If you move in digital circles, have spent time in or have done business with China in the past five years, chances are high that you’ve heard of WeChat.
Created by technology giant Tencent, WeChat (known as Weixin (微信) in China) originated as a messaging app in 2011. In the eight years since, it has evolved into what has become known as a ‘super app’: a type of application that hosts a number of other apps and services under one digital ‘roof’. It has become part of the fabric of everyday life – and particularly online life – in China: used to make payments in stores, connect businesses with consumers, connect friends and send gifts and funds, and as a portal to access innumerable other apps.
But WeChat is no longer the only super app ecosystem available to Chinese internet users. In her recent Internet Trends 2019 report, Mary Meeker highlighted the growing trend of super apps both within and outside of China. Companies like Meituan Dianping and Alibaba are developing their own super app empires – and overseas, other big companies are also starting to diversify their offerings in a similar way.
Let’s take a look at Meeker’s observations about super apps, the companies moving into this space, and what this growing trend means for both businesses and consumers.
The rise of China’s super apps
WeChat has always been a juggernaut of social media, reaching 100 million users a little over a year after its launch. The following year, WeChat moved into the payments space with WeChat Pay, and that number climbed to 355 million, with 20 million users using WeChat Pay to send red envelopes to each other over the Chinese New Year holiday in 2014.
Launching WeChat Pay didn’t make WeChat into a super-app on its own, but it laid the foundation of what was to come. Payments were integral to many of the additional services and apps that WeChat later added, such as City Services, launched in 2015 in 27 cities, which allowed users to pay electricity bills, book transportation, pay traffic fines and more through WeChat. In 2016, WeChat rolled out a beta version of its ‘mini programs’ feature, effectively turning WeChat into an app store for stripped-down, lightweight apps that could be downloaded instantly, run and stored within WeChat.
In January 2017, WeChat brought mini-programs out of beta, and a year later revealed that there were more than 580,000 mini-programs available to users on WeChat. In March 2018, Tencent announced that WeChat had passed 1 billion monthly active users.
In one slide in her Internet Trends report, Meeker shows how an ecommerce customer journey can be completed entirely within WeChat, from brand public account to brand mini-program and finally to payment via WeChat Pay.
A later entrant to the space is also well on its way to becoming one of China’s largest super apps: Meituan Dianping, a merger of two companies (Meituan.com and Dianping.com) that originated as a group buying website and customer review site, respectively. The two companies, already major players in their respective markets, merged in 2015 and subsequently moved into food delivery along with group deals and restaurant reviews.
Food delivery in China is an extremely fast-growing and profitable space, and Meituan Dianping quickly rose to become a major player, crossing the 10 million daily delivery mark in late 2016. The following year, it had reached 25 million orders per day, with five million merchants selling on the platform. The rapid rise of Meituan Dianping as a food delivery giant rattled Alibaba enough that it purchased a rival delivery company, Ele.me, for a whopping $9.5 billion in April 2018.
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Meituan Dianping later made a number of other strategic acquisitions and moves into other verticals, such as its acquisition of China’s largest bike-sharing system, Mobike, for $2.7 billion in 2018. As of 2019, Meituan Dianping also offers film tickets, home rental, hotel and travel booking, grocery retail (through a partnership with local retail stores, with goods delivered by Meituan Dianping) and more besides.
Meeker illustrated the diversity of Meituan Dianping’s services on a slide comparing them to their western equivalents – 10 different western companies combined cover less than half of what Meituan Dianping can offer within one platform (the 10 companies being Yelp, OpenTable, Fandango, Airbnb, Booking.com, Square, grubHub, Uber Eats, Kayak and Wholefoods).
According to company material cited by Meeker, Meituan Dianping has more than 30 different services, with 412 million annual transacting users, and with growth of 26% year-on-year.
Not to be outdone, retail behemoth Alibaba has been developing its online payments platform, Alipay, into a super app of its own. Alipay now boasts more than 200,000 mini-programs of its own – many of them related to finance and payment, but also education, shopping, entertainment, transportation and food delivery.
Meeker notes that of the more than one billion people who use Alipay, 70% use three or more financial services mini-programs (a category which encompasses payment, wealth management, financing, insurance and credit systems).
In September 2018, the South China Morning Post reported that Ant Financial Services (Alipay’s parent company and an affiliate of Alibaba) would be spending one billion yuan (the equivalent of US $145.6 million) over the coming three years to promote the development of mini-programs within its ecosystem. Alipay’s mini-programs have also been opening up to individual developers in recent months, following a similar move by Tencent to open up WeChat’s mini-programs in April 2018.
