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WeChat Publishing Is Changing China’s Mediascape

As Chinese messaging app WeChat hits 500 million users, BoF examines how mobile publishing is changing the country's media landscape.
Leaf Greener | Photo: Phil Oh, Street Peeper
  • Jeffrey Ying

BEIJING, China — As an editor at Elle China, Leaf Greener amassed an enthusiastic following that propelled her to become one of China's early digital fashion stars. Now, she is harnessing that audience through Leaf, a self-published mobile magazine. Eschewing the commercial topics covered in most fashion media, Greener's new venture is geared towards what she calls "the small and artistic" — and it is published exclusively on mobile phones, through the popular app WeChat.

Greener’s new enterprise reflects how mobile is fast becoming the preeminent consumer channel in China. But it suggests something else too. Thanks to the rise of new publishing formats such as WeChat, China’s unique digital ecosystem is becoming a platform for experimentation, in a local media landscape famous for its rules and regulations.

China's unique digital ecosystem is becoming a platform for experimentation, in a local media landscape famous for its rules and regulations.

Unscripted, Lo-Fi and Imperfect

“The main idea behind my work is that small is good; small is exclusive and small is understated,” says Greener. The Chinese have a saying that goes, “Underneath a shady tree you can have a good rest.” When you’re independent and you no longer have the comfort of the shade from a big tree, everything rides on your individual value and opinions.”

Greener’s magazine typically favours an amateurish layout, but what it lacks in graphic sophistication it makes up for in directness. Recently, Leaf published an assessment of Azzedine Alaia’s career, from the personal perspective of the designer.

Much like the Instagram stars and Key Opinion Leaders on western social media, WeChat is ripe with possibilities for industry leaders like Greener and is fast becoming more popular than Weibo, a Twitter-like social platform. Taking to heart Weibo’s diminishing influence — in part because Weibo was designed for a desktop, not a mobile screen — WeChat has taken the conservative route and only recently added user accounts that offer a free subscription service for those seeking a magazine-like experience.

WeChat is China’s answer to apps like SnapChat, Line and WhatsApp: at first glance, a mobile chat messaging service, but, in reality, much more. The service is free to download and contains modern conveniences such as a WeChat Wallet for online payments, a translation service and barcode scanning, as well as subscription services for WeChat content streams. More than 500 million people — nearly half of China’s population — are now active WeChat users, according to Tencent, the Shenzhen-based internet giant that owns the service.

Although most luxury fashion players have jumped on the digital bandwagon in China with Weibo, only a few, including Burberry, Yoox, and MCM, have seriously and effectively developed their WeChat presence. Such brands use WeChat to reach the rapidly growing consumer class in third- and fourth-tier cities, many of whom do not have direct access to luxury brands. It is also a way to livestream red carpet coverage, creating a participatory atmosphere amongst the millions of Chinese celebrity watchers and fashion enthusiasts.

Strict Registration Process

To subscribe to WeChat feeds and use the messaging service, all that is needed is a personal WeChat account, which is straightforward to set up. However, as is typical of Chinese media, the registration process to publish content on WeChat is more bureaucratic and opaque. To apply to publish content, an entity must present a Chinese ID, Chinese mobile phone number, Chinese business license and Chinese organisation code, as well as a Chinese ID for the account operator.

WeChat official accounts fall into three categories. The corporate account is for internal company use; the service account is similar to a customer service line, used by businesses to communicate with customers through direct messaging. The third, and perhaps the most important, is the subscription account. This allows a business or an individual to publish content streams and is often referred to as “WeMedia”.

Yoox, the e-commerce partner for six Kering brands, has an official WeChat account, so that subscribers can chat with customer service staff and browse exclusive styles — although they cannot yet directly purchase from within WeChat. An individual like Leaf Greener would likely have a subscription account, while a publication like Vogue would most likely choose a business account.

Since foreign media companies cannot operate autonomously in China, their names are licensed out in cooperation with a government-approved publisher, in a process called “copyright cooperation.” On the other hand, a local outlet like Vogue China would be able to operate on WeChat with relative ease.

Monetising the Stream

So how do fashion influencers monetise their networks on WeChat? One key way is to enable click ads on their channel, a service offered to accounts with more than 50,000 subscribers. This can be a pernicious strategy — these spheres of influence can be bought and augmented — and, unlike Weibo, WeChat has clamped down on this, by requiring a user’s ID for them to register.

Another important method of monetising publishing on WeChat is to form a company that specialises in creating and publishing digital magazines. Lady Liaoliao, a prominent fashion figure on WeChat, has set up such a team to work on her multimedia projects. “This is an accessible way for people who may have good social networks to branch out from just self-publishing. It can make you into a trendsetter, since you’re controlling brand images,” she said.

To put the WeChat opportunity into perspective, at the end of 2014, China had 649 million internet users, 557 million of whom were using mobile phones to go online, according to Reuters. Even more so than in the West, where users tend to utilise their smartphones as an extension of their computers, the Chinese are primarily mobile-oriented. In 2014, the number of mobile internet users in China increased by 57 million, while the overall internet population rose by 31 million, according to the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC).

A More Believable Voice

In a way, WeChat is similar to what LiveJournal or MySpace provided in the early 2000s — an accessible and customisable digital platform, where users can share their tastes with a receptive audience.

Indeed, the kind of specialised focus that nascent magazines like Leaf offer is an important part of the WeChat ecology, providing an integrity that many feel is missing in the Chinese media, where media coverage is often given in exchange for monetary compensation, referred to as a “taxi-fare”.

This is not to say that WeChat publications are immune from this kind of practice. But China’s online community is notoriously and mercilessly adept at exposing perceived corruption — like when bloggers called attention to government officials wearing illegally-gifted expensive wristwatches in newspaper photos in 2011, or the ‘Guo Meimei incident’, when a young woman who claimed to work for the Chinese Red Cross was exposed for flaunting her expensive lifestyle on Weibo.

According to Peter Xu, a digital media strategist and Chinese fashion influencer, some companies have misjudged their approach to WeChat, for example, by ambushing the reader with product recommendations, or not tailoring their strategy to the local market. "What is striking about many WeChat official accounts is that they are not that localised, especially for the top fashion brands, [which often] need global approval," he said.

So how can WeChat progress beyond bland corporate accounts and idiosyncratic e-magazines to become a cohesive digital landscape?

“One thing to keep in mind is the vast potential for a WeChat mall,” said Bao Yifeng, founder of Activation Group, a company that stages events for Louis Vuitton and Dior. “Since the WeChat Wallet and WeChat Payment features have been so successful, it seems only natural that WeChat will develop an online shopping platform.” Indeed, during the Chinese New Year holiday, over 4 million WeChat payments were sent as part of a promotion called Lucky Money, which linked to China’s traditional monetary gift-giving on special occasions.

According to Yifeng, WeChat is only going to become more influential because of Weibo’s decline. “Vogue China recently launched their smartphone app [on WeChat] too,” he added. “And that’s because the way WeChat is structured is very useful for people looking for real-time updates.”

For companies hoping to expand and go deeper in the Chinese market, the future seems not to lie in opening yet more identikit stores or launching celebrity endorsements in local glossy magazines — but rather, through the careful integration of content and digital streams like WeChat.

Furthermore, by providing a platform for latter day arbiters of style like Leaf Greener, as well as harnessing the halo effect of luxury brands, mobile platforms have the potential to target the young, as well as the aspirational Chinese consumer. Right now, WeChat is the great equaliser of both.

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