Why WeChat Can’t Be Replicated. And What’s Next for the “Everything App”. (Tech Strategy – Daily Article)

Tencent and WeChat have been making big strategic moves in the last 2-3 years. Which is not something you normally see in dominant, super-successful companies. This article is about what I think matters in terms of strategy for WeChat right now.

For those not familiar with the WeChat business model, here are some past articles and podcasts on it.

Also, we covered the founding of Tencent (by Pony and Tony) and its earlier days in our best-selling One Hour China Book.

Ok. Let’s get into WeChat.

Point 1: There is No Such Thing as an “Everything App”. WeChat is a Unique Business Phenomenon.

Twitter / X and lots of other companies keep saying they are going to become an “everything app”. A “super app”. Usually, they are just talking about becoming like WeChat.

  • We saw this attempted in southeast Asia with Grab, Gojek and others. But it didn’t happen. They did expand from O2O services into payments. But that’s as far as it went.
  • We saw a similar attempt in LATAM by Raffa and others. Also, didn’t happen.

There really is no such thing as an “everything app”. Any more than there is an “everything store”. I don’t expect to see this business model anywhere else in the world. WeChat in China is a unique phenomenon. And it is really the result of two things:

  1. The large, uniform and somewhat isolated digital economy of China.
  2. The +20-year development path of Tencent, which is hard to replicate.

In the West, various internet services were introduced slowly over time. One year everyone got get email. Another year, everyone got YouTube. And so on.

In China, it sort of happened all at once. When the smartphone was introduced, Chinese netizens got access to pretty much everything all at once. Videos, search, email (which they don’t use), etc. It really all happened in a wave from 2008-2015.

And it happened when three digital giants were dominating Chinese internet. The Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent ecosystems had most Chinese internet users. And these three companies constituted about 50% of all China data traffic. That has since changed but this was very much the situation when everyone joined the internet in China. This is a lot of the reason why Tencent (and WeChat) was able to amass such a large suite of services.

Add to this the factor that the Chinese digital economy has tremendous scale, with uniform language, regulations, and infrastructure. It is a unique terrain in which apps can be launched quickly and grow very rapidly. Apps in Southeast Asia and most of the world must grow country by country. Language by language. With lots of regulatory complexities.

China’s big scale also enables specialization. You can get to viable scale in lots of niche products and services. This doesn’t work in most countries where you need to focus on just a few big use cases. In China, the main players created suites of specialized niche products (i.e., super apps).

The other big reason is the +20-year development path of Tencent, which is hard to replicate.

Tencent has a long, development history. With each product building on the previous ones. QQ messenger gave way to gaming. And music. And news. All of which enabled advertising and other types of monetization (QQ coins).

WeChat was built on top of this and also had a development path that is hard to replicate. They moved from messenger to payment. And they did it quickly with red packet during Chinese New Years, an event Jack Ma would later call Alipay’s “Pearl Harbor moment”. Payment enabled a move into ecommerce (i.e., mini programs). Also, mini games. They also moved into WeChat Work. Then search. And now Channels.

Tencent and WeChat have both had an almost entirely unique development path. And it is path dependent. You can’t do the current parts of the path without most of the previous parts. I summarized this in a podcast in 2023.

Anyways, that’s Point 1. Ignore companies that say they are going to replicated WeChat and become an “everything app”. It hasn’t happened anywhere.

The only app that has this potential to do this is WhatsApp. And when Mark Zuckerberg announced his new privacy focused social media strategy in 2019, it was almost entirely a copy of WeChat’s development path. Back then, he said they would:

  1. Consolidate their messengers into one services (Facebook Messenger, Instagram Messenger, WhatsApp, and Messenger). This has kind of happened.
  2. Add payment. They launched a strange currency strategy Libra / Calibra, which failed. And then started adding payment country by country.
  3. Add ecommerce. Which means mini programs.

