An enthusiastic user of LINE, Mark Bivens faces off against Jerry Yang, a WeChat apologist, on the merits of each app.
MB: First, I think we can agree on one thing: that WhatsApp, BBM, Viber, Telegram, eBuddy, Nimbuzz, SnapChat, and even Kik do not swim in the same pond as Line, WeChat, and KakaoTalk. To suggest otherwise would be like comparing a goldfish to Moby Dick.
So the real debate, if one is to be had, is about Line vs. WeChat vs. KakaoTalk.
JY: I fully agree. People need to stop comparing WeChat to WhatsApp. Furthermore, I suggest we call stalemate on KakaoTalk, since, impressive as it seems to be, neither of us uses it (nor does anyone outside South Korea it would seem).
MB: Deal. And since we’re on the topic of international adoption, LINE wins hands down. The LINE app has sewn up the market in its home country of Japan (which is the world’s third largest economy, I remind you). Moreover, LINE has conquered your home country of Taiwan, and has achieved considerable adoption in Thailand, Indonesia, India, Kakao’s home market of Korea, and even Spain and Mexico !
JY: Well, while I’m also a heavy LINE user and I agree that the international adoption of LINE is impressive compared to WeChat, I guess what’s obvious is — if you have 1.36 billion people in your home market, it’s less of a concern, at least in the short term, whether to go international or not, right? And remember that Chinese are the most mobile people in the world throughout the history. In almost every country you visit, there are a substantial amount of Chinese immigrants. It’s fairly common today that when I make a new Chinese friend in Paris, they ask me to connect on WeChat. And if you’re doing business with Chinese, it goes without saying that you have to connect with them on WeChat, as it’s the single most practical way to reach out to them when they’re back in the country. That means that anyone who has a substantial stake in a Chinese relationship will also be an automatic WeChat user, whether in Oslo or Bamako.
MB: That’s a fair counterpoint. Still, that means that WeChat’s user interface and flow needs to accommodate Western habits. How does that stack up compared to LINE ?
JY: Personally I don’t sense there’s any cultural element in WeChat’s interface — I use the English version and it feels as native as using any English app on my iPhone. The only Chinese element is, of course, that most of the content available in WeChat, be it messages from your friend or news feed services, is Chinese.
But now that you brought up the topic of interface, I have to say on this account, LINE really has a lot of room for improvement — random layers of menu, bizarre locations for options, duplicated functions, etc. By comparison, WeChat’s interface is clean, intuitive and natural. It even induces me, fairly painlessly, to try out certain functions designed (obviously) for match-making, such as Shake. I’ve never been someone patient enough to go the distance unless I absolutely have to, e.g. filing a tax return. The fact that I even bother to try this kind of match-making function on my non-primary chat app is a testament to the effort WeChat put into the interface.
MB: You’re right, the LINE interface might appear at first blush like a hotch-potch of functionality, but I suspect that’s mainly due to the app’s meteoric rise in usage (now over 400 million registered!) and resulting demand for new features. LINE does a pretty good job of regularly updating their app to improve the cohesion of the various functions. My biggest gripe with the LINE interface is its lack of an iPad version.
JY: I feel sorry for you that you even use the growth of LINE users as a defense — just last year alone, WeChat grew from 195M of monthly active users in Q1 to 355M in Q4! Yes, they benefitted from only having to worry about the operations in China, but it’s still an amazing growth story. And that growth for sure didn’t hold them back from building functionality, which by the way could claim to be the most versatile and fully integrated experience among all the chat apps!
