What are WeChat Mini-Programs? A Simple Introduction

Thomas Graziani WeChat news

WeChat mini-programs are a very complex piece of technology/design, so I’ll answer the questions in 3 parts:

  • What are WeChat mini-programs?
  • Cons: What are the main drawbacks of WeChat programs?
  • Pros: What makes them interesting for marketers?

What are WeChat mini-programs?

Examples of WeChat mini-programs

WeChat mini-programs are “sub-applications” within the WeChat ecosystem.

They enable to provide advanced features to users such as e-commerce, task management, coupons etc.

Here are a few examples of WeChat mini programs.

JD.com (the second largest B2C e-commerce platform in China) has developed an e-commerce mini-program:

The shared-bike company Mobike has a mini-program enabling users to locate bikes, unlock them and top-up their account:

Tesla has a mini-program enabling users to locate charging stations, schedule a test-drive and share their experiences about driving a Tesla car:

Because these experiences are built completely within WeChat, they are usually very fast (in terms of loading speed) and smooth (in terms of UX, integration with WeChat features and navigation)

Is that something brand new?

WeChat mini-programs are actually not as exciting as one might think.

It is indeed possible to access any web-App from within the WeChat browser. Which means it’s already been many years that companies provide e-commerce and services via in-WeChat experiences, long before mini-programs were released.

Companies like eWashing (a dry-cleaning company taking orders via WeChat) have long managed to leverage WeChat has an App ecosystem (without using mini-programs)

Many of these companies have so far stuck to these Web-Apps instead of switching to mini-programs. We’ll now explain why.

What is the problem with WeChat min-programs?

Mini-programs have many drawbacks as compared to web-Apps accessed within the WeChat browser:

  1. They can’t send out push notifications
  2. They can’t be shared on users’ WeChat timeline (called “WeChat moments)
  3. Mini-programs have to be developed in a specific “language” (a JavaScript framework developed by Tencent. Developers have to write wxml, wxss instead of traditional html and css, and leverage this framework for all their development)
  4. Updates have to be submitted to Tencent
  5. WeChat mini-programs only work within WeChat (while traditional web-App works on any browser)

That’s a long list of downsides. Yet, lately, mini-programs have started to gain traction. Why?

Why have WeChat mini-programs started to gain traction?

WeChat Mini-programs and social e-commerce

Over the last few months and weeks, the tide has been turning. Key Opinion Leaders such as Yu Xiaoge started to boast more than 1.5 million USD of monthly sales through their e-commerce mini-programs.

A growing number of top WeChat influencers started developing their own e-commerce and content mini-programs.

In order to understand the trend, we have to look into these influencer accounts in more details.

WeChat has been the place where a striving community of influencers developed (partly due to specificities of the Chinese market, and partly due to the fact that WeChat advertising wasn’t that good at targeting customers).

These influencers became huge growth drivers for fashion, childcare and cosmetic brands. Their recommendations were extremely trusted by Chinese users, driving a huge amount of sales.

But there was one problem: influencers use WeChat Subscription Accounts (somehow equivalent to Facebook Pages) to send notifications, but the articles sent on these accounts can’t contain hyperlinks! It was therefore difficult for influencers to link to products in order to convert from content to e-commerce.

There came mini-programs, which conveniently solved this problem: WeChat made it possible to link from a Subscription Account article to a mini-program, increasing conversion rates.

And this is the true driver of recent mini-program growth: they enable much more dynamic navigation from WeChat Subscription Accounts (toward e-commerce or other pieces of content).

As such, they are not a really transformative piece of innovation, but benefit from the “superpowers” that WeChat gave them, within their own walled garden.

Offline usage of WeChat mini-programs

Beside these e-commerce conversions, WeChat mini-programs also can be useful for offline use-cases. For instance paying for gas at a gas station, or unlocking a shared bike (we mentioned the case of Mobike)

 

Can WeChat mini-programs replace Native Apps?

As we speak to WalktheChat’s clients, a common question comes over and over again: are WeChat mini-programs a substitute for my native App?

The answer is: it depends on where and for whom. Let’s look at the data to break down this idea.

Where does WeChat Mini-programs beat native Apps?

Native Apps and Mini-programs appeal to different populations. In particular, WeChat mini-programs are especially convenient for users in lower-tier cities with cheaper data plans and who are more reluctant to download new Apps.

54.7% of the JD.com mini-program users come from Tier 3 or small cities, against only 43.7% of the Native App users.

A similar trend can be observed when comparing the Native App and WeChat Mini-program of services such as Pinduoduo, Weipinhui or Meituan.

WeChat Mini-programs also might help target users with a specific purchasing power. Across all platforms, mini-programs users seem to be more likely of spending small amounts (below 200 RMB) and less likely to spend large amounts (above 1,000 RMB).

In the case of Pinduoduo, 6.9% of the Native App purchasing users spend less than 200 RMB per month, against 10% for Pinduoduo’s Mini-program. 37.6% of the Native App purchasing users spend more than 1,000 RMB every month, against only 32.4% for the Mini-program.

Weipinhui and Meituan both show similar trends:

 

There seem however not to be any significant trends in terms of gender distribution: JD.com, Pinduoduo, Weipinhui, and Meituan all seem to have a relatively similar proportion of male and female users on their Native App and WeChat Mini-program.

