This article was published in MuseumNext
With well over a billion users, WeChat is an app that you may never have heard of. This is because by far the majority of its monthly subscribers are Chinese although it is certainly popular in many other locations around the world, too.
Given its popularity you may wonder what sort of opportunity this platform affords. For museums WeChat is a chance to promote and to explain what they are all about to a huge audience.
In other words, it has the potential to be one of the most powerful marketing tools that museums, galleries – and many global businesses – are now looking to exploit.
However, before we look into the specifics that will be of interest to professionals in the museum sector, it is probably best to define exactly what WeChat is – something that is easier said than done.
What on Earth Is WeChat?
As mentioned, WeChat is an app designed for smartphones and tablets. In this regard, it is nothing extraordinary. However, to western audiences especially, WeChat is something out of the ordinary.
Essentially, this is because it is a combination of a messaging system, like WhatsApp, as well as being an in-depth social media platform, such as Facebook.
In fact, many technology sites will refer to WeChat as the Chinese version of Facebook and WhatsApp rolled into one but this is to do it a disservice because it is so much more besides.
WeChat is a super app that has the ability to connect with and act as an umbrella app for at least 85,000 other apps. In this, the app seems more like an operating system than a front-end piece of software. For some users, it is the only app they ever use because any other program they utilise is seen through the medium of WeChat.
Yes, WeChat is a messaging instant messaging service and an email service but it also allows users to share information about what they have been doing publicly, more like a Facebook page, for example. There again, it also operates like Flickr or Tumblr where visual self-expression is the order of the day.
Thousands of photos are shared on WeChat every day which means it also inhabits the same sort of online territory that Instagram does in the west.
Launched in 2011, WeChat has built on its initial success with social media profiles and added to its core services. These days, its so-called ‘Moments’ service allows users to share music, to like articles posted on the web and post images. Crucially, Moments carries advertising with it but WeChat limits exposure to a modest two adverts per user per day.
In 2015, WeChat launched its ‘City Services’ function. Initially rolled out in China only, this service allowed people to engage with a huge number of external services via their smart devices, such as booking an appointment with a local doctor or even the ability to settle their utility bills.
Like Apple’s Pay service, WeChat can also be used to transfer credit from a smart device to a payment terminal.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that some of the latest functions added to WeChat include the ability to make voice calls through it, making use of Wi-Fi signals rather than conventional GSM ones that mobile telephones usually use.
It now has its own news feed service and is working towards an augmented reality platform which will place WeChat at the forefront of this emerging technology. In short, WeChat has many irons in the fire and has more to come.
WeChat and Its Marketing Potential
For museums WeChat’s potential cannot be underestimated. Yes, it is primarily aimed at Mandarin speakers and most of it is set up in that language. Nevertheless, WeChat also launched an English version in 2015 which may not have all of the functionality of the Chinese one but which, nevertheless, is growing steadily in terms of monthly users.
That said, marketing professionals – whether they work in the museum sector or not – primarily harness WeChat to reach a Chinese audience. Of course, nearly all of the subscribers WeChat has are located in the People’s Republic. Nevertheless, a sizeable minority reside elsewhere in the world.
Currently, WeChat can boast 1.09 billion users. That is a truly astonishing figure so the outreach potential is unlike any other platform. However, marketing professionals should note that in the region of 70 million of this vast number of subscribers are people who live outside of China’s borders, many of the Mandarin speakers. As well as the English language version, WeChat offers services in around 20 or so other languages, an obvious attempt to grow its number of users even more.
As such, if museums think that their use of social media marketing only needs to extend to a Facebook page and a few tweets per month, then they are surely missing out on one of the largest potential markets in the world in the form of WeChat.
How to Market a Museum on WeChat
WeChat provides three different methods for marketing professionals to make use of. Firstly, you can go for a subscription account which would not be dissimilar from maintaining a Facebook page. It allows subscribers to find your museum account and to like or follow you.
With an entry-level subscription account, you can reach all of your subscribers with a straightforward marketing message, such as announcing the launch of a temporary exhibition, for example.
That said, this model allows you to make such a ‘broadcast’ message only once per day. It is the best way to dip your toe in the water of what WeChat can offer museum marketing teams and to learn about its potential.
Secondly, WeChat allows for so-called service accounts. With this service, you are able to send more messages to your followers. In addition, you are able to set up some commercial services, such as the ability to sell tickets, for example.
The third model, enterprise accounts, is reserved for Chinese businesses only but the time may come when this is also made available in the west.