MB: Well, LINE clearly dominates in its ingenious sticker strategy. I know you’re going to argue that WeChat also offers stickers, which makes sense. Stickers are of tremendous importance in cultures where communication involves layers of honorifics and deep context. I’ve even witnessed passengers on the train in Japan exercise careful deliberation in choosing just the right sticker to convey the proper tone and mood in their chat. But I think LINE wins in the sticker battle. Not only do they generate significant revenues from sales of sticker packs (which seem to have drawn inspiration from the old record album model (i.e. two tracks of ‘killer’ and 8 tracks of ‘filler’), but stickers also create switching costs among users who have invested in sticker sets and would not be able to carry them over to another messenger app. LINE admirably employs sticker campaigns to raise funds for charitable causes. They have also wisely opened up the creation of stickers to outside illustrators in the form of a creators marketplace, which will foster an army of ambassadors for sticker promotion, and hence promotion of LINE.
JY: Okay, that one I agree. As a heavy LINE sticker user and client — I counted 13 paid stickers in my arsenal — let me just say it’s amazing how a company can generate so much potential from something so simple. And I also see the potential of the LINE bear-rabbit couple to spin off into a standalone franchise. It will be fun to see how a company from a country that gave birth to successful character sans histoire like Hello Kitty plans this one out.
However, despite the limited amount of stickers in the WeChat Sticker Shop, there’s at least one thing that it does better — it has animated stickers!! This is nothing new. Back in the days of Microsoft Messengers, we in Taiwan were used to all kinds of animated stickers, created completely by Taiwanese artists, like these.
Having animated stickers just gives an extra dimension to the whole sticker experience. It’s really odd that LINE has yet to implement it. Well, WeChat has it and you can even press on a sticker to see an enlarged animated demo before purchasing the whole set. To be fair, this should be fairly easy to implement. It’s only time when LINE enables this as well. I’m happy for the huge army of MSN sticker creators in Taiwan. They shall see their works shine on the global — or at least the Asian stage.
MB: Totally agree on the franchise potential. Moreover, LINE has proven it can bridge monetization from online to offline. The app has so cleverly built brands around cute LINE characters like Kuma (Brown the bear), Usagi (Cony), Moon, James, and Sally, that the physical incarnations of these characters in the form of stuffed animals, for example, are highly sought after. I’ve heard of LINE representatives mobbed at conferences when handing out free samples. Walk in any Don Quixote store in Japan (ドン・キホーテ) and you’ll witness precious shelf space allocated to LINE stuffed animals, figurines, iPhone holders, pencil cases, etc. Global fashion retailer Uniqlo now sells T-shirts with LINE characters. Merchandising thus offers an interesting complementary revenue stream. Even more importantly, and as you imply, let’s not underestimate the brand potential of these characters. The beauty of this strong brand of characters is that it can withstand technology disruption, adapting to new markets as new products emerge. Already last summer Tokyo TV launched a TV series based on this adorable LINE family. We all know what that ragtag collection of superheroes did for Marvel comics…
JY: Interesting that you mentioned the Marvel franchise. It’s exactly what I have in mind on this subject. One of the well-studied cases in the b-schools as you and I both know is the Renaissance of Disney. The power of de-virtualizing content and profiting from physical products that prove irresistible to consumers and difficult or too costly to plagiarize is generally recognized to be the force behind Disney’s path back to glory. I don’t see why LINE couldn’t do the same. And if they make it work, for sure this will float them beyond the next technological disruption and even the ones after.
But enough on the social networking part. With WeChat, what impresses me as much is the professional usage scenario. I recommend this article written by Paul Bischoff in TechInAsia, Guanxi 2.0: how WeChat groups are changing the game in China’s tech and startup scene. Bischoff points out correctly that in Chinese cultures, there’s less separation of personal lives from professional lives as in western countries. Everything blends together. Taking advantage of this, not only does WeChat allow users to connect LinkedIn to its account, its Group function figures large in the professional scenario. Essentially the Group function in WeChat is more like a forum than mere group messaging. There’s a moderator who has the right to add users beyond the threshold and he or she also really moderates the discussions in the groups to ensure they stay true to the Group objectives. Bischoff outlined some inspiring anecdotes of using Group functions to resolve business conflicts.
