It’s easy to get jaded by big numbers coming out of China, but when a new service attracts 170 million daily users in its first year, that’s worth noting. And it’s especially worth noting when the internet giant behind the service, online gaming and social media company Tencent Holdings Ltd., predicts daily users will nearly triple in its second year to 480 million.
Called Mini-Programs, this is a technology that allows retailers, brands, bloggers and other organizations and individuals to offer services and coupons to consumers from within the ubiquitous-in-China WeChat (or Weixin) messaging app. For example, a consumer could open a retailer’s mini-program simply by scanning a QR code on a product in a store, then buy the item using the WeChat Pay mobile payment system.
Other uses include paying for gas, transferring money, playing games and ordering takeout food.
Given that WeChat claims 938 million active monthly users worldwide and 600 million WeChat Pay users in China, mini-programs offer companies the opportunity to reach large numbers of shoppers without requiring them to download a new app. That offsets the drawbacks: A mini-program must be hosted in the cloud, typically by a service provider, and the applets must be written in a proprietary WeChat programming language.
Soonku Information Technology (Shanghai) Co. Ltd. is one of the larger mini-program developers and hosting companies and says it has more than 100,000 company clients for its service. They include foreign brands like Apple Inc., No. 2 in the Internet Retailer 2017 Top 1000 ranking of North America’s leading online retailers, and Tommy Hilfiger. Leading Chinese online retailers with mini-programs include JD.com Inc., No. 1 in Internet Retailer’s 2017 Asia 500 ranking, and VIPshop Holdings Ltd., No. 6.
Mini-programs allow retailers “to integrate their e-commerce business with WeChat’s social media features seamlessly,” says Leo Liu, marketing director of Soonku. That includes such popular WeChat features as the Lucky Draw that lets event organizers hand out prizes, flash sales, group-buying discounts and online coupons.
There are currently more than 600,000 mini-programs, and every day another 20,000 are added, according to Tencent. While mini-programs can be created for use outside of China, they have mainly caught on inside of China where they can leverage the vast array of popular features built into WeChat that are designed for the domestic market.
Chinese consumers say they like mini-programs primarily because they are easy to use, cited by 54.4% in a survey by Soonku, next because they allow them to save money (34.2%) and third because they’re entertaining (24.1%).