1alibaba1With a spectacular IPO last month, the Chinese company Alibaba has been slingshot into the public eye. The surprise was great and brought up the discussion how it could be possible for a Chinese company to compete in markets that have been firmly in the hands of ebay and Amazon for so long?

In view of the enormous size of the Chinese domestic market, the answer seemed to be found quickly, but it is more than naive to be satisfied with this explanation,

as the alleged "obscurity" of Alibaba is primarily attributable to the western disinterest.

As the Chinese government had decided to shut their doors for major American technology companies, the need to develop their own platforms simply arose. This happened literally out of nowhere and completely independent of traditional forms of communication. It now turns out to be China’s great advantage, because the new stand-alone solutions will lead to more competition worldwide and an improved digital offer.

What Alibaba is doing better?

Alibaba is much more than just another e-commerce platform. While Amazon and ebay focus on the product, at Alibaba the consumer is at the center. This view is expressed, for example, in a comprehensive range of functionalities that go from dispatch to delivery to the highly advanced mobile payment.

Analog to Alibaba’s “consumer first approach”, it's always about giving the customer as much information and choice as possible. That way, Alibaba exploits the possibilities of digital communications technology to the fullest and enables the customers instead of patronizing them.

In Asia, the hype surrounding Alibaba is of course anything but surprising, since we have been observing the happenings in the field of Chinese technology companies for a long time already and are only waiting for the international breakthrough of other Chinese technology companies, such as Weibo or WeChat.

Will there be a breakthrough of Weibo or WeChat as well?

The fact is that mobile messengers are enjoying growing popularity worldwide as well as social media applications, especially among the younger generation. According to a Pew Research study, mobile users, for instance, send and receive an average of 50 text messages (SMS and mobile messages) per day, and in the age group of 18 to 24 years of age even more than 100.

If today’s population is increasingly using new communication channels, successful companies must be present there as well. Consequently, mobile messaging services will in particular become an important touch point for digital marketing communications. It is therefore important to identify the relevant services for the company and to integrate them into the marketing mix.

Just take a look at WhatsApp, which is the clear number one mobile messaging service with its 500 million users worldwide. In China, however, a market with 250 million mobile Internet users, WhatsApp is virtually meaningless because the local leader is WeChat.

About 400 million people use the Chinese messaging service WeChat (in China: Weixin), of which 100 million are outside of China. Regarding its functionality, WeChat is more extensive than WhatsApp and particularly interesting for marketing. It enables the sending of advertising messages, which means that companies can not only send service and transactional messages, but also (individualized) product offerings, advertising texts, or discount codes, etc.

It should be considered, however, that WeChat users have similar expectations of mobile messaging communications, as WhatsApp users. Although WeChat allows advertising messages, this does not mean that you should send users blunt, offensive advertising, as authentic and personal communication is crucial as usual.

WeChat plans to have a stronger integration of e-commerce offerings in the future. How this will look like is unknown yet, though. It is for example conceivable that there will be shops directly on the company profiles, as it is possible on Facebook, too.

The number of users tells its own tale

The enormous number of users makes WeChat simply outstanding. Even Skype, the service which belongs to Microsoft, has just about 300 million users. Skype is mainly well-known for its voice over IP telephony, but it also has an integrated messenger, that allows sending text, pictures and video messages as well. Unlike WeChat and WhatsApp, Skype in addition has a mobile and a desktop version. With the so-called Skype Manager, companies can manage multiple business accounts and commercial / advertising communication is possible, too.

In addition to the two Chinese messaging services I mentioned, the Japanese “Line” is noteworthy as well with its currently around 300 million users worldwide. Line is a proprietary Japanese application for instant messaging on smartphones and personal computers that enables its users to exchange text messages, graphics, video and audio media, free VoIP calls and holding free audio or video conferences. Besides being used in Japan, Line is for example, very popular in Thailand, Indonesia, Mexico or Spain. A special feature of Line is a Facebook-style news feed that displays the messages from contacts. Otherwise, regarding the functional range, Line is similar to WeChat, even allowing the sending of commercial messages. As well similar to Line and WeChat is the South Korean service KakaoTalk that even explicitly invites users to follow the profiles of companies. KakaoTalk has about 140 million users worldwide, most of them in Asia, particularly in South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines.

The featured services are the most relevant from a marketing perspective, but there are of course still many more worth mentioning, such as for instance, Viber, Nimbuzz, ChatOn, Threema, Joyn or Kik. We'll see how they develop over time and how they will be used in marketing.

By Daniela La Marca