WeChat Marketing Strategies for Global Travel Brands 2018

by Meghan Carty + Skift Team - Jan 2018

Skift Research Take

WeChat, China’s most popular app, has infiltrated the daily lives of its nearly one billion monthly active users. The popularity and penetration of the app in the country makes it an attractive platform for global travel brands looking to unlock the China market. Without a thoughtful WeChat strategy, however, this is easier said than done.

Report Overview

As the Chinese outbound tourism market and its spending power continue to rise steadily, this segment of travelers becomes even more attractive to travel brands around the world. In this report, Skift Research dives into China’s most popular social media super app, WeChat, as a tool for travel brands to enter this market. With nearly one billion monthly active users, according to its parent company, Tencent, WeChat holds a great deal of potential for travel brands looking to appeal to Chinese travelers. We begin with an introduction to WeChat, laying out its different components and discussing its prominence in China. Then, drawing on insight from more than a dozen interviews with a variety of WeChat experts in travel, as well as WeChat data for travel brands based outside of Mainland China provided by Beijing-based digital agency Dragon Trail Interactive, we present key strategic considerations and best practices for travel brands interested in using the platform. We look deeper into topics such as selecting a WeChat account type and aspects of content strategy, with case studies and examples included throughout.

What You'll Learn From This Report

  • Sizing and expenditure data for Chinese outbound tourism
  • An overview of WeChat and its prominence in China
  • How travel brands are using WeChat today
  • Strategic considerations for travel brands interested in joining the platform
  • Insight on best practices from travel industry WeChat experts
  • What content resonates best with WeChat users, with examples
  • WeChat posting metrics based on Skift Research data analysis
  • The top travel brand WeChat Official Accounts among brands based outside of Mainland China according to engagement
  • How external partnerships can help travel brands overcome challenges associated with joining the platform, creating an Official Account, and building an engaged follower base

Executives Interviewed

  • Billy Turchin, Vice President, Digital & Voice - Greater China, IHG
  • William Karz, Vice President of Digital Marketing, Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board
  • Karlijn Vogel-Meijer, Director of Social, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines
  • Andy Jiang, Country Manager - China, Tourism Australia
  • Fred Luan, Regional Marketing Director, Tourism Australia
  • Elliott Ferguson, President & CEO, Destination DC
  • Greg Eckhart, Manager Global Sales - Asia, Travel Oregon
  • Lukas Prochazka, Business Development Manager - Asia, Banff & Lake Louise Tourism
  • Natalie Tang, Public Relations Manager - China, Tahiti Tourisme
  • Andrew Collins, Founder & CEO, Mailman Group
  • Reene Ho-Phang, Founder & Managing Director, BrandStory Asia
  • Humphrey Ho, Managing Director, Los Angeles, Hylink Digital Solution Co. Ltd.

Key Findings

  • WeChat has already captured a huge share of app use time in China, and the continued growth of its parent company, Tencent, indicates that the platform is likely to continue gaining traction.
  • With nearly two-thirds of the country’s population currently active on the platform, travel brands on WeChat have the potential to reach a significant portion of the market.
  • WeChat is very different from western social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter, and therefore a WeChat strategy should be unique.
  • WeChat Official Accounts can take the place of Chinese-language websites for travel brands, so they should have all the information and functionality travelers might need.
  • WeChat mini-programs, launched in January 2017, show a lot of promise for travel brands, including destinations.
  • Chinese WeChat users have their own unique mindset and certain content resonates better than others. Content posted by Official Accounts related to nature, food, and practical guides tend to receive high engagement.
  • Analysis by Skift Research indicates that Official Accounts that post more than three times per week tend to see much higher levels of follower engagement.
  • Based on user engagement, AirAsia, Destination Canada, Brand USA, and Royal Caribbean International are among the top 10 travel brands on WeChat (of NTOs, DMOs, airlines, and cruise lines based outside of Mainland China)
  • Certain metrics of success are more meaningful than others on WeChat. Likes on posts are comparatively low in relation to the views, making views more indicative of success in general.
  • Partnering with agencies based in China can help travel brands register for a WeChat Official Account successfully, navigate the language and cultural barriers, and expand their reach to get the most return from their WeChat presence.

Chinese Tourism Rises at Record Pace

The rise of outbound travel from China is continuing at a record pace, and the spending power of Chinese tourists continues to grow rapidly. Based on data from the Chinese National Tourism Administration (CNTA), outbound travel from China has increased 270% since 2008, and is on track to reach 200 million departures by 2020. Perhaps just as staggering is Chinese tourists’ spending growth, which has increased 730% since 2008, according to a report from ForwardKeys, a company that predicts travel patterns by analyzing over 17 million booking transactions per day. As Skift Research noted in our report, A Deep Dive into Ctrip and the China Online Travel Market, last year, data from the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNTWO) shows China is already the global leader in tourism expenditures, with $261 billion spent in 2016. That double-digit growth pace has continued every year since 2004. It is easy to see why Chinese travelers have garnered so much attention for their spending when it is compared to the second-ranked U.S., which spent $233 billion, and third-ranked Germany, which spent $81 billion.

 

Exhibit 1: Chinese outbound travel is on track to reach 200 million departures by 2020.

Source: China National Tourism Administration, UN World Travel Organization, World Bank

 

Based on these numbers, it is clear why destinations and travel brands around the world are looking to cash in on this traveler segment. In some cases, the effort to attract Chinese tourists has reached governmental levels, as countries have gone so far as to change their visa policies to encourage Chinese travelers to visit. ForwardKeys noted that in the six months after Morocco eased its visa requirements in June 2016, Chinese arrivals to the country increased 378% year over year. Other countries, including Moldova (253%), Tunisia (240%) and Serbia (183%), have experienced similarly impressive year over year increases in the six months following visa requirement relaxations.

On a more micro level, travel brands and destinations across the globe are experimenting with new marketing strategies to appeal to Chinese travelers. This is not without its challenges, however, and is easier said than done. In China, the government ensures that tourism development is aligned with the country’s overall agenda. The government may institute policies that directly impact citizens’ choices when it comes to travel. In addition, the Chinese government has heavily regulated and censored the digital landscape in the country, making it very different than the vast majority of tourism source markets around the world. The Chinese government blocks western social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, along with Google, in what is often referred to as the Great Firewall. As a result, Chinese travelers have distinctive digital and media consumption habits, as well as unique preferences, that must be considered by airlines, hotels, and destination marketing organizations when developing marketing strategies to target these consumers.

The Chinese government’s censorship of popular western websites and social media platforms has contributed to the emergence of a rich digital landscape in China, encompassing unique search engines, social media platforms, ecommerce sites and more. China’s extremely high mobile-Internet usage is also unique. According to the China Internet Network Information Center’s “The 39th China Statistical Report on Internet Development,” the proportion of mobile Internet users compared with all Internet users reached 95% in 2016. Mobile phones have become the preferred device to access the Internet in China. While all other devices have fallen in usage from in 2016 versus 2015, mobile phone usage increased from 90% to 95%. China is clearly a mobile-focused market, and travel brands and destinations aiming to reach Chinese outbound travelers must strategize on how to target their marketing efforts with this in mind.

 

Exhibit 2: The proportion of mobile Internet users versus all Internet users in China reached 95% in 2016.

Source: eMarketer

An Overview of WeChat and Its Prominence in China

Amid the mobile digital landscape in China, there is one app that takes prominence above all others: WeChat. Owned by Chinese Internet giant, Tencent, WeChat boasts about 980 million monthly active users as of the third quarter of 2017, according to a Tencent report. This app’s penetration has been largely responsible for Tencent’s success as a whole, illustrated by its 61% third quarter revenue growth, which was higher than the rates of Alphabet, Facebook, and Alibaba.