MB: Great stuff. Indeed, I experienced that first-hand on a recent trip to Shanghai, where I installed WeChat and within an hour received a professional voice message from the director of m&a for Cisco China, who happened to be an old friend that I had lost track of years ago. I can imagine the value of integrating group collaboration functions will extend messenger app usage from leisure time into the workplace, especially in cultures where the line between social and professional life is blurred. What’s next? Payments? E-commerce?
JY: I guess for those of us in the West that follow tech news in Asia, it’s widely known that last November WeChat launched a very successful flash sales with Xiaomi. Based on some reports, the red-hot mobile phone maker sold 150,000 smartphones in less than 10 minutes on WeChat exclusively. And there’s good reason to believe that this is not just a one-time stunt. Just as the mobile phone growth far outstripped that of the landline phone due to the high cost of landline infrastructure, we see similar affinity for online or mobile commerce in Chinese consumers compared to brick-and-mortar experience. Most consumers in China are more receptive to purchase online or on mobile than their Western counterparts. In a country where the retail network and pricing remain highly fragmented, the unifying online purchase experience is simply too good for most Chinese consumers to pass up. A report by UBS earlier this year claimed that the 2-trillion-yuan (US$323 billion) e-commerce business accounted for about 8% of total retail sales in China last year, up from 6% in 2012. And they expect China’s e-commerce penetration to surpass that of the United States. With the success of several flash sales, WeChat seems to be every bit as authentic an m-commerce player as Alibaba is dominant in e-commerce. And WeChat parent company, Tencent, wasted no time to move forward by teaming up with another giant e-commerce company JD.com earlier this year. The kind of back-and-forth media onslaught between Jack Ma (Alibaba) and Pony Ma (Tencent) reminds me of the press war between Apple and Google. Moreover, apparently brands can now manage official accounts on WeChat directly.
MB: That’s impressive. LINE too, has demonstrated its leadership is mobile commerce. Thailand is a great example. The country boasts 24 million LINE users. Last December, LINE began a series of flash sales, in which it promoted LINE character-branded smartphone cases. They sold out within 25 minutes apparently. Since that successful experience, LINE has executed several more such events, including sales of Maybelline lipstick and coupons for a local supermarket chain. This infographic from TechInAsia illustrates LINE’s fruitful experiences with flash sales in Thailand.
JY: I saw that as well, amazing stuff. The potential things that could be done with chat apps are simply beyond the wildest dream of any chat app pioneers. In fact, that’s exactly the reason I am not a big fan of Mr. Jan Koum, the CEO of WhatsApp. I mean, I respect the focus he instilled in this incredible app, and everybody would definitely love to trade places with him for that Facebook deal. However, listening to him ramble on how WhatsApp wants to keep it simple and how it believes reliable text messaging is what really counts and that stickers and stuff are but gimmicks, it gives me a déjà-vu — that was exactly what Blackberry claimed when they started to lose market share to iPhone. Network efficiency and reliability are all good things, but somehow I feel the lion’s share of the value chain won’t be in text messaging. The reason is very simple: the breakneck progress in networking hardware and infrastructure will eliminate any palpable advantage in speed and reliability among the various chat apps. In other words, by the time WhatsApp realizes customers are indifferent to the KPIs they uphold, it could be too late.
And for the meager $20M revenue WhatsApp generated last year, it’s hard to believe that its users will be willing to dole out more for messaging than what LINE users are already paying for “gimmicks”. If I were (still) a shareholder of Facebook, I would cross my fingers that Mr. Zuckerberg has a much grander plan for this marriage.
MB: Given Zuckerberg’s imagination, he probably does have a grand vision for his new toy. Nonetheless, as we seem to agree, LINE and WeChat represent platforms of an entirely different league. As Mona Nomura recently pointed out, Asian chat apps are more than chat apps, they are turning into ecosystems. It will be interesting to see how these Asian tigers impact connected consumers’ mindshare currently dominated by tech giants in the West.