DMOs and Western brands have had substantial success in reaching out to users via WeChat. Dragon Trail Interactive, for example, has a weekly ranking of how popular posts from accounts for various tourism companies and DMOs are doing. Of course, such rankings should not be taken as gospel. WeChat is notoriously opaque about numbers, and fake accounts are numerous on the platform. Nonetheless, the rankings show accounts can have substantial reach, even if they aren’t as intrusive as traditional ads.

One feature that companies are adopting, particularly e-commerce firms, is direct communication with a single consumer via WeChat. Ctrip, for example, can give live, emergency assistance to independent tourists traveling abroad via WeChat as part of the online travel agency’s virtual tour manager (VTM) platform.

Official accounts remain the primary means of outreach for tourism stakeholders on WeChat, but 2017 saw the rise of a new type of avenue of advertising via WeChat, the so-called “mini-program.” Mini-programs are, simply put, applications that exist within the WeChat ecosystem and add more functionalities to the messaging app.

The primary tourism use of the mini-program format has been the “CityExperience Mini-Program.” These are highly polished interactive city guides made via partnerships between DMOs and Tencent, WeChat’s operator. They have a map, with suggestions for retail, dining, and attractions. Given that they are formed through partnerships with Tencent itself, it’s likely that only DMOs from larger cities with substantial marketing resources will be able to utilize the platform for marketing. Washington D.C., Dubai, Sydney, and London were the first cities that have rolled out one of these mini-programs.

There’s a mini-program for that, so why use an app?

These programs are still relatively new and it may take years before they are fully fleshed out as a viable outreach tool. Combined with the natural opacity of the WeChat ecosystem, it’s unknown how many users have utilized the CityExperience mini-programs to plan trips or how many travelers have been encouraged to choose any of these cities as a destination. The relative success and efficacy of these mini-programs won’t be fully assessed for some time.

Beyond these two main outreach tools, WeChat offers few other opportunities for DMOs looking to elevate awareness of their destination in the China market. Moreover, the nature of WeChat heavily constrains the ability to market to consumers through these avenues, but the apps massive user base necessitates some kind of incorporation of WeChat into any marketing strategy.