 

Exhibit 3: Tencent’s revenue has grown rapidly over the past year, even surpassing the rates of internet giants Alphabet, Facebook, and Alibaba.

Source: Skift Research + Capital IQ

 

The sheer volume of active users combined with the broad functionality the platform provides, has made WeChat less of an app in China and more of an integrated, all-encompassing part of life. It can be difficult for those outside of the country to fully understand WeChat as an entity because there is no equivalent social media platform anywhere that reaches so far into so many aspects of everyday life as WeChat does. Therefore, in this section, we will provide a general overview of the platform, including its main components, and how WeChat users incorporate them into everyday life.

To understand the multifacetedness of WeChat, we will break down its main parts. First, there are aspects of WeChat that resemble western social media. WeChat includes a chat interface that allows for direct messages, group messages, voice and video calls. The app is the main tool for communication between friends, family, and colleagues in China. Next, there is a feature of the platform called “Moments,” where users can share photos, statuses, and more for their contacts to interact with and view. This is most akin to Facebook’s News Feed. There are also “Official Accounts” that allow companies, organizations, and high-profile individuals to establish a presence on the platform, share content with an audience, and communicate with customers. WeChat has three main types of Official Accounts, which will be discussed further in the strategy section of this report. According to Dragon Trail Interactive, 80% of WeChat users follow at least one Official Account.

An aspect of the platform that makes it unique is WeChat Pay, which can be used to complete transactions between individuals, and between users and businesses. The mobile payments economy has arrived in China, well ahead of the U.S. Of all mobile payments in 2016, $5.5 trillion were processed in China compared to just $112 billion in the U.S., according to data from iResearch and Forrester Research. WeChat Pay contributes heavily to this, with 600 million current users. According to China Tech Insights, a research unit affiliated with Tencent, 92% of Chinese survey respondents said they chose mobile payment apps like WeChat Pay over cash, credit and debit cards, and smartphone built-in payment tools like Apple Pay to make retail purchases. Cash is the second-most selected payment method, preferred by about half as many respondents.

Exhibit 4: Mobile payment apps are the preferred retail payment method in China. Apps like WeChat Pay are preferred two to one over cash.

Source: China Tech Insights
The newest addition to the platform, mini-programs, is also a differentiator. Mini-programs, launched in January 2017, are like native apps, but they are cloud-based and are available within the WeChat platform. This means that users do not have to download them to their phones and use a large amount of data storage. For these reasons, they run faster than native apps and are much easier for developers to create. Users can also access them without an Internet connection. Mini-programs can be especially useful in bridging digital and physical activities, thanks in part to a search option that finds mini-programs relevant to the user’s current location. Mini-programs can also serve an e-commerce function, acting as online stores, which can help brands keep their account page content-focused. Mini-programs are separate from, but often tied to, Official Accounts, and can be customized to provide additional, useful functionality for WeChat users. At WeChat’s January 2018 Developer Conference, the company announced that 580,000 mini-programs were live on the platform, with 170 million daily users.

Whether it’s social communication, information sharing, retail purchasing, or activity searching, WeChat has managed to reach into nearly every part of a users’ daily lives. Through its Moments feed and chat interface, it facilitates social interaction among friends, family, and other peers. It has also become nearly ubiquitous in the workplace, with 80% of users reporting that they have used the platform to complete office work, including the coordination of tasks, transferring files, and having conference calls, based on survey data collected by China Tech Insights. In fact, 90% of survey respondents indicated WeChat was their major work communication tool out of five options provided, while fewer than 30% of respondents preferred email. Given its ubiquity in China and its multifunctionality, it is perhaps more accurate to conceive of WeChat as a full operating system than simply an app or social media platform.

Exhibit 5: As of April 2017, WeChat captured 29% of all time spent on mobile apps in China.

Source: QuestMobile + Kleiner Perkins

WeChat for Travel Brands: Use & Strategy

As WeChat has reached into so many parts of the lives of its nearly one billion users, it is no surprise that it would also gain a prominent role when it comes to travel. In this section, we will examine WeChat as a tool for travel brands. We will discuss key strategic considerations for travel brands thinking about joining the platform, along with examples and insight from travel brands currently using it.

WeChat’s importance to travel continues to grow with the increase in Chinese outbound travelers, and as more are opting to travel completely or semi-independently rather than with a group. These “fully (or free) independent travelers (“FITs”)” are increasingly turning to WeChat and other social media to discover, plan, book, and guide them through all aspects of their trips. In April 2017, Dragon Trail Interactive reported that 73% of Chinese outbound travelers consider social media to be the key channel for researching and planning travels.

With this in mind, WeChat is an enticing platform for travel brands looking to appeal to Chinese travelers at many points in the planning and booking process. WeChat can help travel companies communicate with guests, provide smooth transactions and booking experiences, promote activities and destinations, and enhance the travel experience on the ground. Before brands simply jump in, however, it is important that they educate themselves about the platform and develop a thoughtful strategy. Travel brands that are more familiar with social media platforms like Facebook may think that they can simply transfer their existing social strategy to WeChat and see similar results. However, many of the individuals Skift Research spoke to for this report were careful to point out that this would be a mistake. As Reene Ho-Phang, founder and managing director of tourism marketing agency BrandStory Asia, told Skift Research, “The first thing that is important to do is that you must delink Facebook from WeChat because they are entirely different.” Once brands sever this connection, they can begin the process of creating a WeChat strategy, beginning with considerations of the goals they hope to achieve on the platform and the audience they plan to target.

 

Consider the Purpose of a Travel Brand’s WeChat Presence
In order to make strategic decisions that will be discussed next, like the type of Official Account to register for or the type of content to post on it, travel brands must consider the purpose they would like their WeChat presence to serve and the goals they hope to achieve with it. For many, the major goal is to increase awareness of the brand or destination in China. In our conversations for this report, increasing brand awareness was named by nearly every travel brand representative as a main purpose of their WeChat presence. According to Natalie Tang, PR Manager, China for Tahiti Tourisme, “For us, it’s an inevitable channel that we leverage to increase brand awareness and loyalty, and we think it’s the most direct way for brands to connect to mobile consumers in China.”

Some brands cite relationship building as a goal of their WeChat accounts, including interactions such as posting content to Official Account pages or messaging directly with customers to answer their questions. Many travel brands use their accounts’ chat interface aspect to provide tailored customer service. Marriott International recently added a function to its customer-facing Official Account that allows guests to connect with Mandarin-speaking concierge service assistants through WeChat at any stage of their travels. This is a part of the hotel company’s “Li Yu” program, which was launched in 2012 to provide amenities and services specifically for Chinese outbound travelers. Guests can message the WeChat concierge from anywhere in the world, offering a familiar source of assistance in potentially unfamiliar places. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines also responds to messages it receives via WeChat and customers take great advantage of this customer service offering. The airline’s Director of Social, Karlijn Vogel-Meijer, told Skift Research that it receives 6,000-7,000 messages on WeChat per week.

The platform can also be used in other ways to meet customer service objectives. KLM, for example, offers booking, notifications, and payment via its WeChat Official Account. The airline has offered customers the option to receive their booking confirmation, boarding passes, and check-in and flight notifications via WeChat since May 2017. Vogel-Meijer reports that 25 to 30 percent of its Chinese customers are already using this option. Additionally, 30 percent are also using the option to pay for flights via WeChat Pay, a feature that the airline added in August 2017. VistaJet, an international private jet operator, also established WeChat booking in 2017, allowing clients to book charter flights and receive 24/7 customer service directly through the app.

