A case study of WeChat’s platform business

Group 14 Kristie Tan

Over the past few decades, the world has witnessed the rapid development of the internet’s platformisation. As a result of the proliferation and overlap of different platforms and operations, ‘platform business’ rises in response to the proper time and conditions. According to Flew (2020), the business of digital media is a section of more extensive processes described as ‘digitalisation and datafication’, which includes the transformation procedure and the invention of new relationships between the traditional internet and the new digital world. Today, in the light of globalisation, the uniqueness of China’s political structure and economic ideology has shaped the exclusive pattern of the Chinese digital economy, especially the rise of the platform business. As the most widespread-used immediate communication platform in China, WeChat is the perfect example to explore the success of the platform business in Chinese society.

The development of WeChat

“WeChat TW Blogger Nite #wechat” by Flickr is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As the world had entered the twenty-first century, the year 2000 was a milestone in the history of Chinese internet development. It was when the three tech giants BAT (Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent) in China had started their business. China’s internet industry has experienced a more remarkable evolution in the next ten years with technology and infrastructure development and the growing population. More importantly, benefited from the “Great Firewall” policy (Barme & Sang, 1997; as cited in Plantin & de Seta, 2019), the local internet companies, especially Tencent (the company that developed WeChat), had more advantages to gain significant market share without the foreign competitors.

Inspired by Kik, an American mobile instant messaging application, Tencent developed WeChat as a follow-up product. Or in other words, a simpler and more effective version of QQ (another multi-platform instant messaging application developed early by Tencent). Yet, historically, it was not the first launch of mobile instant messaging applications in China. In comparison, WeChat hadn’t taken the top spot in the instant messaging application market. On January 21 of 2011, the Tencent Guangzhou R&D Center product team released the WeChat 1.0 beta version for iPhone users, followed by the launch of The Symbian version and Android version, which was constantly updated and upgraded. It is worth mentioning during the revised process, version 2.5 of WeChat had added an innovative function called “find nearby people”, in which WeChat users could extend their social circle from “online” to “offline”, from virtuality to reality and from acquaintances to strangers. Thanks to this significant development, the amount of WeChat users had crept up to 10 million; and in 2012, only one year after WeChat had launched, the number of this pioneering application’s users broke the 100 million mark.

Table 1. The growth and evolution of WeChat evidencing the scale of its monthly active users (MAU) and its expanding portfolio of features (Plantin & de Seta, 2019).


Introduction of WeChat’s operation

“Subway with WeChat Pay advertisement on Xi ‘an Metro Line 4” by Liuxingy is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Here is an ordinary day of a Chinese people:

When the alarm wakens he/she in the morning, Tencent News and different kinds of WeChat Official accounts would automatically push the latest news and information of the day to his/her WeChat home page. After checking all those new messages and wash up himself/herself, he/she is ready to head up to the office and start the day at work. When he/she enters the subway station, he/she needs to open the mini program of health code within WeChat to show his/her health condition, and more importantly, he/she also needs to use the mini program of transportation card to take the subway. During lunchtime, he/she would use the mini program of food delivery service (cooperated with MeiTuan) to order lunch by WeChat Pay and eat the tasty boxed lunch within 30 minutes. After work, if he/she wants to reward himself/herself for relaxing, he/she could use the mini program of MaoYan Movie to buy movie tickets and go home by taxi using the mini program of Didi Taxi. Once arrives home, he/she could use the video call to chat with his/her parents, who might be a thousand miles away and then go through ‘the moment’ to take a look at the lives of good friends.

Collectively, today’s WeChat is more than just a mobile instant messaging application; on the contrary, WeChat has penetrated every aspect of Chinese people’s life. In the speedy process of platformization of infrastructures and infrastructuralization of platforms happened in China in recent decades (de Kloet et al., 2019), WeChat, regarded as the forerunner, has formed the core of the ecosystem upon which many other platforms and applications can be built (van Dijck et al., 2018). Having deeply engaged with different service providers, the infrastructuralization of WeChat is a success that is hard to replicate, and it has become the unique characteristic of WeChat. It wouldn’t exaggerate to say that the exchange of goods, services, information, and communication is unimaginable without WeChat acting as an intermediary connecting service provider to users (van Dijck et al., 2018).