Whichever service you opt for, WeChat offers an automated customer service response system that you can take advantage of. This means that if someone reaches out to your museum with a question or a query via WeChat that their response will be generated by WeChat itself.
For example, if someone wanted to ask about opening hours, then WeChat could provide the answer without you having to devote any human resources to translating or responding yourself. Obviously, WeChat charges for this service.
Advertising on WeChat
Just like any organisation which wants to promote itself to a Chinese audience, museums and galleries can use straightforward advertising campaigns to raise awareness on WeChat.
For some museums WeChat’s advertising platform may be all they require to increase knowledge about their establishment and thereby augment visitor numbers from Chinese tourists.
To advertise on WeChat, you have to have one of the aforementioned accounts. In order for western museums to advertise on WeChat, an approved agent in China will need to manage the campaign for you – this is a one-party state we are talking about, after all.
That said, it is relatively easy to start a banner advertising campaign or to see sponsored articles published on various WeChat pages that will hone in on your preferred demographic target group.
This could be WeChat users that are within a certain age range, for example, but you could equally have your ads and content targeted on WeChat subscribers who have an interest in the arts, history or western culture.
Some Museum Case Studies That Demonstrate the Power of WeChat
So far, we have looked at the marketing potential of WeChat for museums but the question that many in the museum sector will be asking themselves is whether or not it is really worth the effort of investing in the platform. To some extent this will depend on whether the museum is already attracting Chinese visitors.
However several museums are finding success with WeChat.
The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam was one of the first European museums to explore the possibilities of WeChat. The museum benefited from a Chinese staff member who was put in charge of setting up the establishment’s WeChat account, something that contributed to a significant rise in the number of Chinese visitors over the course of the 24 months that followed.
The Rijksmuseum ended up developing its own free app which included a Mandarin version as a result. This was designed to assist Chinese people to plan their trip to the museum as well as get more out of it when they were there.
The strategy may have begun with WeChat, but it ended up with a full blown Mandarin audio tour to Chinese visitors to take advantage of once they arrived at the museum.
The Museum of Modern Art in New York has enjoyed a great level of recognition among Chinese tourists for years. In 2016, it was listed as one of the most popular places to visit in the city by the Chinese travel website Mafengwo, for example.
To boost its brand even further, MoMA now makes extensive use of its WeChat account, as well as and Weibo, the popular Chinese blogging site. Typically, the gallery shares videos about its collection plus behind-the-scenes content that could be followed with few, if any, language barriers.
The marketing team at MoMA frequently posts interactive content, too, and will think of special campaigns that coincide with Chinese holidays, such as Golden Week and Chinese New Year, for example.
The strategy has proved to be so successful, with MoMA picking up hundreds of thousands of online followers, that its sister museum, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, is following exactly the same approach with its Chinese-focussed marketing activities.
In Australia, a popular tourist destination for many Chinese overseas travellers, the country is often billed as a place of natural wonder rather than one for a genuinely cultural experience. A number of museums in the country are starting to alter perceptions, however, principally by harnessing WeChat to market themselves.
A good case in point is the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. Here, the powers that be decided to really go for it with their WeChat strategy.
The NGV decided to focus its attention on younger travellers, the tech-savvy generation who might be tempted to spend time on their own in the museum rather than the older, organised group trip type of visitor. The public relations strategy paid off because the NGV found that visitor numbers from both demographic groups rose.
Clearly, the campaign was as successful with independent travellers as it was with those people organising tours in China for Chinese people!
As a result of their WeChat marketing activities, the NGV has risen to become one of the most-visited museums in the world in terms of Chinese attendees.
Only the British Museum in London and the Louvre in Paris have a similar number of views and likes on WeChat. With every passing temporary exhibition at the NGV, such as the hugely popular Vincent Van Gogh one in 2017, visitor numbers from China grow.
This is due, in part, to the specific marketing the NGV does on WeChat to promote these shows but also down to the increased brand awareness that comes from regular posting.
China has a huge population which is increasingly enjoying foreign travel and is, therefore, a huge market for western museums to tap into even before you consider the Mandarin-speaking diaspora in the west. Few platforms offer the level of outreach to Chinese people that WeChat does.
Used judiciously, it can raise awareness, build interest and contribute to visitor numbers, especially when locally held content, such as certain pages on your own website, are available in Mandarin and are linked to from WeChat posts.
Few other apps offer such potential to the museum sector today.