WeChat can also help improve the traveler experience on the ground by providing practical information, or even by acting as a digital guidebook, making this an especially relevant objective for destinations. We will discuss in more detail how travel brands can attempt to achieve these objectives on WeChat, but first, travel brands must consider the target audience of their WeChat presence. Following are some guidelines.

 

Consider the Target Audience
Clearly, most travel brands would like their presence on WeChat to help them reach Chinese travelers. Reaching travelers on the platform directly, however, may not be realistic at first when brand awareness in the market is low. For this reason, it is common for travel brands on WeChat to initially target the Chinese travel trade (including online and traditional travel agencies and tour operators) as well as travel media before specifically targeting travelers. Among those with whom we spoke, Banff & Lake Louise Tourism and Travel Oregon both cited using this strategy at the beginning. Others continuously target the travel trade to ensure that their destinations get included in tour packages and are suggested to outbound travelers. For example, the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board and Norwegian Cruise Line have dedicated WeChat accounts focused on B2B communication to support these types of relationships.

 

Consider WeChat as a Website Replacement or Complement
Taking time to consider the goals and target audience of a travel brand’s WeChat presence is especially important for brands that have a limited digital presence in China. For many travel brands, WeChat and other social accounts, such as the Twitter-like platform Weibo, are the only digital presence they have in the market, whether it’s because of the Great Firewall, or because of limited resources to create a full Chinese-language site. According to Andrew Collins, founder and CEO of Shanghai-based travel and sports marketing agency Mailman Group, WeChat “is fast becoming the replacement for destinations’ websites in China because it has enough functionality to house all the content that you house on an official platform.”

It is not only destinations that are heading in this direction. IHG, for example, considers its WeChat account to function as a mini corporate website because the company does not have a Chinese-language corporate website in the market. Through this account alone, followers can learn about IHG’s hotel brands, job openings, corporate news, and they can book rooms. Even some organizations that have Chinese-language websites available in the market are thinking about how useful they actually are to consumers beyond what their WeChat account offers. Greg Eckhart, Travel Oregon’s manager of global sales for Asia, told us that his team is debating whether to transition the Chinese audience over entirely to social due to the up-to-date information and user-generated content that it easily facilitates. Elliott Ferguson, president & CEO of Destination DC, prefers to view his organization’s WeChat Official Account and mini-program as complements to its Mandarin website: “I think that once a Chinese traveler has made the decision to travel to Washington D.C., then they are going to want to have more specific information, so therefore the Mandarin portion of our website gives them that insight.”

These considerations make up just the beginning of the strategic process for travel brands interested in joining WeChat. Thinking about these aspects first will make the decisions that will be discussed next easier. We will start with analyses of the main ways travel brands can have a presence on the platform, specifically from a marketing perspective, followed by an in-depth look at content and campaign strategies.

A Closer Look at Travel Brand Presence on WeChat

In our opening overview of the WeChat platform, we briefly discussed its main components. Travel brands take advantage of many of these components to spread brand awareness and serve the needs of travelers. They typically have a presence on the platform through at least one of the following ways: advertising on users’ Moments feed, developing a mini-program, or having an Official Account.

 

Moments Advertising
Initially, WeChat’s Moments feed was completely private, and only included content shared by a user’s personal connections on the platform. Over time, this space has become increasingly accessible to advertisers, including travel brands. Advertising in this space has proven to be a valuable marketing strategy for travel brands and many of the travel brand representatives we spoke with for this report mentioned it. For example, Los Angeles Tourism saw its Official Account page views increase from 77,000 to 200,000 between the second and third quarters of 2017. William Karz, Los Angeles Tourism’s vice president of digital marketing, attributes this in large part to Moments ads that the organization invested in.

Because of successes like these, Moments advertising space has become very competitive and can also be expensive. Fred Luan, Tourism Australia’s China-based regional marketing director, explained that although his organization was the first tourism board to utilize Moments ads, there is now a new challenge. “Since a lot of brands have noticed the effectiveness of the Moments advertising, or the paid ads, the space is actually getting pretty cluttered,” Luan said. “You see different brands, big or small, advertising on it every day. So the question to us is, is it still the right platform or right place for us to advertise? The question remains.”

 

Mini-Programs
WeChat’s mini-programs could have a lot of potential for travel brands and destinations. With the official launch of mini-programs in January 2017, brands are still trying to figure out whether they have a place in their WeChat strategy and, if so, how to use them. As mentioned previously, mini-programs act as mini-apps that can serve a variety of purposes. So far, travel brands have mostly used mini-programs to drive sales and to assist travelers on the ground in-destination. Peninsula Hotels Beijing, for instance, launched a mini-program in August 2017 that allows customers to buy various items and services, including desserts and spa treatments, in order to improve the guest experience while also driving additional sales.

 

Exhibit 6: Peninsula Hotel Beijing developed an e-commerce mini-program that lets guests purchase items and services.

Source: Peninsula Hotel Beijing, WeChat mini-program, http://dmb-shanghai.com/marketing/wechat-essential-overview-mini-programs

 

Mini-programs, which have many travel-related applications, can be useful in connecting the digital and offline worlds. A destination, for instance, could display QR codes at each step in the traveler’s journey from the airport to attractions, to act as a guide, which is especially helpful for travelers who are unfamiliar with the local language. Some destination organizations, such as Banff & Lake Louise Tourism, have taken advantage of this application to create their own digital tour guides in the form of mini-programs.

The Banff & Lake Louise mini-program utilizes QR codes that have been placed at various locations and attractions in the destination. When Chinese visitors scan one of the codes, the mini-program opens automatically and provides a Chinese-language guide for the attraction. In addition to information about attractions, the mini-program also includes a map, and useful local and cultural information about things like the weather, tipping customs, currencies, wildlife, and safety.

 

Exhibit 7: The home screen of Banff & Lake Louise’s mini-program (left) features a menu to see information about attractions including restaurants, outdoor attractions, accommodations, and shopping.

Source: Banff & Lake Louise Tourism, WeChat mini-program

 

Banff & Lake Louise Tourism works with the Beijing-based agency Dragon Trail Interactive to set up, translate, and operate its WeChat account and mini-program. From a strategic point of view, implementing a mini-program of this kind made sense as the next step in the destination marketing organization’s WeChat presence. As Lukas Prochazka, business development manager for Asia at Banff & Lake Louise Tourism, explained, “recently we see growing numbers of individual travelers from China, whereas in the past it was mostly groups. … These people don’t usually have a guide to help them, so to overcome the language barrier and to make it easier for them to learn about our attractions and plan their visit, we launched this mini-app.”

One of the most intriguing developments related to travel and WeChat mini-programs, especially for destinations, came in November 2017 with the announcement of a City Experience mini-program initiative. The initiative, conceived by WeChat, stems from collaborations between WeChat, a city’s tourism boards, the respective national tourism organization, and a selection of travel operators and attractions. City Experiences provide users with location-specific information and suggested itineraries for trips up to five days long. The components of each City Experience mini-program are geolocational and interactive. Users can access maps, image galleries, audio tours for the selected attractions in English and Mandarin, and content is updated on a frequent and regular basis. The eventual goal is for City Experience mini-programs to allow users to book and pay for the featured experiences directly in WeChat, helping independent travelers feel empowered to control and personalize their travels.