Alibaba has also started implementing mini-programs within Taobao, its consumer-to-consumer online marketplace. WalktheChat noted in February that these programmes are accessible through Alipay as well, suggesting perhaps that Alibaba is hoping to use its various properties to encourage uptake of the mini-programs and improve access.
Two other players in this space not featured by Meeker are search engine Baidu, which launched its own app ecosystem, Smart Mini Programs, last year; and technology company Bytedance, the parent company behind short-video sensation TikTok, which has launched mini-programmes within its apps Jinri Toutiao and Douyin. In December, Baidu launched a one billion yuan innovation fund to attract developers to its Smart Mini Programs – marking a departure from the more cautious approach to outside development taken by Alibaba and Tencent.
Writing in UtopiaPress on Medium, Michael Spencer called the mini-programs arms race “essentially the next generation of app-innovation, and it’s occurring in China and not America”.
“While Google and Facebook create ad-centric value, Chinese BBAT companies are creating actual user-centric value ecosystems, which are likely more sustainable over time,” he wrote.
It’s easy to see the advantages for China’s tech giants of creating their own app ecosystems: they can promote usage of the various properties they own and allow users to move seamlessly between them, and integrate themselves into users’ daily lives. Having a proprietary ecosystem could also insulate Chinese companies against a situation like the one currently facing Huawei, which has been barred by Google from using the Android operating system or app store in its handsets.
And now companies outside China are catching on – and starting to build out their own apps into ecosystems in the style of Chinese super apps.
The international companies courting ‘super app’ status
In the Internet Trends Report 2019, Meeker highlights three companies outside China that are encroaching on super app territory.
The first is Grab, a transportation network founded in Malaysia that now operates out of Singapore. Grab started out in 2012 as a taxi hire company called GrabTaxi, and went on to expand into personal car hire (GrabCar), bike hire (GrabBike), carpooling (GrabHitch) and last-mile delivery (GrabExpress), rebranding as Grab in 2016 to bring all of its various products under one umbrella.
In 2017, it launched a payments service, GrabPay, and in 2018 launched a food delivery business, GrabFood. Grab has also incorporated a messaging system within its app to allow riders and drivers to communicate with one another – even translating messages between the two if they have different languages set. In December 2018, The Telegraph called Grab “the app to watch for Western firms hoping to build super apps for diverse societies with rising incomes.”
The second burgeoning super app featured by Meeker is Latin American delivery firm Rappi. Founded in 2015, Rappi operates in seven countries across Latin America (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay) and has made a success of delivery in a crowded marketplace by “digitising the delivery ecosystem”.
Within its mobile app, users can order a variety of products including groceries, food, and medicine, and also use the company’s own payment platform, RappiPay, to transfer funds – or have a courier withdraw the money from an ATM and deliver it to them. Rappi employs an ecommerce-style user interface within its app that lets users swipe items into their basket, making it seem more like a shopping app than a delivery service.
Rounding out the trio of burgeoning super apps is Uber. Much like Grab in Southeast Asia, Uber started out as a vehicle hire business, disrupting the taxi hire market in major cities like New York, Chicago, Paris, Toronto and London, before expanding and diversifying into different forms of vehicle hire and transportation. In 2013, four years after its initial launch, Uber branched out into ridesharing, and then carpooling in 2014. Later that same year, Uber launched its food delivery service, Uber Eats (originally called Uber Fresh). In 2018, Uber expanded into bike hire with its acquisition of scooter and bike sharing system Jump Bikes.
Most significantly of all, in March Uber announced its intention to acquire Middle Eastern ride-hailing business Careem, which is itself courting super app status with an app that combines ride hailing, food delivery, maps, messaging and payment capabilities all in one. A press release about the acquisition, published to Uber Newsroom, declared: “[The acquisition] will speed up the delivery of digital services to people in the region through the development of a consumer-facing super-app that offers services such as Careem’s digital payment platform (Careem Pay) and last-mile delivery (Careem NOW).”
While Careem will retain its own independent brand after the acquisition, which is expected to complete in Q1 2020, there is bound to be knowledge-sharing and influence between the two companies. Given that Uber already has the foundations of a super app with multiple different services, we may well see it start to bring these into a single ecosystem. Developing its own payments system to join them together – potentially on the back of Careem Pay – and integrating other features like messaging would also be well within Uber’s capabilities.
Do super apps benefit consumers?
