How WeChat Is Working On Innovating Exciting Features, Bollywood Marketing And Localised Content Partnering To Compete With Other Messaging Apps In India

Interview with Nilay Arora- WeChat India Head of operations on how the messaging app is competing with the likes of WhatsApp, Viber, Hike, Line and road ahead.

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The Indian mobile messaging ecosystem has changed a lot since 2013. Multiple players, billion dollar acquisitions, the dark cloud of regulation being pushed by telco giants in the country; the industry is witnessing everything.

Whatsapp, a global leader in messaging apps has the same ruling when it comes to India. The app which has now more than 48 million monthly active users considers India to be a big market along with Brazil. With the first player sorted, the fight is on for the second spot with players like Viber, Line, Hike, Nimbuzz and the Chinese messaging app from Tencent – WeChat known as Wēixìn in China.

WeChat which states that it has 355 million monthly active users worldwide (March, 2014) with a major domination in China, has been one of the strong competitors of WhatsApp globally. WeChat landed in India in 2012 after the messaging app had witnessed initial success in China and was rolling out at international destinations.

Initially WeChat avoided aggressive marketing, instead it wanted people to try out the app and provide feedback, shares Nilay Arora while talking about the early days of WeChat in India. Nilay, Head of India operations at WeChat India further shared that the initial strategy was to reach out to the youth in their colleges and on-ground activations in shopping malls. “The idea was to understand what people liked or disliked about the product and all that has gone into the product being localized in India over the period of time,” he adds.

After being in the feedback mode for more than six months in India, WeChat India went in for a big launch around mid last year with the intention of educating the masses. Since then the app has provided some serious product innovations, he states while sharing that the initial launch of voice messaging by the app was a big hit in the country. “After our success, competing players followed the same path, while we were the pioneer of the voice feature in India.”

While Nilay didn’t share the registered or active number of users from India, he did inform that in just six months of aggressive operations from mid to end of the year 2013, WeChat was the second most downloaded app on iPhone. Further to it Nilay states that the company is happy to see that there is independent research being done, which is rightly placing them alongside the leader (to be read as WhatsApp).

Citing an example of one such research done on the Indian messaging market by Global Webindex, a third-party research firm based in US, WeChat has almost 40% penetration in the Indian smartphone market. “It is seriously encouraging for us since we have achieved this milestone in 7-8 months of operations. Our app today is liked more by the 15-20 age group in India and we are seeing growth in this sector,” informs Nilay. He says that even though the India move by WeChat was pretty later than WhatsApp, the messaging app has shown an encouraging growth in a short span of time.

But the market isn’t a smooth sailing one for WeChat in India with the space getting crowded day by day and every app now providing more or less similar features. For example most of the apps are now providing cheap voice based calls along with simplified and quick messaging.

Innovating product features

Over time WeChat has been aggressively working on providing interesting and valuable features, informs Nilay while citing the example of their latest feature – real time location. The feature allows your chatting partner to know your location details in real time on a map and if there are more than one chatting partners then all would be located on the map.

Additionally chatting partner can almost guide other people to reach the destination along with being voice enabled. Adding a much deeper level of a use case Nilay adds that the feature could be useful for the safety of Indian women and further elaborates that “Girls or women who need to travel late can actually drop real time locations to someone back at home and the other person can track the location in real time.”

Nilay also takes the opportunity to share about another feature called Favourite Messaging which enables 1 GB free cloud space to store all your important messages, images and videos. One needs to just tap the media or message and favourite it which by default goes and gets stored in the private cloud space.

Localized features and partners

Additionally, WeChat has focused on getting localized features on the app too. Nilay adds that WeChat is one of the most localized partners to its users than anyone else. “Our association with Bollywood has been quite prominent from day one with Parineeti and Varun being our early brand ambassadors. Additionally we keep launching a lot of local stickers and emoticons associated with festivals to keep users happy. The core idea is make the users feel that the app is about them,” adds Nilay on how the app has given prominence to localization. A feature that has also been on top of the charts for Viber India, as revealed by Country Head Anubhav Nayyar while taking to us about Viber recently.

Bollywood marketing and operator tie-up

With product enhancement being the top most priority, marketing has been on the cards for WeChat India. Bollywood that keeps the masses glued and excited was the obvious choice for the messaging app to reach out to the youth of the country. Getting young stars like Parineeti and Varun on board was again more of giving the localized feel with the masses finding a connection on what they say.

The other bit of Bollywood marketing by WeChat has focused on providing the messaging app as a platform of conversation between celebrities and their fans on WeChat. This is where WeChat’s official account comes as great help where celebrities promote their movies while engaging with the users. Nilay states that the Bollywood association has been quite interesting. This also laid the path for the official roll out of the WeChat Official Accounts with a relevance to the users of the platform.

“Whether it was the official news account of BBC India or the local search Ask Me or even the Stayfree account which is a very interesting account where women get a chance to ask questions to the brand which otherwise they wouldn’t want to,” he informs on the growing popularity of official accounts which still isn’t open for all brands. The reason being WeChat wants to be very cautious with the brand association for official accounts since Nilay feels the Indian consumer is still not that open with such messaging led brand engagement.

However, these associations are only platform integration and not about any financial engagement as of now.

Operator tie-up has been a path followed by most of the messaging apps in the country to reach out to larger audiences. Going further WeChat has similar plans. Nilay shared that operator tie-up is on the cards as they are the integral part of the ecosystem. In fact at present there is an operator tie up with Tata Docomo which is providing 60 MB of data free and the future should hold such tie ups.

WeChat India and regulation controversy

Along with greater user adoption and interesting features, WeChat in India has had its own share of controversies in the country. During June 2013 while WeChat was focusing on growth, the efforts faced a roadblock when the Indian intelligence agency told the National Security Advisor that such messaging platforms were raising new cyber threats.

Later the communications team at Tencent stated that the app has always complied with all relevant local laws and regulations. There were rumours for a ban of WeChat in India but nothing has happened so far for the good.

However, the regulation daemon resurfaced after the $19 billion acquisition of Whatsapp by Facebook. Bharti Airtel CEO Gopal Vittal had raised concerns on messaging apps and had asked Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to regulate the likes of WhatsApp.

However, Vittal’s demand was quashed by TRAI chairman Rahul Khullar who felt that it is the Indian government which could take a call on the regulation part. Adding to it he also stated that the messaging apps are following the rules of the country.

Nilay refrained from commenting specifically on the issue since the government is involved in it but he added that the company has two goals – one is to provide good experience to users and at the same time make sure that the company follows the rules of the land.

WeChat – a multi function platform

Before winding up the conversation, Nilay stressed the fact that the growth of smartphones will drive the growth of WeChat in the country. “The future is not just about providing messaging and voice feature but it is about doing things more than communication like being a multi function platform, of which WeChat has already shown the capabilities in China,” adds Nilay while being bullish on WeChat’s future in the country.

The future of WeChat in India is being a multi function platform or a mobile social network. The interesting bit would be to see whether users in India prefer doing their every operation from communication to commerce via the messaging app or will they continue to enjoy just pure messaging like WhatsApp has provided till date.

Nilay thinks the challenge in discovery of apps on the app store today has led to the innovation of building one app like WeChat that can take care of a user’s 10 chores from a single point. With mobile becoming the primary device in the country, the possibilities are endless and WeChat can execute the same success in India as shown in China, given that the country works on its infrastructure.