Skift Research spoke with representatives from Tourism Australia and Destination DC about their respective City Experiences, namely the Sydney City Experience and the Visit DC City Experience, for more insight into how they are using them and the strategies behind them.

Tourism Australia Regional Marketing Director, Fred Luan, described the Sydney City Experience as “an interactive pocket guidebook or an interactive map for travelers” in the city. Since the launch of the program late last year, around 20 attractions have been enlisted and are included in the program. When visitors scan QR codes at certain locations or tap locations on the map, Tourism Australia provides information, images, and Mandarin audio guides. The City Experience also provides itinerary suggestions for trips of different lengths. Tourism Australia is gearing up for a full consumer market launch of the City Experience in February or March 2018, when it plans to have the list of attractions expanded along with additional functionality for travelers. Visit DC also bases its City Experience on interactive maps of the city. The screenshots below show the maps of shopping, dining, and attractions.

Exhibit 8: The Visit DC City Experience mini-program is made up of interactive maps showing points of interest including shopping, dining, and attractions.

Source: Destination DC, Visit DC City Experience

 

As a WeChat initiative, WeChat itself covers the development costs and manages the City Experience mini-programs in collaboration with parent company Tencent. This includes advertising the mini-programs by displaying QR codes in locations such as airports, as well as providing Moments ads at no cost. The Moments ads, as mentioned previously, are typically very expensive.

WeChat selected Tourism Australia and Destination DC, which have been trailblazers among foreign companies on the platform, to pilot City Experiences along with a few other cities. Luan said WeChat’s marketing team came up with the idea for the program and approached Tourism Australia about it as a way to “tap right into the needs of FIT consumers in the market.” Elliott Ferguson of Destination DC said that WeChat saw the Visit DC City Experience as a mutually beneficial opportunity: “It was a win-win for both sides.” WeChat plans to expand the program to other cities soon.

As more Chinese travelers are traveling around the world without the assistance of a professional guide, mini-programs, like City Experiences, that function as interactive guides could be especially helpful for a variety of destinations. Destinations aren’t the only types of travel brands that could benefit from developing mini-programs. Whether they are destination guides or sales tools, mini-programs not only benefit consumers, but also help the operating organization. Peninsula Hotels’ program, for example, doubles as a customer relationship management platform. Customer data like location, gender, and product interests get linked to direct sales, providing a more complete picture of guests. Mini-programs that function as destination guides can also help destination marketing organizations track travelers’ locations, and can be used to drive traffic to less-visited places. Additionally, while mini-programs require specific app-development skills and resources to create, the cost is just about 20% of what a full, native app outside of WeChat would be to develop, according to China-based marketing agency the Tolmao Group.

Mini-programs in general, and City Experiences in particular, are very new to the WeChat platform and so it will take some time before we will be able to fully see their impact and usefulness. WeChat users are still figuring out what mini-programs are. China Tech Insights found that 33% of WeChat users had never heard of mini-programs, while another 47% have heard of them, but have never used them. Among those who had never used a mini-program, 58% reported not understanding their purpose. This is a clear indication that to get the most return from mini-programs, organizations must be very clear in their marketing about the programs’ value to the consumer.

Educating consumers about mini-programs in general will likely take some time, but travel brands that create their own can take steps to promote their mini-programs. Banff & Lake Louise Tourism’s Lukas Prochazka told Skift Research the board is focusing on spreading the word about the destination’s mini-program to the Chinese travel trade, in addition to running advertising targeting consumers. “I was at a trade show organized by Destination Canada called Showcase Canada Asia, where I had about 110 appointments with the Chinese travel trade and we also did training with about 120 travel agents in Shanghai,” Prochazka said. “During all these appointments and training, I was talking about and introducing the mini-app.” The hope is that once the Chinese travel trade is familiar with the mini-program, it can then spread the word to their customers who are planning to travel to this destination. To target consumers, the DMO also includes the mini-program’s QR code in all print and online marketing it generates in China.

 

Official Accounts
The next, and most common, way that travel brands can create a presence on WeChat is through the creation of an Official Account. As mentioned in our general overview of the platform, WeChat offers three main types of Official Accounts. Those accounts include subscription, service, and enterprise. Subscription and service accounts are consumer-facing and are most comparable to a business’ Facebook page that users can like and follow for updates and information. Enterprise accounts, on the other hand, are designed for internal use by a company. For the purposes of this report, subscription and service accounts will be discussed in-depth. When it comes to the type of account to select for your brand, there are many things to consider, as they each have benefits and drawbacks.

Subscription accounts are available for businesses, organizations, and individuals such as prominent bloggers and celebrities, and are typically best for content-based and information-oriented use, rather than customer service or sales. While both types of Official Accounts limit the number of posts that can be sent to followers, subscription accounts allow for daily broadcast messages, or posts, while service accounts are limited to one per week. A single post can include up to six individual pieces of content, including articles or videos, so subscription accounts have the ability to send a large volume of content to followers. This ability can be helpful in raising brand or destination awareness and for providing useful information to followers. In the travel industry, subscription accounts tend to be most common among national tourism organizations and destination marketing organizations, as these entities typically aim to raise awareness of their destinations among WeChat users by sharing a lot of engaging content. However, subscription accounts have drawbacks. For example, when it comes to the visibility of posted content, users do not receive any notifications about them in their main chat feed, where they are likely to be spending a lot of time while using the platform. Instead, users must open the Subscriptions folder to see updates from this account type.

 

Exhibit 9: To access subscription accounts, users must open their Subscription” folder (left), where they can then see all of the subscription accounts they follow and how many new posts each has (middle). They then need to select the account to see the posts (right).

Source: https://chozan.co/2017/01/11/wechat-official-account-type

 

While subscription accounts can be great from a content perspective, this content requires followers to take a few extra steps to view it. It is also important to consider that subscription accounts have very few advanced functionalities, especially any related to direct customer communication and booking. Service accounts can be customized with many advanced functionalities so that they can more closely resemble a website, but subscription accounts don’t offer this level of flexibility. This includes the ability to integrate WeChat Pay, so if offering mobile commerce via WeChat is a goal for your brand, subscription accounts are unlikely to be the right choice.

Service accounts, on the other hand, were designed for use by organizations that would like to provide a variety of customer-service-related functionalities through their WeChat accounts. In travel, these accounts are most common for hotels, airlines, and cruise lines. When service accounts are verified, businesses can include a WeChat store where users can complete transactions and bookings through the app, and pay with WeChat Pay. Service accounts also allow businesses to message customers directly with template or event-based messaging, which can include order confirmations and notifications or updates for things like flights. Most service accounts use the four broadcast messages they are allowed each month as a weekly newsletter with up to six pieces of content included. Although the number of posts is fewer than with subscription accounts, the posts’ content is more visible to followers, as it appears directly in the main chat feed and prompts a push notification.

 

Exhibit 10: When service account-holders make a post, users see a specific notification directly in their chat feed. In this example, the left screen shows that the Lancome service account has posted on the main chat feed, and the screen on the right shows the pieces of content included in the post.

Source: https://chozan.co/2017/01/11/wechat-official-account-type

 

WeChat marketing agencies and WeChat itself provide guidelines to help organizations select the account type that is best-suited to their needs and objectives. However, just because a travel brand falls into one of the categories mentioned above, it doesn’t mean that they must select the account type that is most common among its peers. For example, all of the destination marketing organizations that we spoke with are currently using subscription accounts, as is most common, except for Destination DC, which opted for a service account instead. Elliott Ferguson, Destination DC’s president & CEO, said that this was an intentional strategic choice by his team, because the service account provides more flexibility in its functionality and gives more prominence to posted content. After thinking it through, the organization decided that these features outweighed the drawback of less frequent postings that are allowed with service accounts.

