Pitfalls of Wechat Outreach

This is part two in our series on the shortcomings of engaging prospective students in China through online outreach. This post delves into the perils and challenges of one platform in particular: Wechat. 

Social media in China is always in a state of dishevelment with various platforms likeDouban, Qzone and kaixin001, all claiming users of various degrees of loyalty. For awhile it seemed like Sina Weibo was going to win the Chinese social media’s game of thrones, uniting the disparate platforms and users under a single micro-blogging platform. Alas, recent government restrictions on online speech have stifled users’ enthusiasm, throwing a wrench in Weibo’s seemingly ensured dominance. Instead, we got a new kid on the block: Wechat.

Wechat also known as weixin was launched in 2011 and already boasts more users than Weibo—this is largely due to its effortless functionality. Swapping Wechat QR codes is easier than exchanging phone numbers. Rarely, if ever, do you ask people for their number anymore in China. You ask for their Wechat.

Naturally, with social media marketing looking bleak in China, marketing services looking for an all-hope-is-not-lost savior have turned to Wechat, insisting that its big user base will usher a golden-age of social media marketing in China.

Wechat is a versatile instant messaging app, with a video-call feature and facebook-like feed. What Wechat isn’t cut out for is reaching potential students. Since Wechat is primarily an instant messaging platform, Wechat is based on dyadic encounters, meaning it’s great for keeping in touch with friends and micro-communities, but awkward and inefficient for making a first impression.  It’s no wonder that Tencent regularly claims that WeChat is not a "marketing platform."

The logic is simple: the same way you don’t respond to messages from people you don’t know, people don’t engage with Wechat posts from organizations that they’re not familiar with. While Wechat provides a subscription service for public accounts to keep in touch with individual users, according to research, a majority of content users engage with is published or reposted by friends; only 20% of content is directly published by public accounts.

Therefore, for effective outreach on Wechat, your content needs to “travel” well. Posting pictures of your beautiful university campus and testimonials of smiling student is all well and good, but unless users are actively sharing your content, you won’t engage more than a sliver of prospective students. This is why, according toone study, the number one complaint among social media marketing professionals is that they’re unable to reach their target audience on Wechat.

But you don’t need to poll marketing professionals to understand this frustration. A simple look around Wechat, and you’ll find tons of seemly ignored articles. Here’s a quick sample:

If you search further on Wechat, however, you’ll find some glimmers of hope. Many public accounts on Wechat have high view counts and strong user engagement. Why? More often than not, these accounts have a strong offline presence and use Wechat to support and enhance that offline community. 

Here are some examples from my own community, the National High School Debate League of China (NHSDLC), one of Sunrise’s extracurricular student communities:

The NHSDLC runs over 80 events a year in 35 cities across Mainland China. In addition, our teachers are constantly traveling from school to school giving presentations and free training. Our Wechat presence is depends on the hard work of our teachers and enthusiasm of our students.  

The takeaway is simple: engaging prospective student in China requires an old-fashioned road trip. Pack your suitcase and go meet students! Wechat is a great way to support your outreach efforts. Take pictures from school visits, write personal accounts of your travels and share images and fun tidbits about institution. The students you meet and personally inspire will share your Wechat posts.