It was a copy of WeChat. But it didn’t happen. Mostly because Meta can’t really innovate or create. They are stunningly good at operations and incremental innovations. But they haven’t created anything new in +20 years.

Keep in mind, WeChat is much smaller than Facebook or WhatsApp or Instagram. The Meta communications apps have global reach. I don’t know why WhatsApp never innovates. WhatsApp remains the king of missed opportunities (Skype is the crown prince).

Ok. So, what matters with WeChat right now (in terms of strategy and business model). I think it is 4 things.

Point 2: WeChat is Going International. And Is Leading with Payments.

WeChat tried to go international back in 2012-2013. They made a push into Southeast Asia, Brazil, and Europe. They did promotions with soccer players like Lionel Messi. But it didn’t work (for various reasons). And most Chinese B2C internet companies gave up on the idea of going international.

And then in 2018-2019, TikTok shocked everyone with their great success in the US and internationally. This was followed by the success of Shein and now Temu in international ecommerce.

So, it’s not surprising that WeChat is again looking international. And that they are leading with payments, not messenger. Note: They are already big internationally in gaming. And WeChat messenger does have users outside of China today. Typically, users are the 5-10M range in countries like Russia, India, Malaysia, Japan, and South Korea.

But the big opportunity is cross-border payments, starting with outbound Chinese tourists who average +110M per year.

That’s good strategy. Chinese tourists are already traveling in the tens of millions. And they far prefer to pay with WeChat Pay. So, there is a natural advantage.

We have seen Alipay focusing on the same area with Alipay+. However, they are focused more on providing cross-border payment and marketing services for banks and digital wallets companies in other countries. That’s more of a back-end service strategy, which I’ve written about here.

WeChat Pay, in contrast, is helping Chinese consumers do payments and currency conversions internationally with their own overseas wallets. That’s an interesting approach. Basically, they are targeting the higher-cost and inefficient of global payment aspects, with their own services.

Plus, they recently announced that international travelers coming into China can now use credit cards. This has been a big complaint of tourists over the past 1-2 years. You need WeChat Pay to operate in China and it’s hard to get this without a local bank account.

Anyways, watch for WeChat’s overseas wallets and services. I’m trying to dig more into this.

Point 3: WeChat Has a Really Big and Disruptive Ecommerce Business

Every time you see a list of the big ecommerce companies of China, it looks like this:

  • Alibaba
  • JD
  • Pinduoduo

And they will probably list Douyin / TikTok Shop as a new disruptor.

But they always leave out WeChat mini programs, which is arguably the #2 ecommerce company of China right now. The expansion of WeChat into ecommerce in the past five years has been a huge strategic move. And it has been very successful. Yet, it somehow remains off the press radar.

According to DemandSage, “WeChat gathered about 924 million monthly users of its mini programs in China as of Q4 2023…And over 90% of the WeChat users were using the mini services of WeChat.”

And it’s a big disruptor (like ByteDance). Because, unlike JD and Alibaba, WeChat Mini-Programs is not really a marketplace platform.

If you set up a store on Alibaba’s Taobao, you are basically renting a space in the world’s largest shopping mall. You will get lots of traffic walking past your door. But they will also increase the rent on you every year (you will have to do marketing and other services to keep your traffic).

WeChat and Shopify have a counter strategy, which is to let people own their own store. This is like buying a store on a street, not renting a store in a popular mall. You won’t get as much traffic, but you own your own store long-term. It’s a great counter strategy, especially when you pair it with social media. Facebook and Shopify have been flirting with this sort of combination for years. WeChat can do it all by itself.

I’m keeping a close eye on WeChat mini programs. Especially as it combines with Channels.

Point 4: Keep an Eye on Search and WeChat Work. They Have Big Advantages in These Areas.

WeChat is highly innovative, in contrast to WhatsApp. And search is an area I am really watching.

Search is just a great business model. Take a look at Google, Baidu and Naver. Search may be the greatest business model to ever exist. But it is more difficult on smartphones than it was on personal computers and browsers, because all the information is within apps. That makes information hard to track. Unless you own the whole ecosystem (i.e., mini programs).