 

Exhibit 11: Destination DC decided to use a WeChat service account rather than a subscription account due to the flexibility that this account type offers. This screenshot shows a section of the service account with information about attractions on the National Mall.

Source: Destination DC, WeChat Official Account

 

Destination DC’s decision may, in fact, be the beginning of a larger trend away from subscription accounts altogether. Mailman Group’s Andrew Collins and Humphrey Ho, the Managing Director for Los Angeles of China-based digital agency Hylink, both experts in WeChat marketing for travel brands, noted in separate conversations that their agencies are suggesting subscription accounts to clients less and less frequently. According to Collins, “We are not really pushing clients to launch a subscription account because it does have a lot more limitations than the service account. So yeah, I think it’d be fair to say that service accounts are the future for destinations on WeChat.” Ho echoed this sentiment saying, “We do not really execute subscription accounts anymore. Most of our clients have asked for service accounts or at least the exploration of them. So we actually are migrating most of our clients that are on subscription accounts to service accounts.” For Ho and his team at Hylink, the subscription accounts’ more frequent posting allowance is not really a benefit to brands, because other social media platforms in China already allow for frequent posts. He argues that it makes more sense to use these other platforms if an organization’s only goal is to push large amounts of content.

We are yet to see how widely these sentiments are shared and what impact, if any, they may have in the long term. For now, travel brands should continue to consider the ultimate objectives they hope to achieve with their account in order to select the most-appropriate account type.

With that being said, it is possible for a single organization to have multiple accounts, including accounts of both types. However, this should be done with discretion. If a business has multiple functions with different needs or goals, then this could be helpful, but it could also create confusion for users about which account they should follow. Some organizations, such as Los Angeles Tourism and Norwegian Cruise Line, take advantage of the ability to have multiple accounts to target different audiences more precisely, as we mentioned previously. IHG is another example. The hotel company has two WeChat corporate accounts. The service account that was described earlier targets consumers, media, and anyone interested in learning more about the hotel chain. The other account is for hotel owners, and provides them with information about new developments, corporate announcements, and other relevant information. In these examples, it is clear to WeChat users which account is the right one for them to follow.

Once a travel brand has decided on the type of Official Account that is best for it, there is an application and approval process that must be completed to officially join the platform in this capacity. This process further illustrates the importance of formulating a thorough WeChat strategy ahead of time, as the application process requires certain business documentation, and a detailed written proposal outlining the purpose and proposed usage of the Official Account. WeChat and a third-party auditor review the proposal before approval.

While WeChat used to require organizations to register for an Official Account with a Chinese business license, the company is gradually instituting a policy at the time of this writing which will likely require all businesses, foreign included, to have their accounts registered in their own name. Dragon Trail Interactive explained that the policy is not yet streamlined and may vary on a case-by-case basis. WeChat may require a commitment by the foreign organization applying to buy a certain amount of WeChat advertising in order to be approved for an account. A foreign organization can have a Chinese agency register for an Official Account on its behalf, but Hylink’s Humphrey Ho warned that WeChat may begin closing accounts that are not registered under a business’s own name.

For this reason, it is important that travel brands understand the current registration or application process, as it changes frequently and is not always clear. It is best to get in touch directly with WeChat in order to ensure that policies are understood correctly. As Ho explained, “It’s a challenge because WeChat policy changes every six months or so. Get back to me in July, and it will be different again.” This is one area where a partnership with an agency can help tremendously, as they often have strong relationships with WeChat and they should be up to date on the latest policies. This will make navigating the process easier and increase the chances of being approved for an Official Account.

Content and Campaign Strategy for Official Accounts

Content Themes
One of the most important considerations when it comes to content strategy, unsurprisingly, is the type of content and the themes the content covers. In general, the content that tends to result in the best levels of audience engagement meet one of two general criteria: It is visually appealing and it is useful or practical. Greg Eckhart of Travel Oregon said if content “is not one of those things, if we aren’t telling them what to do and how to save time from doing research on their own, then they typically won’t engage.” Beyond these broader criteria, there are certain themes that tend resonate highly with WeChat users.

When it comes to content that is beautiful to look at, one of the main themes that gains a lot of attention on WeChat is nature. This is an especially important theme for WeChat users who live in major Chinese cities. Banff & Lake Louise Tourism, for example, has found that “posts that highlight our beautiful scenery, unspoiled nature, clean air, the fact that we are a natural park and UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the idea of a mountain playground and that we have a pristine, protected environment,” tend to generate high engagement levels. Tourism Australia has found that content featuring images of the country’s “fluffy, cute animals” is typically received well, and Tahiti Tourisme has found success celebrating the islands’ beautiful scenery with images and information about its famous overwater bungalows. Hylink’s Humphrey Ho said WeChat users don’t want to see photos of city skylines. Rather, they are drawn to images of national parks and other attractions, where travelers can find nature, music, or food.

 

Exhibit 12: Destination Canada sees high levels of audience engagement with content that includes photos of wildlife and nature. The photos below were included in a post about reasons to visit Canada. The post received over 48,000 views, making it Destination Canada’s most-viewed post of 2017.

Source: Destination Canada, WeChat Official Account post

 

This leads us to the next content theme that tends to work for travel brands: food and dining. This theme is one that many kinds of travel brands can take of advantage of. Tourism Australia has found that food and wine content has a lot of reach on the platform, and Los Angeles Tourism’s William Karz noted that “food performs exceptionally well” for his team. From a different perspective, KLM has also noticed that food-related content is well-received for the airline. Director of Social Karlijn Vogel-Meijer said the carrier approaches this theme from an airline perspective, focusing on food in destinations, especially in its homebase of the Netherlands, where the airline encourages travelers to begin their European vacations.

The practicality of content posted on WeChat is important no matter what its topic is. In fact, content that focuses solely on providing useful information to travelers tends to be very well-received. Because WeChat posts allow for the inclusion of long-form content, the information covered can be in-depth. Mailman Group’s Andrew Collins said this makes it easy to include rich itineraries, which stand out as great content on the platform. This type of useful information is especially important to Chinese travelers who may be leaving China for the first time, are traveling to a certain type of destination for the first time, or are visiting without a guide for the first time. As BrandStory Asia’s Reene Ho-Phang described, WeChat content can help Chinese travelers “know what they should look out for in terms of safety, as well as what items they should bring.”

 

Exhibit 13: In a summer-vacation-themed post, Thai Airways included practical information, including advice about applying for a visa to visit the EU and beach safety tips.

Source: Thai Airways, WeChat Official Account post

 

Practical content like this can also help Chinese travelers gain the local or insider’s perspective on a destination. This is another theme that tends to generate meaningful interaction. By providing information about lesser-known parts of a destination, travelers can feel more confident expanding the horizons of their trips. Travel Oregon’s Greg Eckhart told us about a post that “generated a lot of activity,” which included information about a natural attraction, Thor’s Well, on the state’s Pacific coast. It’s a place most first-time visitors aren’t aware of. Eckhart said the post included “detailed information about the safety around that location, in terms of the best times to access it, and how to be careful when you’re accessing it to get that photo.”

 

Exhibit 14: The below screenshots show parts of a Tourism Australia post that gave information about more off-the-beaten-path destinations near Tasmania, where travelers can see the Southern Lights. Each location includes a striking photo or video, along with tips about how to reach the destination. This post received more than 26,000 views.