The three companies highlighted by Meeker are by no means the only potential super apps on the horizon. Facebook is planning a merger of Instagram, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger that will join up the different messaging services’ infrastructure, allowing messages to be sent between them. And while the three apps will reportedly be remaining separate, that could change later on. Facebook has also been rolling out ecommerce and payments features on Instagram and Messenger respectively, with both payments and, potentially, ecommerce due to arrive on WhatsApp in the near future.
Indonesian ride-hailing firm Gojek also proudly claims super app status on its website, calling itself “an Operating System that unbundles the tyranny of apps…a portal to the internet for a mobile-first generation.” And in India, ecommerce firm Reliance Jio is reportedly working on a super app that will provide more than 100 services in one platform.
There’s no denying that super app status has become the ultimate achievement for companies that, no longer content to compete within a single vertical, increasingly invest in and acquire services across a variety of different industries.
But how far do super apps benefit consumers?
One of the biggest points in favour of super apps from a consumer perspective is ease of use and reduced friction. Users of super apps like WeChat are saved the hassle of having to download, install and register on any number of separate apps, and are instead able to quickly add new mini-programs to the app and switch seamlessly between them with no additional logins.
The integration of payment functionality within WeChat and Alipay also saves users from having to constantly re-enter card or bank details while carrying out all kinds of everyday tasks: from splitting the bill at a restaurant, to paying for utilities, to sending money to a friend. Undoubtedly, the more that people use a super app like WeChat, Meituan Dianping or Alibaba, the more they are incentivised to use it, as they discover more things that they can accomplish within the app.
However, the flip side to all this convenience – as is so often the case in the digital age – is data collection. By nature, super apps accumulate huge amounts of personal data on an individual: not just payment details, usernames and addresses, but things like spending habits, location, contacts, financial transactions, travel preferences…the list goes on and on. While it could be argued that this is data we are all sharing with various apps anyway, it is an unprecedented amount of data for one company to collect and hold, particularly if something goes wrong.
New regulation like the GDPR and California’s Consumer Privacy Act will make it more challenging for super apps within the EU and United States to carry out data collection on this scale, and require them to be transparent about how they use and share the data. But even with the GDPR already in force, many users are not aware of the extent to which companies like Google track their data.
And while the likes of Google, Apple and even Facebook are now taking steps to prioritise user privacy, other up-and-coming super apps might not be as scrupulous. In November 2017 it was revealed that Uber had covered up a catastrophic data breach on its platform the previous year that compromised the personal data of 57 million customers and drivers – instead paying the hackers $100,000 to delete the data.
The rise of super apps, created by massive tech companies, may also make it more difficult for small companies to compete in the spaces that they move into. A company like Amazon or Alibaba wields immense clout in whatever market it decides to operate in, and super apps by necessity involve big companies making acquisitions and expanding their businesses into a range of different verticals – crowding out smaller players and reducing consumer choice in the process.
Anti-competitive practices are another potential issue: in China, WeChat and its parent company Tencent have repeatedly been criticised for blocking competitors’ apps on WeChat in order to prevent them from gaining traction. Bytedance has criticised Tencent for allegedly blocking content from its news aggregation platform, Jinri Toutiao, and short video app, Douyin, under the guise of supervision, security, and software bugs. WeChat has also moved to ban the sharing of promotional external links from apps including Jinri Toutiao, short video apps Huoshan and Xigua, NetEase Cloud Music, and even ride-hailing service Didi Chuxing (in which Tencent has a stake), claiming that they disrupted its group chat and Moments functions.
While not all super apps will necessarily resort to the same methods as WeChat, it’s in their interest to ensure that consumers will use their products instead of a competitor’s, and we’ve already seen companies like Google and Amazon refuse to support each other’s products in the name of competition, a move which ultimately hurt consumers most of all.
Some commentators have argued that Chinese-style super apps could never take off in the same way in the west or in other parts of the world, due to factors like the lack of a mobile-first approach to internet, the dominance of pre-existing players, different attitudes towards data sharing, or the lack of social commerce sophistication. But it’s evident that this is changing.
Super apps outside of China might take different forms depending on the native environment that they emerged in, but we are increasingly seeing the same phenomenon emerge all over the world: a single platform playing host to all kinds of services under one ‘roof’. Super apps have the potential to deliver an improved and convenient customer experience that could change consumer behaviour and expectations – but possibly at the expense of data privacy and choice. It will be important to keep an eye on them as they develop, in order to understand what they mean for the technology landscape, and particularly the way that consumers connect with brands.
The post Super apps: How the rest of the world is following in China’s footsteps appeared first on Marketing Week.