Credit by Li Yuan
SAN FRANCISCO — As Mark Zuckerberg begins shifting Facebook to private messaging and away from public sharing and open conversations, the vision he has sketched out for the future of social networking already exists — just not in the United States.
Instead, it is a reality in China through a messaging app called WeChat.
Developed by the Chinese internet giant Tencent in 2011, WeChat lets people message each other via one-on-one texts, audio or video calls. Users can also form groups of as many as 500 people on WeChat to discuss and debate the issues of the day.
While Facebook users constantly see ads in their News Feeds, WeChat users only see one or two ads a day in their Moment feeds. That’s because WeChat isn’t dependent on advertising for making money. It has a mobile payments system that has been widely adopted in China, which allows people to shop, play games, pay utility bills and order meal deliveries all from within the app. WeChat gets a commission from many of these services.
What is happening in China offers clues to not only how Facebook may carry out its shift, but how the internet more broadly might change. Many of Silicon Valley’s tech giants are dependent today on online advertising to make enough money to keep growing and innovating on new services. Some call online ads the lifeblood of the internet.
But WeChat, which has 1.1 billion monthly active users, shows that other models — particularly those based on payments and commerce — can support massive digital businesses. That has implications for Google, Twitter and many others, as well as Facebook.
WeChat, of course, has its own flaws. The messaging app is heavily censored because of requirements by the Chinese government.
Facebook declined to comment and Tencent did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Mr. Zuckerberg didn’t elaborate much this week on how the change toward private messaging would affect Facebook’s business, which relies on people publicly sharing posts to be able to serve them targeted advertisements. In a blog post, he said Facebook would build more ways for people to interact on top of messaging, “including calls, video chats, groups, stories, businesses, payments, commerce, and ultimately a platform for many other kinds of private services.”
Yet it’s unclear whether Mr. Zuckerberg can pull all those features off with Facebook. On WeChat, those services are underpinned by its mobile payments system, WeChat Pay. Because payments is already tied into the messaging service, people can easily order meal deliveries, book hotels, hail ride-sharing cars and pay their bills. WeChat Pay itself has 900 million monthly active users.
People also use WeChat Pay to transfer money and to buy personal finance products. More than 100 million customers have purchased WeChat’s personal finance products, which managed over 500 billion yuan, or $74 billion, by the end of last September, Tencent has said. Its users can buy everything from bonds and insurance to money market funds through the app.
Facebook lacks such a payments system. So to be more like WeChat, the Silicon Valley company could have to acquire banking and payment licenses in many countries. One sign that Facebook has been thinking about payments is its work on a new crypto coin that is meant to let people send money to contacts on their messaging systems.
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