Source: Tourism Australia, WeChat Official Account post

 

BrandStory Asia’s Reene Ho-Phang told us about another way her team created content to help expand the horizons of Chinese travelers. The team created a WeChat game for Hawaii Tourism that educated users interactively about six of the islands of Hawaii to encourage exploration beyond the main island. The game, “Six Travel-Spirations,” let players hop from island to island where they discovered interesting activities: “For example, Molokai is the island where hula dance was started, which is something the target audience did not know at all,” Ho-Phang said. “In the game, you choose the island, and it will have a game where you maybe need to shake your smartphone to make a hula dancer start dancing. Then you go to the island of Hawaii, for example, and if you click on it, you see a helicopter and images of lava flows. So it’s very engaging.” WeChat users played the first version of the game over 30,000 times in two weeks. They not only learned about the Hawaiian Islands to inspire future travel, but the game also linked to a booking engine to let players book in the moment.

Within the broader theme of useful information, the more narrow topic of driving or transportation stands out. This includes practical information about getting around a destination, as well as actionable information about taking scenic drives. Travel Oregon and Los Angeles Tourism both noted that they have seen a trend of an increasing number of Chinese travelers who are interested in incorporating “self-driving” in their vacations, and they have produced content accordingly. Los Angeles cites this topic as “a key ingredient to the content” for its WeChat Official Account. In Travel Oregon’s effort to appeal to this trend, it formed partnerships with social media influencers, known in China as Key Opinion Leaders or KOLs, affiliated with Nissan and Alamo Rent a Car to spread information about self-driving vacations in Oregon to their large follower bases.

Teaming up with KOLs to spread content beyond a brand’s followers is a common WeChat strategy for brands in many industries, including travel. Fred Luan of Tourism Australia said these content partnerships benefit brands: “Key Opinion Leaders can easily have a fan base somewhere ranging from half a million to three million. … So we work with them, we take them to Australia, we feed them content so they can create their own content. When they do that, they will push the content through their own Official Accounts on WeChat, so all their followers can actually see this content, up to three million people can be exposed to this content.”

KOLs can range from niche influencers to major celebrities. BrandStory Asia, for example, partnered with drone enthusiasts and activists who are well-known in the Chinese drone community for an “Aloha Drone” program it developed for Hawaii Tourism. Tourism Australia, on the other hand, is working with famed Chinese actor Wu Xiubo to produce content about his visits to the country. Both approaches expand the contents’ reach beyond the accounts’ own followers, potentially introducing the destination to WeChat users for the first time, or inspiring a future visit. For travel brands looking to expand their WeChat follower bases while raising brand awareness, working with KOLs to produce relevant content can be a powerful strategy.

The types of content that have been discussed so far are ideal for providing WeChat users with travel inspiration, spreading brand or destination awareness, and equipping travelers with useful information that can be used on the ground. Travel brands that are looking to drive sales through WeChat should also consider featuring content related to promotions or discounts. This type of content is most often used by airlines, cruise lines, and hotel chains to drive sales and bookings. Yalding Xu, director of marketing for Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings China, told Skift Research that the company has “found that content with appealing incentives and content with a strong promotional offer typically perform well and drive interaction.” Karlijn Vogel-Meijer of KLM also cited this type of content as a well-performing theme for the airline.

When content like this meets the criteria of being either beautiful or useful (or both), the impact has the ability to quickly move beyond a brand’s followers who see the posts initially, even without the help of KOLs. When content resonates with a brand’s follower, the goal is that they will be inspired to share it with others. Peer-to-peer sharing is a key way that content spreads on WeChat, either through direct messages or sharing on the Moments feed. Travel brand spokespeople and WeChat tourism experts emphasized shareability throughout our conversations. Beyond providing intriguing, useful content with the hope that followers will share it, travel brands can create campaigns meant to encourage sharing content relevant to the brand. Tourism Australia, for example, encourages followers to post photos of their experiences in the country with the hashtag #MeInAustralia, spreading awareness of the destination beyond those who follow its Official Account.

IHG has also had success with these types of social campaigns. Billy Turchin, vice president of digital and voice for IHG in Greater China, told us about the campaign, “Unexpected Moments,” the hotel company ran in 2017. IHG loyalty program members who booked a room via direct channels were presented with a surprise — an unexpected moment at the hotel. IHG encouraged the hotels to share the moments on social media. Unexpected moments included things like a special dinner or room decorations. “Sharing this kind of content on WeChat was perfect because it was highly relevant to the loyalty program,” Turchin said. “It connected well with guests because people like surprise and delight, and certainly customers like to see brands doing this kind of activity and the types of experiences they can have when they stay with IHG, and it’s very social in nature. It’s the kind of thing you want to share with your friends. So that’s the kind of content that really lands perfectly in WeChat.”

When using this tactic, however, brands need to be careful because WeChat has strict regulations when it comes to explicitly asking for or incentivizing sharing. Official Accounts cannot offer rewards or giveaways as an incentive to share posts and they cannot “threaten or guilt” users into sharing posts, among other restrictions. Official Accounts can, however, ask and incentivize followers to share their own experiences in the comments section of a post, for example. So while creating content and campaigns that are shareable is important, they must simply inspire and encourage sharing and cannot ask for it outright, which Tourism Australia and IHG each achieved.

 

Content Timing & Frequency
When it comes to the content of WeChat posts, there is more to consider than just the individual themes that are covered. Another important consideration is when to post content and how often to post. While the themes discussed above tend to resonate well with the audience on WeChat, travel brands also need to consider distance and the typical booking window when selecting content and deciding when to post it. This is a point that Lukas Prochazka of Banff & Lake Louise Tourism emphasized to us. He said Facebook or Twitter updates on snow conditions or imminent events might encourage a last-minute trip to Banff for Americans or Canadians, but it is illogical to post this kind of time-sensitive content on WeChat, where the users are unlikely to make quick travel plans based on such news. For WeChat, he said, “If it’s something within the next couple of months, it doesn’t really matter. No one is going to book a last-minute flight to Canada just because we got 50 centimeters of snow. It’s more the timing that indicates relevance, whereas in Canada and the U.S. we can use things that are more upcoming and the window is shorter. In China, you need to think at least a couple months ahead.”

Brands on WeChat should also consider how often to post content. Although WeChat limits the amount of posting by Official Accounts, brand strategies still vary when it comes to post frequency. Skift Research analyzed more than 15,000 WeChat posts by 153 travel organizations based outside of Mainland China over the course of 2017, using data provided to us from Dragon Trail Interactive, to extract how the frequency of posting is related to the amount of engagement the posts receive. While this data only includes airlines, cruise lines, destination marketing organizations (DMOs), and national tourism organizations (NTOs), it shows some clear trends that indicate how posting frequency can optimize engagement.

Overall, our findings show that WeChat can drive a substantial amount of engagement to a brand. Top travel brands on WeChat received over a million views of their posts in 2017. But we also found that the greatest engagement went to organizations that are most active on the platform in terms of the number of posts per week. Our research shows that organizations that wish to get the most out of their WeChat investment should commit to posting at least three times per week. This is because user engagement does not appear to increase linearly alongside post frequency, but rather, viewership jumps up dramatically once brands cross a certain threshold of activity. Brands that post to their WeChat accounts less than three times per week receive 2,200 views per post on average, but those that cross the three-times-a-week threshold see their viewership per post nearly double to 4,300 views on average. A higher posting frequency compounds on top of the higher viewership per post and the net result is that brands posting more than three times a week have six times greater reach in terms of engagement than those that do not.

