When condom maker Durex wants to send an intimate message to customers in China, it uses a homegrown instant messaging platform called WeChat (微信), which has taken the country by storm in just three years.
WeChat — known as weixin, or micro-message in Chinese — has similarities to WhatsApp, the Silicon Valley start-up that Facebook bought for US$19 billion last month.
Now the chief executive of its parent company hopes the service can go global, branding it China’s “most hopeful product for internationalization” — but concerns about cybersecurity could hamper its ambitions.
WeChat is more versatile than WhatsApp, allowing its more than 300 million users to send text, photos, videos and voice messages over smartphones, find each other by shaking their devices — a common dating technique — and even book and pay for taxis.
Its popularity has gone beyond individuals, with corporations and even the government using the application developed by Chinese Internet giant Tencent for their internal and public communications.
Since the WhatsApp deal was announced, Hong Kong-listed Tencent’s (騰訊) shares have risen 9.4 percent, giving it a market capitalization of US$150 billion, approaching Facebook’s US$180 billion.
“WeChat is an extremely people-friendly platform, something consumers frequently use every day,” said Fay Zhao, senior brand manager for Durex, which has asked its 200,000 followers to transmit “love stories” over WeChat in its latest campaign.
Analysts say WeChat has eroded the popularity of another form of Chinese social media — microblogs or weibo — which have been hurt by a government crackdown on content and users.
WeChat is now the country’s second-most popular instant messaging tool on mobile devices, according to consultancy Analysys International — behind the venerable QQ platform, launched in 1999 and also owned by Tencent — and is unlikely to be dislodged.
“WeChat, as a ‘killer app’ of Tencent on mobile Internet, has experienced a rapid increase in its user base since it commercialized in 2013,” consultancy Analysys International said in a research report last month, referring to when it started charging for some services.
WeChat is free to use, but charges for products such as emoticons and special features in games.
To retain users, WeChat has introduced new services alongside basic communication, including gaming, online payments and the taxi booking service.
Tencent acquired a 20 percent stake in Chinese restaurant listing platform Dianping.com last month and started offering dining coupons through WeChat.
Its latest deal, announced this week, sees Tencent take a 15 percent stake in Chinese online direct sales company JD.com, in a bid to better compete with e-commerce giant Alibaba (阿里巴巴).
Tencent founder and chief executive officer Pony Ma (馬化騰) is putting high hopes on expanding WeChat abroad, budgeting US$200 million for overseas marketing last year and hiring football superstar Lionel Messi for advertisements.
However, global concerns about cybersecurity could put a damper on its ambitions, while some Western users might have concerns over Internet security and the protection of personal data with WeChat, analysts said.
Other global players include Japan’s Line, with more than 300 million registered users, and South Korea’s Kakao Talk with more than 100 million, which together dominate other Asian markets.
“There are already some well-established instant messaging products in the global market ... forming a natural barrier for the internationalization of WeChat,” Analysys International analyst Dong Xu said.