Chasing WeChat: A Look at China’s Prominent Social Apps

What qualifies as a “social” app in China? It’s a question that is often hard to answer in this fast-moving market, where messaging and commerce platform WeChat has a commanding head start, and most apps’ features and functionality evolve rapidly. But that has not stopped other key players like Weibo, Momo and Tantan from carving out sizable audiences.

Tencent-owned WeChat tends to dominate any discussion of China’s most popular mobile apps. After all, the platform claimed a mind-blowing 768 million daily active users in 2016. As December 2016 estimates published by QuestMobile show, however, WeChat is hardly the only game in town in mobile-mad China.

Microblogging platform Weibo was second to WeChat in usage, with more than 341 million monthly active users (MAUs). Other Chinese social apps including QQ (92 million MAUs), Momo (70 million), Tantan (16 million) and Oppo (12 million) rounded out the top five.

A slightly different list of top apps comes from the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC).

CINIC’s list, which was not limited to a particular app category, indicated that Tencent’s social app QQ was the second most popular mobile app in China after WeChat. QQ was mentioned by 60% of the country’s internet users in a December 2016 CNNIC survey. That Tencent owns two of the most popular apps in China only reinforces the company’s dominance of the social space.

For many of China’s other social app companies, the challenge has been how to carve out a “defensible” niche given the dominance of Tencent and WeChat.

One approach has been to focus on dating and meetup functionality, a strategy used by both location-based network Momo and Tinder-like dating app Tantan. Another has been to incorporate live streaming features—a tactic which has helped boost the popularity of services like Momo.

The good news for China’s expanding universe of social apps is that mobile users in the country are prolific app users, with iPhone users opening an average of almost 40 apps in a given month.

But in such a dynamic environment, the question is whether such high volume can be sustainable in the long term. Another issue is the increasingly significant overlap between what does and does not qualify as a “social” app, and which features these apps offer.

For example, WeChat’s recent launch of its “miniprograms” feature—which seeks to create tiny applications within the popular service—may help contribute to further consolidation among the category’s top players.

—Jeremy Kressmann



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