 

Exhibit 15: Travel brands that post to their WeChat Official Accounts more than three times per week see nearly double the viewership of posts than those that post fewer than three times per week.

Source: Skift Research + Dragon Trail Interactive

 

Why do three or more posts per week seem to be the magic number? It’s not so much the number three itself, but rather it’s the threshold you have to hit to be in the top one-fifth of travel accounts on the WeChat platform. In other words, 80 percent of travel organizations posted less than three times a week. To really drive this point home we looked at all 153 accounts in our dataset, ranked them by post frequency, and then split them evenly into five groups. So the first group is made up of the top 20 percent most active travel accounts on WeChat that are tracked by Dragon Trail, the second group the next 20 percent, and so on, through to group five, which is the bottom 20 percent. One of the more surprising findings from this analysis was that the top 20 percent of posters receive a disproportionate 60 percent of all post views.

 

Exhibit 16: The top 20 percent most active travel brand Official Accounts on WeChat included in our analysis receive 60% of the total number of views on posts.

Source: Skift Research + Dragon Trail Interactive

 

From our analysis, we found that being in the top 20 percent of posters appears to be one of the most important factors in driving views, and it’s even more important than the actual number of posts per week. As long as an Official Account is in the top 20 percent by posting frequency, a travel brand that posts four times a week may receive as many views per post as one that creates seven or more pieces of content. The big drop-off seems to be with Official Account that post fewer than three times a week, as we noted earlier. As WeChat grows in importance, the threshold to be a top account may naturally rise, but we expect that this top-20 percent rule will continue to hold.

 

Exhibit 17: As long as travel brands post content at least three times per week, they should expect high engagement in terms of the number of views.

Source: Skift Research + Dragon Trail Interactive

 

It’s ironic that the vast majority of travel brands on WeChat post fewer than three times a week because many of the same organizations post much more frequently on western social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter. This would seem to show that despite the importance of WeChat to the Chinese consumer, many organizations have been reluctant to fully commit to the platform. Perhaps issues we discussed earlier in the report, like a lack of native Chinese speakers, the need to create different content from what is typically posted on Facebook, or confusion about Official Accounts’ limits on posting frequency are creating hurdles to adoption. Whatever the reason, this creates an opportunity for organizations to promote their services on WeChat. At present, the threshold to be a top travel brand on WeChat is still relatively low and top accounts can regularly reach one million or more eyeballs over the course of a year.

We took this analysis in a different direction by breaking the data set by organization type to assess whether any trends existed in posting frequency versus views by sector. None of the 11 cruise lines’ Official Accounts posted fewer than one time per week, and they received a median 2,212 views. Airlines saw the second highest level of engagement, with 81% of those Official Accounts posting more than one time per week. DMOs, on the other hand, have the most room to improve at the median level. Although NTOs and DMOs have a similar organizational purpose (with NTOs promoting tourism at a national level, and DMOs promoting at a state, city, town, or regional level) and similar percentages of Official Accounts that post fewer than once per week, NTOs receive close to three times the post views that DMOs receive on average. Perhaps a focus on Chinese inbounds is a greater priority at the national level, or maybe there is a disparity in resource availability between these organization types that results in this difference. Regardless, this finding further emphasizes that all organizations, not just DMOs, need to approach their WeChat involvement realizing that Chinese user engagement will not come automatically with a new account. They need to be prepared to make a commitment to this form of social media to see a pay off.

 

Exhibit 18: The organization types that are more likely to post more than once per week tend to see higher engagement in terms of views per post. However, a disparity is apparent between DMOs and NTOs.

Source: Skift Research + Dragon Trail Interactive

 

Taking cues from this type of analysis and learning from travel brands’ WeChat strategies can be extremely valuable to brands that are just starting out on the platform. What becomes clear, though, is that even if there are trends and commonly agreed upon or suggested guidelines for creating a strategy on the platform, it is equally apparent that brands also take liberties and discover things on their own, or with the help of external partners, regarding what works best for them to achieve their individual objectives. Throughout our conversations with WeChat experts, they reiterated that the foundation of a brand’s WeChat content should be relevancy to the brand and its audience. KLM’s Karlijn Vogel-Meijer reinforced this concept very well when she noted the importance of “staying very close to what you are” with a brand’s content. When KLM posts content about food and attractions in its destinations, for example, it is important that this is done through the point of view of an airline, which is different than how a destination marketing organization would approach its content. “We are an airline,” she said, “and that is why people follow us.” Truly understanding your brand and what you want to tell your audience from that perspective is crucial. Reene Ho-Phang of BrandStory Asia also emphasized this point when she said, “It’s a long-term strategy to first have a very good story, or blueprint, of what you want to tell …. The content must reflect the character and style of the brand.” For this reason, a brand might have to do some internal soul searching as a way to craft a WeChat strategy that resonates with an audience for the right reasons.

Measuring Success On WeChat

Throughout this report, we have mentioned things like “engagement” and “audience interaction.” This section will discuss some of the ways brands can glean the value of their WeChat efforts, which will be illustrated further by Dragon Trail Interactive’s WeChat data. There are different ways to measure the success of a WeChat account.

Quantitative metrics are perhaps the most obvious way to measure success on WeChat. However, companies can also measure success qualitatively. “On the qualitative side, it’s about the accuracy of the content, the ability for the content to service the target audience, the appropriate positioning of the travel brand on WeChat,” among other considerations, Reene Ho-Phang said. Quantitative measurements, on the other hand, are a more concrete and objective way to chart engagement, especially over time. Dragon Trail Interactive tracks quantitative metrics, including the number of posts per week, total views of all posts per week, the average views per post, the number of views on the most popular post, and the total number of likes on posts per week. Dragon Trail provided Skift Research with its weekly data for 2017 of travel brands based outside of Mainland China, including NTOs, DMOs, airlines, and cruise lines. Based on a blend of these metrics, Skift Research ranked the top 20 of these travel brands on WeChat last year. We found that Air Asia, Destination Canada, Royal Caribbean, and Tourism Australia are among the most successful WeChat participants of the 153 that were analyzed.

 

Exhibit 19: This table shows the top 20 travel brand WeChat Official Accounts tracked by Dragon Trail Interactive for 2017, as ranked by Skift Research based on a blend of engagement metrics.

Source: Skift Research + Dragon Trail Interactive

 

While all of these metrics can provide insight into the performance of a WeChat account, some tend to be especially meaningful, according to the WeChat agency experts we spoke with. Both Humphrey Ho of Hylink and Andrew Collins of Mailman Group cite the number of post views, or reads, as the most valuable metric. “The first metric anyone would look at is reads, what is the number of reads and second to that, what is the percentage of your following that is reading this article?” Collins said. Shares can also be a valuable metric to track, especially for brands that are interested in measuring how brand awareness is spreading or finding out which content followers find the most worthy to share. Conversion rate is also a metric that is useful for brands aiming to sell or drive bookings through the platform. More specifically, Ho said his HyLink team is highly interested in click-through-rates for posts that link to other Official Accounts or external sites like booking engines. Using these rates, bookings can be attributed to the post itself. This allows brands to “actually derive dollars sold via content.”

There are some metrics that do not stand out as being particularly useful to measure travel brands’ success on WeChat. Those are the number of likes on a post and the number of followers an Official Account has. Likes on a post are indeed a form of audience interaction, and there is something to be said for posts that garner a lot of likes. However, as Andrew Collins points out, “likes on posts are really low actually on WeChat,” especially when looked at in comparison to the overall number of followers or views of a piece of content. The data provided by Dragon Trail further illustrate this point. Through Skift Research’s own analysis, we found that while travel brands typically see more than 6,000 views on posted content per week, only 33 of the viewers, on average, end up liking the content.

