Social messaging: East versus West

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by Yuyu Chen

As social messaging continues to grow, what are the differences between the West and the East, and can one learn from the other?

Social networks have been extending their reach through the use of instant messaging services for a while now.

In Q3 of this year,¬†Facebook’s quarterly update¬†showed that Messenger and WhatsApp have 700 million and 900 million users per month, respectively, while WeChat, a messaging app from Chinese company Tencent, reported 650 million monthly active users in June. Earlier this week, Tumblr also jumped on the bandwagon and added a Messaging feature that will soon roll out to its users.

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eMarketer predicts that the number of messenger app users worldwide will reach 2 billion by 2018, representing a whopping 80 percent of global smartphone users. What’s more, a recent study from mobile analytics company Flurry shows that after a month of being downloaded, messaging apps see a retention rate of 68 percent compared to the total app average of 38 percent.

While messaging apps certainly seem to be flourishing globally, there are some notable differences between how they function and how they are consumed in the West versus the East.

The state of social messaging in the West

A number of tech companies are trying to get a slice of the cake in this rapidly transforming space. Twitter has eliminated the 140-character limit for Direct Messages, while Google has developed its own SMS and MMS app Messenger to support audio messages, emoticons, stickers and location sharing.

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Compared to Twitter and Google, Facebook has a larger portfolio of social messaging apps, including Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram. While Facebook has so far kept WhatsApp as an SMS service, the company has been trying to develop Messenger into a more universal messaging app. Earlier this year, it went beyond SMS and MMS, and added peer-to-peer mobile payments in a move that was deemed beneficial to e-commerce businesses.

“Facebook’s mobile payments open new doors for large [companies] but even moreso, small businesses,” says Vin Farrell, global chief content officer of Havas Worldwide.

“The aggregation of micro-communities within Facebook, combined with the ability to financially transact on the platform, could level the playing field for the individual, as well as small businesses,” he added.

Snapchat is another notable player in the messaging app field. Content on this platform comes in the form of short video clips, text-based Snaps or articles from its Discover partners. Daily video views on Snapchat have tripled since May of this year to 6 billion. (Now you know why Facebook was desperate to buy Snapchat!)

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Finding inspiration from the East

While messaging apps are popular in Western markets, they are arguably more developed in Asian markets. Japan’s most popular mobile messaging service Line is preparing for an IPO in New York City and many of the top games in the Korean App Store come from messaging app KakaoTalk.

When one thinks of “Asia” and “messaging apps,” though, there is one particular app that stands out from the crowd: China’s WeChat. This jack-of-all-trades platform combines many of our favorite apps of the West all into one neat little spot.

Users of WeChat can add their credit cards, subscribe to magazines, order cabs, make purchases in their favorite online stores and even make cashless payments offline via WeChat Pay. They can also consume (branded) content on the app, in the form of video, images, games and things to buy. In August of this year, WeChat further opened its private Moments feed to all advertisers.

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Could the WeChat way work in the West?

There’s no denying that social messaging is getting bigger and better in the East and the West, but the real questions is, can one part of the world learn from the other? For example, would an all encompassing messaging app like WeChat work in Western markets such as the U.S. and U.K.?

It probably would, notes John Koetsier, mobile economist for Tune, but it would come with challenges. A lot of Western mobile users have already decided which apps they like and have built up their own loyalty toward them. For example, if they need a cab, they go to Uber; if they need a cup of coffee, they use the Starbucks mobile app.

They are unlikely to switch to a different app because of enhanced messenger integrations. If, on the other hand, the app was able to integrate all of their favorite apps into one, this could be a gamechanger.

“On average, the number of apps that U.S. adults download on a monthly basis is zero. They don’t download every single service they work with and every single brand they buy from,” Koetsier says, implying that an app really needs to stand out from the crowd in order for people to download it.

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While mimicking the WeChat model may not necessarily be the West’s answer to social messaging, it could learn a thing or two from its Chinese counterpart. For example, a collaboration with brands and content creators to provide better user/ consumer experiences could be beneficial.

Last year, WeChat partnered with radio host Gareth Cliff to boost the app’s profile in South Africa. This partnership let Cliff publish soundbites on WeChat and gave Cliff’s fans a reason to download the app in South Africa.

“Messaging is only one part of a Super App like WeChat. [The platform] cleverly worked with brands and stars to create interesting experiences, intriguing people to find out more. It seems that WeChat has spent more time nurturing these relationships, whereas some of the big Western social media platforms like Facebook Messenger have become so big that it’s more of a revenue game than an interesting user experience one,” says Elisa Harca, global client partner and regional director of Asia at Red Ant.

The future of social messaging

Looking forward, the future for social messaging certainly seems like a bright one. While the West continue to carve out their own spaces in the competitive messaging field, it will be interesting to see if it will eventually lead to a more dynamic and streamlined messaging environment overall, just like their Asian counterparts. Whichever side of the globe does triumph, the next few years will see the digital balance of power greatly contested between Asia and the West.