According to China Internet Watch, the monthly active users of WeChat Search increased to 800 million in 2022. And the total search volume increased by 54%. Search is increasing at the same time that the number of WeChat Mini Programs is surging (up 183% in 2022).

This is something that Baidu does not have. They cannot combine web-based search with a search of all the mini-programs on your phone. But WeChat can.

And Tencent also owns Sogou, the #2 search engine in China after Baidu. I did a podcast about that back 2020.

Search is a really interesting area to watch for WeChat.

Another area is WeChat work (now called WeCom). This is their B2B enterprise communication service, which was launched a competitor to Alibaba’s leading app DingTalk. Ironically, Alibaba originally launched DingTalk because it couldn’t compete with WeChat in the B2C messenger world.

According to TechNode, WeChat Work was used by about 2.5 million companies in 2023. And had about 102 million active users. WeCom is just really good digital strategy. In practice, users don’t really distinguish between work and professional life in communication. 90% of China businesses already use WeChat for workplace communication They have a lot of natural advantages in this area.


And this brings me to my last point. And the biggest strategic priority by far, which is WeChat Channels.

Point 5: WeChat is “All In” on Channels (i.e., Video and its Monetization)

WeChat Messenger is the most powerful B2C app in China. WeChat users use the app 9-11 times per day. 60% of users use WeChat almost ten times a day. Messenger sits at the front of the cue for user attention. And Tencent is ultimately in the attention business. It gets eyeballs and engagement, which it then monetizes through various means.

Tencent’s primary KPIs are MAU and DAU. Whereas Alibaba is mostly focused on GMV. It is ultimately in the share of wallet business.

You can get attention with utilities and / or entertainment. Daily utilities (like communication and payment) are very powerful. But so is entertainment (gaming, music, news, reading, etc.). Tencent does both.

And this is where ByteDance really challenged Tencent. Because it pioneered and became the global leader short video and live streaming. And these command user attention like almost nothing else. If messenger was the Coca-Cola of DAU and MAU, then short video and livestreaming are Red Bull.

In response, Tencent went “all in” on short-video and livestreaming. And they focused on WeChat Channels, which was launched in 2020 and which has now surpassed WeChat Moments in attention. Pony Ma has referred to Channels as the “hope of the company”.

And this has been fairly successful. In the past 2-3 years, WeChat Channels has focused on getting user attention and the engagement of content creators That was phase one.

They are now moving to Phase 2, which is about monetizing Channels. They are rolling out various monetization initiatives both for themselves and for their content creators. WeChat has recently announced plans to share revenue with short video creators. And there is an upcoming launch of a paid subscription service for short video. They have also announced the launch of a new Q&A section in WeChat. Think Zhihu and Quora.

For WeChat Channels, monetization appears to be focusing on:

  • In feed and increasingly in short videos.
  • Ecommerce (mostly in livestreams).
  • Subscriptions.
  • Merchant commission fees and new services.

The revenue from WeChat Channels is a bit tricky to estimate. The ecosystem is intertwined, and WeChat revenue shows up in payments, mini programs, and other places. It’s hard to separate out the Channels revenue. But advertising plus ecommerce is a great way to monetize attention.

I view WeChat Channels as the #1 strategic issue for Tencent. Well, that and gaming. That’s where I am focusing.


Ok. That’s it. More on this topic shortly.

Cheers, Jeff


Related podcasts and articles are:

From the Concept Library, concepts for this article are:

  • Acquisition, Engagement and Retention Strategy

From the Company Library, companies for this article are:

  • Tencent / WeChat / Mini programs

Photo from Tencent Media Library


I write, speak and consult about how to win (and not lose) in digital strategy and transformation.

I am the founder of TechMoat Consulting, a boutique consulting firm that helps retailers, brands, and technology companies exploit digital change to grow faster, innovate better and build digital moats. Get in touch here.

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