Tencent's 'Super App' WeChat Is Quietly Taking Over Workplaces In China

By Yue Wang, Forbes.com

Forget about office apps like Slack, or Alibaba’s DingTalk. In China, people don’t have much need for corporate communication tools because business is done on the country’s top social media platform: WeChat.

The app, called Weixin in Mandarin Chinese and operated by Chinese web giant Tencent, is already a phenomenon in its own right. It lets people send instant messages and post about personal events, while incorporating functions like ride hailing, buying movie tickets, sending payments, settling utility bills as well as online shopping. WeChat, which now has more than 800 million users, is essentially a portal of web services that an average Chinese checks about 10 times a day. Last year, HSBC valued the app at $83.6 billion, about half of the market capitalization of the Hong Kong-listed Tencent.

The company isn’t stopping at personal use, however. It has added a range of business-oriented features onto the app over the years, effectively making WeChat the go-to corporate communication tool blurring the lines between work and life.

More than 20 million office workers now apply for leave, file for reimbursement and track project progress through WeChat’s enterprise accounts, which are special built-in accounts that Chinese companies open for their employees, Tencent said during an analyst call on Wednesday. In addition to common features such as file transfer and group call, the accounts offer customized functions for different bureaus and firms.

Supermarket chain Meiyijia, for example, added functions where employees can report inventories while the Beijing Institute of Technology allows its students and professors to check performance and pay school fees through its account, according to the website of WeChat enterprise account. Companies can also offer customers virtual membership cards through WeChat, where consumers can scan each time they make a purchase to accumulate reward points.

Even before all those functions become popularized, people already use WeChat for basic work place communication over professional apps such as DingTalk, an office app developed by Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba with about one million company users.

Chinese office workers share files through WeChat instead of using e-mail. Group conferences are also conducted on the app as opposed to Skype. People ask for each other’s WeChat ID, not name cards, during business meetings.

And they aren’t having much of a problem mixing workplace contacts with personal lives. Michael Zhang, a 28-year-old wealth management professional, says he is constantly on the app during work to talk to clients. Ma Wanzhi, a 27-year-old project assistant, says she has 10 work-related groups on WeChat and she spends more than two hours every day there, while also using it for family and personal matters.

“I really depend on WeChat for work because it is super convenient,” Ma says. “Everyone is on the app, so there is really no need for companies to invest in a new work app.”

Behind the popularity is China’s traditional reliance on guanxi, or relationships, for business development, analysts say. Having business contacts on what is supposed to be a personal app like WeChat is just one way to build relationships in the country, says Chris DeAngelis, general manager at consultancy Alliance Development Group, which helps western technology companies expand in China.

“Everyone shares their lives on WeChat. A lot of relationships start with people following each other’s posts. If we have an active project going on, we will set up 20 groups. It is not like when you have to go on a computer and open up Skype.”

There is still a market for more professional services, says Pang Yiming, a research director at Beijing-based consultancy Analysys International. Larger companies prioritizing security and better internal management are willing to pay for the likes of DingTalk, while smaller firms are content with what WeChat offers, she says.

“More than 90% of Chinese netizens are already on WeChat,” she says. “The free group calls are enough for most companies.”

Ruben HorbachComment