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Western Messaging Apps Are Looking to China's WeChat for Inspiration

Messaging apps are taking a page (or two) from WeChat's playbook.

Vlad Teodor/ Shutterstock

In WeChat we trust.

This seems to be the unwritten — although oft-mentioned — motto of some of North America’s most prominent messaging companies these days. Apps like Kik, Tango, Snapchat and Facebook’s Messenger are all starting to act more like WeChat, China’s dominant messaging service from holding company Tencent.

In China, WeChat has become a jack-of-all-trades app. There, you can use WeChat to buy an airline ticket, call for a Didi Dache (China’s version of Uber) or read the news.

It’s a strategy that’s catching on in the west. Tango added a shopping tab into its messaging app earlier this month. Kik lets brands message back and forth with users, who can also play games within the app. Snapchat offers an entire news section, Discover, and also added payments back in November.

Facebook is also getting in on the action. The company announced Platform for Messenger at its big developer conference in March, and is testing its first user-to-business messaging capabilities. A new report from the Information found that the company is looking at adding games to Messenger, too.

Messaging appears to be the next great platform for which developers will be building. The idea is that messaging apps are where people spend a lot of their time. People send 30 billion messages per day on WhatsApp alone. If people are already coming to the app to communicate with friends, why not give them everything else they might want to do as well, like games and commerce?

This transformation has been very WeChat-like, and Kik and Tango aren’t shy about admitting where they got their inspiration.

“I think it has to do with the scale and the size of the audience that [WeChat] reaches. They have amazing reach in China,” explained Tango’s Chi-Chao Chang, VP of the company’s product strategy division Tango Labs. “When [we] make references to WeChat, it’s less about it being a competitor and more about it being a direction.”

Kik CEO Ted Livingston penned an entire blog post on the subject back in November. He summed up Kik’s goals in one line: “We want to be the WeChat of the West.”

So why does it matter that companies are emulating WeChat?

For starters, it offers a preview of where the whole messaging business is headed. Unlike Kik and Tango, Facebook isn’t publicly emulating another service. The company only offers communication apps on Messenger right now, services for sending GIFs and stickers, but a company spokesperson hinted that more features should be on the horizon.

“One of the reasons we were excited to announce that Messenger Platform is open to all developers is to see what people build,” a spokesperson told Re/code. “From there, we’ll think about what else might make sense.”

The other important element is whether or not this strategy will actually work. It’s clear that people like to use their phones to text, but do they want to use that same app to do everything else?

It’s yet to be seen whether or not Kik or Tango can turn a messaging platform into a successful business. Perhaps there’s a reason that WeChat — which doesn’t even offer its full slew of services outside of China — has dominated parts of Asia, but failed to take off in North America.

Kik’s Livingston says that a major challenge is competing with texting, especially in the United States. “It’s free, it works pretty well, it comes with my data plan,” Livingston explained, adding that texting was Kik’s biggest competitor “by a mile.”

In other parts of the world, texting costs extra. But in the United States, texting is often built into the calling plan. There’s no point in building extra features into a messaging app if people don’t see the value of using the app in the first place.

For now, Kik is focused on helping brands message with users before it builds too heavily into other services, like commerce. It seems to be a popular approach. Facebook is letting users message with a few select retailers, and CFO David Wehner said this week that Facebook’s other big messaging service, WhatsApp, could do something similar.

This is the key part of the strategy, Livingston explains. Adding a shopping button is fine, but creating a lasting experience requires a user base interested in chatting with the companies providing the services.

“The end goal here is what WeChat has built in China. They have a very sophisticated version of this,” Livingston said. “If you don’t have users chatting, you have nothing.”

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