 

Exhibit 20: In an average week, travel brand Official Accounts see more than 6,000 views on posted content, but only 33 likes on the same content.


Source: Skift Research + Dragon Trail Interactive

 

The number of account followers is another metric that is not always the most significant sign of success for travel brands, especially those that target a specific audience. Undoubtedly, garnering a substantial follower base is important for building brand or destination awareness. It can be difficult, however, to build up a huge follower base on WeChat. In addition to the limited availability and expense of advertising in the Moments feed to attract new followers, travel brands also must deal with the closed nature of WeChat. Users must opt in to see a brand’s content, first by following the brand’s Official Account, and then by viewing and engaging with the content. “It’s a real push strategy and WeChat is really encouraging you to spend money to drive follower growth to your account,” Collins said. These factors, combined with WeChat’s strict regulations when it comes to classic social media tactics to gain many fans in a short time, make it is especially difficult for brands to accumulate the types of huge follower bases they may see on other platforms.

It is more important for many travel brands to produce content that elicits meaningful engagement with existing followers. This is especially true for brands that are targeting a select group of consumers. Fred Luan of Tourism Australia, for example, explained that he is “not a strong chaser of just having a big fan base because if we look at our research, with 1.3 billion people in China, we are actually going after the high value travelers, which is not a big number.” Tahiti Tourisme echoes this mindset, as the destination’s target audience is “made up of only 3% of customers at the very top of the customer pyramid.” For organizations like these, other engagement metrics would take precedence as signs of success. Travel Oregon’s Greg Eckhart said it is often more fruitful “looking at it from the perspective of content being high quality as opposed to attracting as many fans as you can. Obviously, numbers speak, but providing useful content gets around and it travels. News travels fast when someone can find a resource that provides that useful content.”

WeChat Strategic Partnerships

Clearly, joining WeChat requires a great deal of education and strategic consideration even beyond what we have discussed so far. The challenges travel brands might encounter on the way are numerous, but over time and with experimentation, understanding how to gain value from the channel will become easier. Brands do not have to figure everything out on their own, however. Throughout our conversations with travel brands, entering into external partnerships to develop and execute a WeChat strategy emerged as a common thread. Whether a brand’s biggest challenge is the language and culture barrier or growing its initial following, China-based agencies specializing in WeChat can provide crucial assistance in creating a solid strategy for the platform. Agencies based in China, like the three that we spoke with for this project, provide clients with the expertise needed to build strategies, while also providing advantages such as branding networks, strong relationships with WeChat and Tencent, and up-to-date knowledge of platform policies and the account registration process. Other agencies offer similar services, as well.

Working with such an agency is especially beneficial to smaller organizations without their own presence in China or without Chinese speakers in-house. As Lukas Prochazka of Banff & Lake Louise Tourism explained, “we don’t have anyone in-house who speaks Chinese, so it is very difficult to control the content and exactly how it is translated, so you really have to have a good relationship with a reliable partner in the agency you work with.” Producing accurate content in Chinese will prove to be a challenge for brands without Chinese speakers in-house because virtually the entire platform is in Chinese. Having agency partnerships in China also means that user inquiries that come into Official Accounts can be dealt with expeditiously for brands based in other timezones, helping to provide better service and leading to stronger follower relationships.

The network an agency provides can also be key to expanding a travel brand’s capabilities to increase its audience and overall reach. Agencies typically have relationships with key opinion leaders, the major market players in the country’s travel industry like online travel agencies, and other content partners that can help expose a brand’s content to an entirely new audience. “In the Chinese digital world you can’t be standing on your own, lonely, and on the shelf,” said Ho-Phang. “You have to have a strong network in order to operate. If you don’t have the right network, your effort is very organic and it will be a very slow operation.” Hylink’s Humphrey Ho also said large agencies have buying leverage when it comes to purchasing the limited Moments advertising space because they are buying for many clients at the same time. This makes is it more likely that WeChat will offer the space to clients of such an agency.

The decision to work with an agency should be made based on an organization’s internal ability to handle the creation and day-to-day operations of a WeChat account. “If they’ve got their own team who are experienced marketers and who have good relationships with Tencent and all the other various parts that make a successful marketing program, they should definitely do it themselves, but in the absence of that—which is like most destinations—then they really have no other option but to use an agency if they wish to engage on WeChat,” said Mailman Group’s Andrew Collins.

Is WeChat Worth It for Travel Brands?

When Skift Research asked the travel brand representatives we spoke with whether other organizations in the travel industry should consider joining the platform to reach Chinese travelers, we were met with a resounding “yes.” Here is a sampling of some responses:

Lukas Prochazka, Banff & Lake Louise Tourism: “If they are serious about the Chinese market, it is definitely a must.”

William Karz, Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board: “Oh man, everyone should be on WeChat. I think it’s one of the greatest platforms there is.”

Fred Luan, Tourism Australia: “If you’re talking about … in the modern day advertising strategy or marketing strategy in China, WeChat is definitely a platform that you cannot miss, regardless of the type of brand that you’re working on, and travel is a category that is so socially important.”

Karlijn Vogel-Meijer, KLM: “If you want to be active in China, then you have to be active on WeChat, yes. … The times where you used to push people to your own environment are over. Customers nowadays want to be able to do things on the platform of their choice, and if you talk about China, you have to be on WeChat. There is no other platform as strong as WeChat.”

Billy Turchin, IHG: “I would certainly think that if you’re a travel brand that is relevant to China and you’re trying to reach Chinese customers, even if you’re operating outside of China but looking at Chinese customers coming to a different locations—which of course is just about every travel brand—then I would say that WeChat is no longer a nice to have, it’s truly a necessary place and your brand needs to be present.”

While everyone agreed that using WeChat is a great way to reach Chinese consumers, sometimes the limiting factor may be the resources a brand can dedicate to the platform. Greg Eckhart of Travel Oregon said a brand should pursue a WeChat strategy “if that brand can really dedicated some resources to a localized team.” And Natalie Tang of Tahiti Tourisme cautioned that “it takes time to cultivate brand loyalty through WeChat, and a brand’s budget must be considered.”

Andrew Collins of the Mailman Group addressed some considerations for smaller destinations:

“You get these really small destinations, like for example New Jersey. Should New Jersey have an official WeChat footprint? Short answer, no. Not every destination needs to have an official WeChat footprint … because the question is, is it going to offer any significant lift in visitation? I would say no. Now, that’s because New Jersey is not the hub point to that travel destination. If someone is going to New Jersey, they’ve got other things going on in their agenda. If it is for a key tier one destination, then yes, absolutely you need an official WeChat channel.”

Unquestionably, having a presence on WeChat can provide travel brands with an opportunity to appeal to a large segment of high-spending Chinese outbound travelers. As Reene Ho-Phang of BrandStory Asia said, “You will always have very limited resources running after a huge market. To sharpen your strategy, going after WeChat marketing is a cost-effective strategy.” At the same time, the investments of time and money that will likely be needed in order to potentially see returns from the platform might not be realistic for all travel brands. With proper planning, beneficial partnerships, and a thoughtful and relevant strategy however, travel brands have much to gain from WeChat.

Endnotes and Further Reading

  1. Bloomberg, “Tencent’s Profit Is Better Than Expected.” November 2017
  2. China Tech Insights, “2017 WeChat User & Business Ecosystem Report.” April 2017
  3. Chozan, “Which WeChat Official Account Suits You Best?” January 2017
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