WeChat’s business model

“Standard Bank WeChat” by Discott is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Positioned as a social media platform in the initial stage, WeChat has been a platform with a large and highly viscous user base since its first launch. With its constant development and the growing number of users, WeChat has resulted in adding a lot of derivative services and functions. In this process, WeChat has become a successful model for the survival of social media platforms in China by its good innate advantages and effective operation mode.

  1. Value-added services

At present, the profit of WeChat value-added services can be divided into two types according to customers: ordinary users and enterprise users. Ordinary user value-added services mainly refer to the charging items provided by WeChat for the public, for example, the charging memes. As for enterprise users, this service could provide authentication and more permissions for their WeChat official accounts, bringing various benefits and advantages in WeChat marketing.

  1. E-commerce and digital advertising

Since 2008, the trading pattern China has undergone an immense shifting from traditional C2C (customer to customer), B2C (business to customer), B2B (business to business) module to O2O (online to offline) e-commerce (Yu,2017). As mentioned above, WeChat’s O2O layout in people’s daily lives includes online health consultation, the mini program of online games, transportation tickets, food and amusement, etc. WeChat is an excellent platform to provide a considerable amount of users for these companies to cash the flow through digital advertising, and collect a commission for its profit purposes.

  1. WeChat self-marketing

WeChat is a subsidiary product of Tencent, so its primary mission is naturally serving the big family it lives in, and self-marketing can be seen everywhere in WeChat. Taking ‘Tencent News’ as an example. It is a service account, but Tencent News would not be limited by the number of times it is sent or folded in the secondary interface. This means that Tencent can unconditionally push information to all WeChat users, and its vast marketing value is beyond doubt. In addition to Tencent news, the games developed by WeChat itself will also push information to users to achieve specific propaganda purposes.


Looking forward

“Social media in China today” by Siphiwe Sibeko is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Considered the most extensive mobile instant messaging application in China, WeChat is a dominant owner in this field without a doubt. Albeit WeChat has gained great success in this process, WeChat users also raise concerns about users’ information leakage. Recently, some users exposed that WeChat frequently read users’ albums in the background, even when users do not activate the relevant apps when they sleep. Similarly, the concerns of online privacy have also been come up with in the West. After Facebook acquired Instagram in 2012, it had published an announcement of the updated privacy policy to share user data with Facebook. Most users were disappointed and use hashtags such as #byeinsta-gram to express their anger (Burgess & Banks, 2014).

In institutional economic analysis, a larger duty is given to the enterprise dominant, and generally, it focuses more on the boundary between public and private responsibility (Flew, 2020). In conclusion, as the pillar of China’s economic development, if WeChat wants to continue expanding its business empire, it must assume its social responsibilities and pay closer attention to users’ needs (e.g., online privacy). Only then, Wechat could achieve long-term success.


Reference List

van Dijck, J., Poell, T., & de Waal, M. (2018). The Platform Society. Oxford University Press.

de Kloet, J., Poell, T., Zeng G. H., & Chou Y. F. (2019). ‘The platformization of Chinese Society: infrastructure, governance, and practice’. Chinese Journal of Communication 12(3), 249-256.

Flew, T. (2021). Advanced Introduction to Platform Economics, Robin Mansell and W. Edward Steinmueller (2020). Journal of Digital Media & Policy, 12(2), 325–328.

Plantin, J. C., & de Seta, G. (2019). WeChat as infrastructure: the techno-nationalist shaping of Chinese digital platforms. Chinese Journal of Communication, 12(3), 257–273.

Yu, H. (2017). Editorial. China Perspectives, 2017(4), 3–8.

Burgess, J & Banks, J. (2014). Social media. In S. Cunningham & S. Turnbull (Eds.), The Media and Communications in Australia, 4th edition (pp. 285-290). Crows Nest, Australia: Allen & Unwin.