With millions of users, WeChat’s mini-programs draw favor among diverse range of businesses

WeChat’s one-year-old mini-program platform has attracted 400 million users as of February 2018. In doing so, it has become a formidable competitor to traditional mobile app stores.

Introduced by China’s tech giant, Tencent, in early January 2017, mini-programs are the “sub-applications” within the ecosystem of WeChat, which itself is the most popular messaging application in China. Reported, mini-programs were originally called ‘app accounts’, but Apple refused to allow WeChat to name a function with the word “app”.

Compared to normal apps, mini-programs don’t require downloading, installations or upgrading. Users can sign in with WeChat ID, instead of registering with a new account. There are also disadvantages for mini-programs, such as a lack of notifications or the inability to share your progress on WeChat moments (a function similar to Facebook’s timeline). Additionally, WeChat mini-programs require specific development languages and only function within WeChat.

These weak points haven’t deterred users from choosing the platform. According to figures released by WeChat at its Open Class event in Guangzhou last month, there are more than 1 million developers and 2,300 third-party companies working with the platform, over 170 million daily users acting on the platform, and in excess of 580,000 mini-programs available on the platform.

This rapid adoption has enabled WeChat’s mini-program ecosystem to span a number of categories, including retail, e-commerce, and government services.

The platform has been viewed as a new approach for companies, one that can provide better services to clients or function as a springboard to entering a new market.

Retail

According to a report released by Jisuapp.com, a third-party company that develops mini-programs, retail counts among the major business sectors that began employing mini-programs last year. Traffic to WeChat’s new platform was low in the first half of 2017, but more retailers started developing mini-programs and creating offline materials (QR codes, for instance) to motivate users to access them.

Combined with other services in the WeChat ecosystem, such as payment, coupons, and promotion of official accounts, mini-programs are broadly used in shopping malls and convenient stores. Lin+ convenience stores and Beijing’s BHGMall, for instance, both make use of the new platform. Customers have strong willingness to purchase via mini-programs, and the platform becomes a springboard for retailers to further expand their market. Retail purchases via mini-programs witnessed a 40% monthly growth in the last quarter of 2017, and visits to these programs in December was 56% higher than November.

Ecommerce

Ecommerce is another highly active sector on the platform, particularly in niche markets such as fresh food, baby products, and fashion. Strong purchasing demand was generated during the the Single’s Day Shopping Festival during which product information from ecommerce mini-programs was frequently shared via WeChat messaging. As a result, these programs boomed in the last quarter of 2017. Among fashion-related ecommerce mini-programs, monthly traffic increased 323%. In fact, 60% of users purchased via mini-programs from Meituan, Dianping, JD.com, etc.

As one of the largest messaging apps, information shared among WeChat users often influences users’ purchasing behavior. Promotions like group-buying and rush-buying help ecommerce mini-programs attract new users. In 2018, more ecommerce companies will undoubtedly join the platform and after-purchase rewards will help these mini-programs to continually maintain users’ attention.

Dining

Mini-programs have been largely used in many dining-related business, from reserving tables, to ordering on the spot, to delivering food. Without downloading and installations, the platform allows customers to easily enjoy membership benefits and helps restaurants manage customers efficiently. It drives users’ consumption and generally replaces the traditional in-person ordering at stores. Mini-programs also help restaurants maintain profits from takeaway services rather than letting that cash go to delivery platforms.

Traffic of dining mini-programs witnessed more than 50% growth in September and grew more than 50% between November and December in 2017. Restaurants’ revenue on the platform increased 32% from November to December.

Based on the popular social media services of WeChat, the mini-program platform has made available more than 100 functions with over 50 APIs (Application Programming Interface) in 2017, all of which have helped to form a robust mini-program ecosystem. Looking into 2018, WeChat’s mini-programs will likely see increased traffic and reshape online services across many sectors.

(Top photo from Sohu.com)

Y.R. Zhao
Y.R. Zhao

Zhao is our columnist. She previously worked at China Daily, and she was the chief Southeast Asia correspondent while living in Bangkok. She holds two master’s degrees from the University of Sydney and Australian National University. She is a foodie and avid marathoner. She believes technology will change our lives and that China is leading the trend.

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