What can the West learn from China’s popular apps?

Mobile Marketing - Member Content

Irene Yang, regional general manager, Asia & Europe, at Mobvista, considers the key differences between successful apps in the West and China, and the lessons to be learned.

The convenience of packing a lot into a single app, so users do not need to go elsewhere, is the big driver of success in China.

Mobile app developers and marketers are curious by their nature and so many may wonder what is the difference between success in the West and China?

It was a moot point until Western businesses were recently given more freedom to explore China’s massive market. The most obvious initial difference is that while Apple’s App Store operates in China, the Google Play store does not. Most Android phones will come with a preconfigured store, sometimes belonging to their phone manufacturer.

When it comes to using apps though, there are a lot of similarities. Social media, messaging, buying goods, getting directions, watching entertainment shows and mobile payments are huge drivers for downloads, just as they are in the West.

If there is one major difference, though, beyond the obvious language barrier, it is that the top apps in China pack a lot in. That means it is not seen as unusual to find a social platform like WeChat doubling up as a payments platform, while China’s equivalent to Amazon, Taobao, also comes with its own mobile payments platform Alipay, built-in.

Success in China means starting out with a singular focus which is then used as a point of departure to bring in additional services, offers and revenue streams, as we can see from a quick look at some popular apps such as WeChat, Alipay, Taobao, Baidu and Meituan.

Get it all done, socially
Anyone who has visited China will know that WeChat is the social platform everybody seems to be on. It’s basically Facebook meets WhatsApp, with a mobile payment facility thrown in.

Chinese apps pack a lot in so users can get everything done under one roof. WeChat takes this to the next level, letting people do everything you’d expect of a social channel but then also pay for shopping, a cab ride, a meal out or ordering a meal in.

Buying and paying – Alipay and Taobao
Alibaba is the leading b2b eCommerce platform that probably needs no introduction. Its consumer business, China’s equivalent of Amazon, is Taobao. Like its Western equivalent, it’s hard to think of any everyday goods you cannot buy on the app.

However, the big difference is its links to Alipay. This payment system can not only be used on Taobao, but can follow users round like a mobile wallet that, just like WeChat, will be accepted in face-to-face transactions as easily as an online purchase.

Baidu, accuracy and beyond
Baidu is another name that is probably becoming as well-known outside of China as it within. It is essentially the country’s equivalent of Google and, in keeping with Chinese tradition, it has a multitude of extra tabs and buttons to go beyond generic search.

Its mapping service underlines a crucial point. It’s well known for being the most accurate service. China is a massive country to definitively map, and so any business looking to incorporate mapping services within a customer-facing app in China will likely find it essential to use the most accurate service.

As you may have guessed by now, the service goes beyond maps, allowing users to check on public transport routes, times and costs, as well as getting estimates on the cost of taking a taxi to your destination.

Get it all done – Meituan
A common theme to must-have Chinese apps is they are a little like an onion, multi-layered. Rather than expecting consumers to hop between one app to research, another to look for reviews and then a final app to make a purchase, Chinese consumers expect to be able to do everything in one place.

A good example is Meituan, which has in excess of 300m regular monthly users. It could originally be seen as a combination of business listing service, Yelp, and offers site, Groupon. However, it has emerged to also offer reviews and a booking engine. Today it’s a go-to app for entertainment, whether that’s buying a ticket to the cinema, booking a restaurant or a hotel room.

Like Netflix, only the reverse
The huge success stories in the West are based on smart tech that just ‘gets us’. Amazon made its name with easy ordering and great recommendations, and Netflix just always seems to know what we’re going to enjoy binging on next.

China’s equivalent of the streaming service, IQIYI, shot to top spot for streaming in China with its use of AI to make smart recommendations to get people hooked on each series.

Just to show how dangerous it is to make assumptions, though, it has the opposite revenue generation strategy to Netflix. Instead of subscriptions, which are growing, the main source for IQIYI is advertising.

So, while it is essential app developers realise packing a lot in for the Chinese market is essential, it is not always the case that successful business models are always going to be the same in London or New York as they are in Beijing and Shanghai.

Snackable content wins
By 2020 IQIYI is aiming to tap into another winning trend in China - short-form, ‘snackable’ media. This is where Douyin is already a leader. Known at TikTok outside China, it is a little similar to what Twitter tried to achieve with Vine. It allows users to record short videos to a musical accompaniment. Its growth has been staggering, having recently surpassed 150m users.

The short-form, user-generated video trend has been so strong, it has given TikTok’s owner, ByteDance, a valuation of $75bn, which it is leveraging to explore new areas. It is launching a search engine, Toutiao Search, and is believed to be developing a music streaming service and a work productivity app. It has denied rumours it is developing its own smartphone.

Success in this snackable video market does not always start with the big cities. Huoshan and Kuaishou, the latter enjoying more than 130m users, have targeted consumers beyond the top tier of Chinese cities, allowing them to create and share short videos with creative filters.

Passion for learning
Education is vitally important to the Chinese consumer, and so it will come as little surprise that this sector accounts for some of the most successful apps on the market.

Chart positions can vary, but the number one education app in Tencent’s app store is Help With Homework. This does exactly what it says on the tin, helping children do better at school by marking their homework and then suggesting extra reading resources to get better grades. It claims to have more than 400m users.

The drive to improve learning is believed to be a major reason behind Himalaya being the country’s top audio site. It specialises in educational podcasts and audiobooks. It claims to have 450m users who can listen to part of an educational book before deciding if they would like to purchase it.

The thirst for knowledge is a potential in-road for language learning apps, such as Duolingo which, among others, has enjoyed early success in a market that is very keen to learn foreign languages to help with their work and studies overseas.

Packing a lot in
The key, then, to success in China is not found in single-use apps. That may well be the way that many leading apps start out, but the path to market domination lies in combining customer requirements under one roof.

Hence, Baidu’s mapping service gives public and private transport options with the possibility of summoning a cab if that seems the best option. In Taobao, we not only find an eCommerce platform, but also the means to make mobile payments via Alipay. With WeChat, people can do everything you would expect from a social giant, but then also make mobile payments on the go.

Another key lesson, particularly if we think of IQIYI, is to never assume that although Chinese and Western customers will have similar needs, the business case that fulfils their needs will always be the same. While a subscription model may work in the US and Europe, an ad-funded approach is demonstrably the path to streaming success in China.

So, pack a lot in and never assume business models can be lifted up from the West and parachuted into China. Those are the key lessons the country’s leading apps tell us.

Want to find out more about the Chinese market? Check out our Explore China initiative page.