TRUE Talks Social With Willis Wee
FleishmanHillard Digital’s Don Anderson sat down with Tech in Asia founder Willis Wee for a discussion on the diversity of the Asian market and what trends, apps and networks are driving social media development on the world’s largest continent.
Q: In terms of what’s coming out of Asia in social media, what impresses you most?
Willis Wee: If you are speaking strictly about social media, I think it would have to be Sina Weibo. It’s just about four years old and grew really quickly. (But) it’s less about the size and number of users. I think it is about the impact it has had on China. It’s not just a new way for people to consume information and share information. It has really brought China closer. For example, when things go viral on Weibo, it creates pressure on the government, and that is something very new to that market. I think it’s making a huge social impact.
Q: Will it have much life outside of China or is it specifically for China?
Wee: It’s very hard for the government to allow (Weibo) to expand overseas. Right now, any buzz that’s created is all still contained in China. If you connect the dots between international users and local users, whatever is viral in China could potentially be viral in the international markets. If that happens, of course, it’s hard for the government to control. I think that’s probably the biggest reason (why it won’t go global). The second reason relates to the culture of Sina (Corporation). I can’t see it being the culture of this parent company to bring it overseas.
Q: How is Sina Weibo different from Western social media like Twitter or Tumblr? Is there an inherent difference between Western social media and social media coming out Asia?
Wee: Weibo started out exactly like Twitter. Now, it has evolved with threaded comments and brands having their own pages into something between Twitter and Facebook. But Weibo has its own games and something similar to a news portal that’s created by its own users. You actually don’t see that on Twitter. Another example would be WhatsApp versus LINE, Kakao Talk and WeChat. You see stickers, emoticons, voice, maps, pictures, and videos. My personal conclusion is that Asians prefer applications that have three-in-one, four-in-one or even five-in-one uses. If you do something for Western markets, it’s minimalistic and straight to the point—no stickers, no BS.
Q: WeChat has been around for less than three years, and it already has more than 400 million users. What does the success of WeChat and other messaging apps mean for Sina Weibo and Facebook?
Wee: I don’t think the users will give up Weibo for WeChat. It’s just like Twitter versus WhatsApp. I don’t think there’s much cannibalization between the two services. But people are spending more time on the WeChat. The [SINA] CEO admitted this as well. A major threat in the future could be when WeChat launches its gaming platform. Then more people will start to spend even more time on WeChat and ultimately I think that means they’ll spend less time on Sina Weibo. But from a consumer point of view, Weibo is more user-generated news content and a way to really share your things publicly. WeChat and the rest are more private. WeChat is more like your social graph address book, but not really including people you necessarily want to follow or people who follow you.
Still, a lot of people will be looking very closely at platforms like WeChat, LINE and Kakao Talk, and there have been a couple of developers who have already made money just by selling stickers. It’s a really proven business model. These apps started with a mobile-first approach and then they went to PC. Facebook, on the other hand, started on PC and now it is trying to go mobile. I think they face a huge problem trying to provide games for the mobile platform, whereas Kakao and LINE have superior platforms for mobile. If you believe in mobile and you believe in the power of platforms, and you believe in the viral and social connection, if you believe in all these three, then I think WeChat, LINE, and Kakao will be major powers in so-called mobile social networks.
Still, Facebook has had huge growth across Asia except for China. I think (it has staying power). It’s a growing trend that local social networks are getting pushed out by Facebook—Japan’s Mixi is going downhill because of Facebook, and even in Vietnam, which used to block Facebook, the founder of Vietnam’s Zing humbly says they are facing a lot of pressure. Facebook is here to stay.
Q: Will there be a clear-cut winner among social networks and channels in Asia? Because surely users can’t use all of them, can they?
Wee: You’re not going to kick Kakao Talk out of Korea or LINE out of Japan or WeChat out of China. So whether there will be any clear-cut winner in Asia is very hard to say. Right now, people tend to use WeChat to connect with people in China. They use LINE for their Japanese friends, and Kakao for their Korean friends. I think things will continue like that unless one of them loses dominance in the local market.
Q: Where are the commercialization opportunities evolving for brands? Where and how do they insert themselves?
Wee: WeChat is doing a lot on that, not so much on Kakao and LINE. WeChat has been very innovative. It worked with the China Merchant Bank not too long ago. It was largely around checking your bank balance, doing simple transactions via WeChat. It became quite a well-known case study for WeChat. That was quite an innovation in terms of the fusion between chat apps and brands. Then WeChat worked with Chang, the beverage company, and allowed users to order water on WeChat. That is straight commerce connecting the brand to users so different from promotions where you have a coupon to redeem. It’s a way of a directly connecting the brands and the users.
Q: So is social commerce the next big innovation?
Wee: I think it’s a space to watch. Weibo and chat apps are very different social networks; one is open and one is closed. On WeChat, you follow a brand, you like a brand, and you can communicate with the brand. For Weibo and the rest, commerce is not clear yet. One of the most recent case studies is the promotion Weibo did with (mobile phone manufacturer) Xiaomi. It really shows the future for Weibo and how it can work with brands. But would that work with all brands? Xiaomei is a very good brand in China, with a very huge fan base. That’s how it could work.
Personally I think Alibaba invested in Weibo for the data. Yes, they will promote Taobao and TMall on Weibo, but it’s probably not going to start selling Groupons on Weibo. Alibaba doesn’t need to. I think it’s more about the data and how it can mine user conversation for data, and match it with intention.
Q: If you were going to do a startup right now, where would you want to head? Where is the real potential opportunity in terms of technology, social media, communication and commerce?
Wee: That’s a really tough question. I think the answer has to be something having to do with data directly tied with sales—for example, the commerce optimization tied to games. There’s one company in Singapore called Sogamo that’s really interesting. It does game analytics. They help game publishers decide which events to do or which items to promote. It’s looking to optimize, No. 1, the gaming experience and, No. 2, the revenue from games. Things like that will really do very well.
App Annie (from Beijing) also is going to do very, very well. It ties in the data and taps in directly with Apple iTunes and Google Play. Another company that will do well is Umeng in China. It is like the Google analytics for applications in China. It’s just pure, raw data from developers, but I think one of the things they are doing is cross-promoting applications, and that will become very, very, powerful and helpful. It’s not an international company. I think that’s the downside about it. (But) just think about it, any company that has that kind of data is going to do very well.
Q: If you could pick one word or phrase to summarize what’s happening at the moment in social media in Asia, what would it be?
Wee: I would describe it as diversely awesome. It’s the biggest growing market right now, but yet it’s so diverse that you can’t really see Asia as one Asia. Our Western counterparts will say, “Oh, you’re Asian,” and they assume that you can meet someone from China and Taiwan, and mix them in together, and they would mingle very well. That’s not going to happen. I think it’s a very diverse and very challenging market.