As I exited the Taipei City Hall metro station, two beautiful Taiwanese girls in short shorts and skimpy tank tops approached me. The ice-cold shower of reality hit me two seconds later when I found that they were trying to sell me something. D’oh.

These aren’t the WeChat girls that I met, but this post needed some eye candy.

But my interest was rekindled when I discovered that the girls were promoting WeChat (or 微信 in Chinese), the mobile chat app that we at TechRice have pegged as the China tech story of 2012.

Now the story is moving beyond China.

WeChat is pushing aggressively into Southeast Asia. India and Malaysia launched in June. Indonesia in September. Tencent’s marketing effort includes Starbucks, Facebook, celebrities, and, yes, cute Taiwanese girls in tank tops all across Taipei.

Tencent’s hard push for WeChat is brilliant. In my personal experience, WeChat’s stickiness is off the charts. I estimate I use it 3x as often as my next most popular app. Yes, far more often than even Gmail or Facebook.

In the era of PC internet, Tencent built an empire on top of the stickiness of QQ. Now it’s trying to do the same with WeChat in the era of mobile internet.

The other players in the mobile chat market aren’t asleep. There’s a lot of competition: WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Kaokao Talk, Skype, Viber, and LINE. In Taiwan, Facebook is the incumbent social network and LINE, from Korea, is the incumbent mobile chat app.

But nor do I see the other players gulping energy drinks all night long and hiring hundreds of cute Taiwanese girls in tank tops.

What’s up with Whatsapp?

At Tech in Asia, Willis Wee asks, “Why the fuck won’t Whatsapp innovate?

If I were Facebook, I would’ve far rather have bought Whatsapp than Instagram. Photo-sharing is an optional feature for many. Chat is for everybody, everyday.

But Whatsapp has an anti-ad vision that makes it tricky for the ad-driven Facebook to acquire the company. In a blog post, “Why We Don’t Sell Ads“, the founders quote from Tyler Durden in Fight Club: ”Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.”

So instead, Whatsapp sells its app at $0.99 a pop. By contrast, I’d bet that Tencent is happily spending far more than $0.99 in marketing to buy a new user of its free app (cute Taiwanese girls aren’t cheap after all). Which of those two strategies do you think will win more users?

Part of me admires the Whatsapp spirit. The other part dreads that they’ll get crushed by bigger, meaner competitors, like Tencent.

In Taipei, the WeChat girls guide new users through the process of importing and inviting their Facebook social graph to join WeChat. Tencent doesn’t hesitate to take advantage of Facebook’s open graph, an openness the firm has never practiced itself.

This penguin is smart, has deep pockets, and, if you look closely when it smiles, you can see its fangs.

Facebook Flubs Mobile Chat

But forget Whatsapp, the big fish here is Facebook. Facebook, though keenly aware of the shift to mobile, has somehow managed to flub its mobile experience by betting too heavily on HTML5. The Facebook mobile app is still stupidly slow.

Facebook Messenger is speedier, the experience is still subpar: it’s just my PC desktop slapped onto my mobile phone: why o why are all of my 1439 Facebook friends ordered based on who’s ‘online’? Why am I seeing ‘friends’ who I haven’t spoken to in five years? Why do I even need to know who’s “online” right now at all? That’s an outdated concept in the smartphone era. WeChat, by contrast, is designed for mobile from the ground up.

Can WeChat become China’s first consumer internet product to succeed outside of China in a big way? There’s a good chance: it’s a great team with a good product. And it has beautiful Taiwanese girls in short shorts and skimpy tank tops on its side.

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  • Kai Lukoff

    Btw, Rankings from App Annie for Taiwan:

    Google Play: (Taiwan is a heavily Android-based market)
    #1 LINE
    #13 Facebook Messenger
    #30 WeChat

    #27 WeChat
    #79 LINE
    #117 Facebook Messenger

  • Michael A. Robson

    Love WeChat, great design.. I’ve had to turn off the ‘Who’s Nearby’ feature because it’s too damn addictive, but even with that feature disabled it’s fantastic… yes, just like WhatsApp (I’d always heard of it but never got the point.. sounds just like an IM client).

    Then I got the trick, with WeChat/WhatsApp, after you meet someone at a party, outing, you can find them on the app and text for free. In fact it’s alot like those IM clients of the late 90′s, but those didn’t seem to translate sucessfully to the mobile clients. For example, I have a universal chat app for iPod touch called IM+. It handles any protocol you can name, but has nowhere near the refined UI of WeChat.

    As far as branding goes, I think WeChat (微信–a name that seems to logically tag along with Sina’s 微博 service in the 博客, 微博, 微信 triumvirate just kills WhatsApp (a brand name that means absolutely nothing in any language).

    In sum, I hope WeChat wins, its a great app, beautifully done, even the faux-Facebook (eg. Moments) is great, a nice little time waster. We truly are a spoiled generation: I can literally drop my bags off at an Airport, fire up WeChat, and start blabbing with total strangers while I slurp my overpriced Airport Ramen Noodles. You know, until I get up the ‘courage’ to talk to people in real life . ;)

  • Fredrik Öqvist

    This is going to be an interesting year for Tencent and Wechat, and to some extent the whole China internet industry. Right now they’re pretty much all valued based on success and potential success in China, if we start seeing international success as well, we’re into completely new market potential.

    Basically if they are successful it could change how people value Chinese internet companies, which would be very interesting.

    I think they’ll probably make it, I wrote some reasons why here:

    But after reading this I feel that in overlooking the TW girls I may have materially weakened my case… I wonder if anyone is doing any stats on how efficient this type of marketing actually is, I’d be quite interested to see it if there is any.

  • Галина Беляева

    Another great article from you, guys!
    Wechat is ok, but I don’t like the interface that much…It’s kind of boring…But what can we do when other apps don’t work well in China. Or is it just me? I gave up on foreign websites, they are too slow even with the VPN.