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3 lessons we can learn from Chinese social commerce

When it comes to e-commerce via social media – or social commerce, if you will – there’s a lot we can learn from China. While it’s true that ‘western’ platforms are starting to embrace the concept of social purchasing, (Facebook’s ‘shop now’ call to action, Pinterest’s ‘Buy it’ pins and Instagram’s in-app click-to-buy functionality to name but a few examples), there’s a long way to go before we reach the kind of seamless integration seen on platforms such as WeChat in China.

There, social selling aided by comments on social networks and via user generated content and imagery has reached a pinnacle not yet seen in other markets. This phenomenon of ‘conversational commerce’ is an area which is predicted to boom in the next five years, and many will be looking to China as the example to follow.

With many experts believing that China may be as far as 10 years ahead when it comes to social and mobile e-commerce, we run through the top 3 reasons why brands, developers and users alike are looking east for inspiration when it comes to predicting the future of social purchasing.

1 Multi-functionality

WeChat, owned by internet giant Tencent, is often mistakenly framed as the Chinese answer to Whatsapp, but is actually much more than just an instant messaging app. While it’s true that WeChat does offer all the functionality we would expect from a social media platform in terms of peer-to-peer communication, the app also allows users to complete a vast array of other activities through its interface– everything from buying a drink from a vending machine, to hailing a taxi or even booking a doctor’s appointment.

WeChat successfully integrates social communication with so many other functions, users can enjoy the convenience of needing just one app to carry out the same tasks for which we would require several. WeChat can do what Whatsapp, Uber, Amazon and JustEat do combined; the ‘apps-within-the-app’ allow users to interact with brands, conduct internet banking, purchase products and share recommendations or reviews all without ever leaving the WeChat interface. These plugins, or ‘official accounts’, are created by third parties and verified by Tencent.

This framework has arguably transformed WeChat beyond the scope of a traditional social platform as we know it, and more into the realms of an operating system in its own right, ripe with e-commerce opportunities. Due to this, In-app spending on WeChat is sizeable. The average revenue per user on WeChat is $7, which is significantly higher than Whatsapp which earns an average of 1$ per user (mostly through the nominal annual usage fee) even despite the fact that WeChat has comparatively less global users.

2 Online/offline integration

WeChat achieves impeccable integration between online app activity and offline behaviour. While specific campaigns or existential marketing events attempt to achieve this in the west; by rewarding users for checking-in to specific places or promoting a specific hashtag via an offline event or marketing materials; WeChat is far more advanced.

WeChat users can apply discounts and quick-pay for products in physical stores using the app, shake their phone to find other single WeChat users in the vicinity and ask them out on a date or even join the queue for a table at a popular restaurant virtually, without physically being there. In this way the WeChat app becomes more than just a platform through which to share updates about what you are doing with your friends, but also acts as the portal through which users interact with the physical world and make purchases. The point of difference is that WeChat doesn’t just encourage or reward users for conducting an online action as the result of an offline trigger or vice versa, but has actually integrated itself into user’s everyday lives through providing services which have practical value. Social sharing follows on as secondary.

3 Offering an improved shopping experience

It sounds obvious, but to successfully integrate e-commerce with social, the service needs to offer something a user can’t get from online shopping via traditional e-commerce shopping: The convenience of going from browsing items for inspiration to actually purchasing without leaving the app, the speed of a one-click checkout or exclusive offers or functionality. WeChat delivers on all fronts. It allows users to find and follow local retailers, read reviews and discuss products with friends plus offers loyalty and members’ cards for everywhere from big chains like McDonalds through to local independent shops and restaurants, all in one place.

In keeping with WeChat’s knack for bridging the gap between social marketing and physical engagements with customers, it even offers a barcode scanner, allowing users to quickly scan the label on a physical product instore and compare prices or choose to purchase online.

Key takeaways

So, while the major western platforms are working towards providing a more substantial social commerce framework, there is a long way to go for them to catch up with WeChat’s highly developed and integrated approach. While e-commerce is tentatively being introduced within social networking on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest, a more multi-faceted and cohesive approach will be needed for users to take to social shopping in the way that Chinese customers have on WeChat.

Careful attention will also need to be given on how best to tread the line between offering a useful shopping experience and pushing a hard sell: Monetising social media needs to be implemented in a way which doesn’t negatively impact user experience. Only time will tell how this will be achieved, but one thing is for certain, we can look to China as a benchmark on what we can expect.