Wechat creator talk notes

5 minute read

Wechat creator Allen Zhang [1] gave a long speech early this year about the app. The chinese version can be found here, and wechat also published an english translation here. Below are some takeaways I had:

I feel this year was special, WeChat’s eighth year. In August, WeChat’s daily login rate surpassed one billion.

Quick reminder about the sheer scale of WeChat despite being predominantly based in China. FB Messenger has 1.3bn monthly actives and Whatsapp has 1.5bn monthly actives according to this post. Depending on how this translates to daily actives, WeChat could be at a similar daily active usage as either of them.

I will list these ten principles for everyone. Think about these in the context of WeChat, it’s very interesting:

The first is a good product is innovative; it must have creativity.

The second is it is useful.

The third is it is beautiful.

The fourth is it is easy to use.

The fifth is it is unobtrusive, modest.

The sixth is it is honest.

The seventh is it is timeless; it won’t become outdated.

The eighth is it doesn’t skip over any small details.

The ninth is it is environmentally friendly and does not waste any resources.

The tenth is it is not overly designed, meaning ‘less is more’.

The reason why I highlighted these principles is because I believe that many products in the industry do not emphasize product design, or rather that product design is not their objective – design is just used to pad out a feature or squeeze profits from users.

Allen follows up with an anecdote about how they could have put ads on the startup page but avoided doing so, in order to improve the user experience. The low ad load on wechat has been a source of tension among both company insiders and investors who would like to see more revenue growth from the app

The important thing is that we make sure our products adapt to the era we are in, rather than failing to adapt it out of fear that users will complain.

He understands that a subset of people will always complain, so he has to make the call on when to ignore vs listen to them.

At that time, we had one principle: if a new product can’t grow naturally, we shouldn’t market it. So in the first five months, we didn’t promote it ourselves; we were waiting to see if users would be attracted to WeChat, if they would promote it themselves. If users weren’t willing to do this, whatever marketing we did would be meaningless.

This is interesting, considering so much of startup costs are marketing related. Think of the large amount of rev generated by in-app ads for other apps, or the saying that CAC is the new rent for DTC companies. I wonder if ignoring marketing can still work for apps today [2].

WeChat’s driving force can be summarized into two points.

First, create a good tool that can keep up with the times.

The second driving force is “let creators cultivate value”.

He explains how the introduction of Official accounts and Mini programs were both driven by these forces. They aimed to reduce information asymmetry and let other companies and creators on the platform do the work to add value for users, within the operating constraints that Wechat decides.

the goal of apps across the industry has been to try their best to keep users in their app as long as possible. This goes against my beliefs. A user only has limited time in a day, so this goal of maximizing user time in-app is secondary. The primary goal for technology should be helping humankind increase efficiency.

Something counter-intuitive again given the normal focus on increasing app engagement. He points out how Wechat doesn’t have ‘message read’ functionality because he wants the experience to be efficient with users able to ‘send and go’.

A lot of people do not understand why Mini Programs are decentralized. If we didn’t decentralize it, Tencent could monopolize the platform with its own Mini Programs, but there would be no external developers. Sure, Tencent would benefit in the short term, but the platform ecosystem would not.

I’m not sure why people would prefer centralisation in this case, given how decentralisation has been the norm for the most direct equivalent, the app stores. It comes back to how he wants creators to cultivate value for users and lets Wechat have a high amount of leverage.

All the product managers here, let’s analyze: Why does Moments have so many users? Even though these users have grown up and maybe their environments have changed, they still use Moments. Many users’ methods of social interaction haven’t changed for many years. Just like my idea about prehistoric people, socialization hasn’t changed, or we should say that the need for socialization hasn’t changed. Online socialization is just a reflection of offline socialization.

I agree that socialisation will be a defining human characteristic. I disagree that Moments will remain the core use case, given we’re already seeing Wechat trying ‘stories’ and the shift to that format more generally across the other social apps. What Allen says after this gives further support for this:

That’s why many people set their Moments posts to only be visible to friends for 3 days, so that they feel less stress.

Which explains the rise in the populairity of the stories product.

Honestly, since the beginning, the WeChat team has never worked towards KPI before. This doesn’t impede us from constantly improving. Just like Mini Programs, if we had used KPI, we wouldn’t know what KPI to set because there was no such thing. If we had set a KPI, everyone wouldn’t know what to do.

Not sure how I feel and believe this. Of course they were entering new ground, but I’d think they still were measuring something to see if they were being successful. Now whether they were being data driven or data informed is a separate matter [3].

Footnotes

  1. For those unfamiliar with Allen (张小龙), this article gives a quick overview and background:

    Pony Ma Huateng, co-founder and chairman of Tencent, had sensed the challenges posed by mobile-first services and gave Allen Zhang permission to set up a team to develop a mobile messaging tool.

    Under Zhang, the WeChat team experimented with many different features, especially those that worked uniquely well on mobile phones, such as voice messaging and virtual red packets (a Chinese gifting tradition). They also created mini-programs, which are mini-apps that can load within the main WeChat app without requiring separate downloads from an app store.

    WeChat succeeded in part because it was based in Guangzhou, away from Tencent’s headquarters in Shenzhen. The distance helped during the formative years because Ma seldom intervened in Zhang’s decisions, according to Dickie Liang-Hong Ke, an investor and London Business School Sloan Fellow who co-authored the case study.

  2. I’ll have to look into this, but supposedly some of the chinese social apps (either Douyin or Kuaishou) didn’t need much marketing to take off either.
  3. I guess this also depends on whether they believe in there being a difference in those two phrases