Age doesn’t seem to be an important driver of adoption of Native Apps vs. WeChat Mini-programs. JD.com users age distribution is broadly similar between their App and Mini-program.

What does the data mean for you?

In practice, it means that mini-programs can more fully replace native Apps:

  • If you are targeting users in lower-tier cities
  • If you are selling affordable products/services targeting users with lower purchasing power (who might be reluctant to install new Apps due to cheap phone plans for instance)
  • If the application you’re developing is not overly large (mini-programs are limited to 10 MB size)
  • If you are confident enough that you will not be blocked by WeChat: WeChat Mini-programs remain part of the Tencent ecosystem, and companies like Alibaba and Toutiao get frequently blocked
  • Age or gender of your target users aren’t really a determining factor

Does it mean that high-end company should pass on WeChat Mini-programs? Certainly not.

If you’re targeting higher-end users, then WeChat Mini-programs will likely still be an essential part of your marketing ecosystem as they will help you convert new users more easily. Users who get a taste of your services via the WeChat Mini-program will then be much more likely to convert to a Native App.

In practice, 50% of the top WeChat Mini-programs also have a Native App. This is especially true in the E-commerce and Lifestyle services sectors, where more than 80% of top-100 WeChat mini-programs have a corresponding Native Application.

How is WeChat mini-programs performing over time?

Age of Mini-program users

Age distribution of mini-programs is extremely balanced, although leaning toward younger users (only 15% of users are above 40 years old).

Usage of mini-programs is getting more widespread: the proportion of users below 18 years old grew from 5% to 7% from Q1 2017 and Q1 2018, while the proportion of users above 40 years old grew from 10% to 15%.

Age distribution of mini-program users also depends heavily on the type of mini-programs: business card/social WeChat Mini-programs (used mostly in professional contexts) have 28% of users above 40 years old (they are the largest user group).

On the other hand, WeChat E-commerce Mini-programs are being mostly used (32%) by users under 24 years old.

Gender of Mini-program users

The Gender of WeChat Mini-program users is also heavily correlated with the type of mini-programs.

Overall, WeChat Mini-programs have an even number of male and female users (51%-49%).

However, most WeChat E-commerce Mini-program users (71%) are female. This trend is mostly due to the fact that E-commerce mini-programs are heavily promoted by public accounts and influencers in the fashion/cosmetics/childcare industry which has a majority of female followers.

Most of the users of business card/social mini-programs are male (68%)

Geographical distribution of mini-program users

The geographical distribution of WeChat Mini-program users is also getting more balanced over time. Although mini-program users used to be more concentrated in Tier 1 cities, the proportion of Tier 1 cities users dropped from 30% to 19% between Q4 2017 and Q2 2018.

The bulk of WeChat Mini-program users is, as we might expect, concentrated within mainland China (98.6% of mini-program users)

The majority of oversea mini-program users are located in Europe and Russia (56.98%)

Engagement with mini-programs

Time spent on WeChat mini-programs has seen a sharp increase over time: it shot from 3.1 minutes per session to 13.1 minutes per session between May 2017 and June 2018.

WeChat mini-games also saw strong growth in engagement: from 3 minutes per session upon launch on January 2018, to 12.7 minutes per session in June 2018 (with a peak at 16.4 minutes per session in April, when several WeChat Mini-games got extremely viral)

The majority of mini-program users are heavy users: 67% of them use mini-programs more than 4 times per day.

This frequency is lower on E-commerce mini-programs, although engagement remains high: 69% of them use E-commerce Mini-programs at least weekly.

The retention rate of WeChat Mini-programs has also been booming, shooting from 4.63% to 13.92% after 1 day, and from 0.14% to 1.51% after 14 days (a more than 10 times increase)

Spending behavior on WeChat mini-programs

The proportion of small orders on WeChat mini-programs has been increasing over time to 42% of orders between 200 and 1,000 RMB. This is due to the trend we mentioned of the increasing number of mini-program users in smaller cities.

Monthly spending remains however modest. Only a small fraction (16.6%) spend more than 1,000 RMB per month via mini-programs.

Due to the large representation of smaller cities within mini-program users, average income is also relatively low: only 7.4% of WeChat mini-program users earn more than 10,000 RMB per month. 58.9% of them earn less than 5,000 RMB per month.

How are WeChat Mini-programs accessed?

The way people are accessing WeChat Mini-programs is also changing over time. Sharing has been getting more popular with the growth of social commerce (pushed by Apps such as Pinduoduo).

The growth of “Recently used MP” and “WeChat articles” as a way to access mini-programs shows that WeChat mini-programs are getting more ingrained into users daily life.

Other “early stage” access methods such as QR code, Discover tab or Nearby Mini-program have seen a sharp decrease.

Method of access depends strongly on the type of WeChat Mini-program. E-commerce mini-programs are more likely to be accessed via WeChat Official Accounts (as they are usually promoted by influencers) or via sharing (through social e-commerce – especially through group-buying deals).

On the other hand, offline services mini-programs are more likely to be accessed via a QR code scanned at the offline venue.

Conclusion

Mini-programs are a strange, ambivalent piece of technology.

At face value, they seem like a terrible choice because of their limited capabilities and proprietary language.

But their ability to better convert from WeChat content to e-commerce make them a powerful tool, especially in an ecosystem where influencers play such as crucial role.

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