Last week I met with Brett Loubser, MD of WeChat South Africa to discuss their messaging platform and strategy for entering the African market.

WeChat is a mobile messaging client whose main competitors in the African market are Whatsapp, BBM and to some extent Mxit. On the outset WeChat has a number of draw cards. Firstly, it is free. With no once off or annual charges. Secondly, is available on iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Symbian and BlackBerry 7, with a BlackBerry 10 app in the works.

Finally, there is money and tallent behind it. Founded in Hong Kong by development giant Tencent and run locally by Naspers. WeChat in Africa will not a any issues with scaling, investment and understanding their market. Impressively, the African mandate for WeChat is simply to grow a user base with no immediate revenue incentives. This has resulted in the first above the line marketing campaign for a free messaging client in South Africa.

The marketing campaign is designed to assist WeChat in achieving that imperative critical mass acceptance. Critical mass ensures that there are enough users on the platform so that there is incentive for current users to keep using the platform and for new users to join. Without this WeChat could land up being another Kik Messenger.

Loubser made two points very clear. Firstly, that WeChat is free and will always be free. Secondly, massive importance has been placed on user experience. He makes the point that users tend towards services that allow them to engage in conversation without restrictive costing models. This is especially true in territories in Africa where access to electronic payment facilities are limited.

The latter, user experience, was an interesting discussion that linked strongly to possible further magnetization models. Loubser made it clear that traditional in-app advertising is something that WeChat will not engage in as it diminishes the aesthetic user experience. Rather, innovative concepts such as sponsored emoticons and animations (available for download at the user’s discretion), as has been done in other territories, could possibly be investigated for the African market.

Another rather innovative potential monetization model is the ability for brands, celebrities and merchants to create official accounts to interact with their audience. Currently and for the foreseeable future these accounts are free. But by their very nature they lend themselves to a potential revenue model.

When discussing what would draw users to switch, or rather start using WeChat in conjunction with their current messaging app, Loubser mentioned a number of features. These include ‘Hold-To-Talk’ which allows users to send voice messages, groups with up to forty people and a key feature which the immediate competition is lacking – a web based chat client.

A concern I rased with Loubser linked to the current CIA privacy scandal in America, ‘Prism’. Loubser stated that all messages are encrypted to prevent unauthorised access. However, WeChat has to comply with the laws of whatever country their servers are based in. There are currently no dedicated servers in Africa, as a result all messaging data will run through their servers in China – a country not known for their stellar online privacy. If the Protection of Personal Information Bill is made law in South Africa, this will create an interesting challenge for all mobile messaging clients.

Overall, WeChat is aiming to be a disrupter in the mobile messaging space by being sharper and more focused than the competition. However, it is a hotly contested space, with some serious companies involved in the likes of Facebook, Google, Microsoft and BlackBerry all vying for the lion’s share of messaging. That said, WeChat is currently the most assertive in terms of marketing and media engagement as well as having a very clear strategy. This may just be enough to give them the jump on the competition.

Brendon Ambrose – Managing Editor | About Me – Scared of: Clowns, spiders and Hilary Clinton; Dream Wing Man: Jacob Zuma; Started Writing Tech: 2005 for Gadget.co.za; Favorite cereal: Frosties; Find me on: Twitter & Facebook
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