What are WeChat Mini-Programs? A Simple Introduction

Thomas Graziani WeChat guides & tips

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 a 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 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)

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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