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Social media in the workplace has not been terribly successful.
Most professionals in Western countries have LinkedIn accounts, but for many it has become more of a job-hunting service than a work-based social network. And no other platform has even gotten close.
Facebook aims to change this with its new service, Workplace by Facebook, which launched in October 2016. The new social network aims to provide companies with a way for its staff to collaborate and form tighter social ties with fellow employees. To see where this all might be headed, it's worthwhile to have a look at what is happening in China. The ultra-popular Chinese messaging platform, WeChat, has become as much of workplace tool as a social network to many in the country.
One section of an April 2017 report by the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology (CAICT) focused on how important WeChat has become in the enterprise and how Chinese office workers are using it.
For the report, CAICT surveyed more than 1,000 WeChat users and 9,000 business account managers using WeChat's integrated survey tool (Penguin Intelligence) in March 2017.
Here are a few of the findings which offer insights into the future of messaging and the workplace.
1) WeChat is massive in China
For those unfamiliar with the platform, simple usage stats will give you some idea of the scale of the platform. WeChat has 890m monthly active users as of Q4 2016, 28% more than it had Q4 2015. This means that WeChat will likely hit a billion monthly active users at some point this year.
While it's unknown how many of those users are outside of China (as there are only an estimated 731m Chinese internet users) it is likely that nearly everyone on the internet in China is on WeChat.
2) New WeChat contacts are largely work-related
While the percentage of WeChat users with over 200 contacts (43%) has never been higher, interestingly it seems that people are adding fewer people every month.
Of those that are being added, though, more than half (57%) say that their new contacts are mostly work-related.
For those at management level the percentage is even higher (74%) indicating that WeChat-at-work is a phenomenon that is affecting all levels of the enterprise.
3) Almost all WeChat users use it for work
When asked about which work-related actions users had accomplished through WeChat, fewer than 20% of WeChat users said that they don't work on WeChat at all. Additionally, more than half (58%) said that they use the platform daily for work-related communications.
This figure is backed up, anecdotally, by the FT which reported last year that "at almost every Chinese workplace, WeChat has become the primary means of communication."
4) More people use WeChat for daily work than email, phones, or any other messaging service
Probably the most surprising finding is that WeChat is more commonly used as a 'major communication tool' than telephone, SMS, or email.
Nearly 90% of respondents use WeChat for daily work, demonstrating that the platform has now reached a tipping point and will likely remain dominant.
To capitalize on that trend, WeChat launched a 'Slack-like' Enterprise WeChat recently, though there is some skepticism that the platform will be successful – or that it is even necessary.
Marketers should still take note of the ubiquity of WeChat at work as reaching a desirable office worker consumer base requires having a presence on WeChat. For more on how to use WeChat for marketing, please refer to Econsultancy's China Digital Report.
5) Enterprise users use WeChat to coordinate tasks and send out notifications
So how exactly do people work on WeChat? As nearly everyone is on the platform, WeChat is used largely to coordinate tasks and send out notifications, similar to how office workers worldwide use WhatsApp.
Interestingly, though, a significant number also use WeChat for transactions (38%) and transferring files (33%) which indicate that the next stage for messaging apps is to become part of the daily workflow, in direct competition with email and websites.
6) Business owners use WeChat for making transactions
For individual proprietors, conducting transactions on the platform has become even more important. Half of all small business owners surveyed use WeChat for commerce, more than even use it for coordination or notifications.
This is one example of how WeChat differs from its Western counterparts. Facebook only launched payments via messenger in April 2016 and a payments feature was only added to chatbots in September. While Facebook is arguably launching into a larger base, it has a lot of catching up to do in this area.
7) Many join large groups for corporate internal communications
Another interesting new behaviour is that office workers join large (100+) chat groups in order to keep up on corporate internal communications.
While in the West company announcements are made via email, in China it seems 40% of respondents report that companies and large teams use WeChat for large scale notifications.
Also interesting to note is that over one in three (34%) use WeChat as a way to network professionally, which may explain LinkedIn's struggle to match its success elsewhere.
8) Most Chinese office workers find WeChat 'helpful'
Finally, respondents were asked to comment on whether they found WeChat helpful for work. Interestingly, only around one in four (24%) indicated that it was a place to get 'high quality information' and only slightly more (35%) said that it was good way of managing office work from their mobile.
But more than four in five (81%) said that WeChat 'offers a useful communication tool' for work, meaning that nearly all of the 90% who use WeChat regularly for work find value in the platform.
This is another indicator of the strength that WeChat has in Chinese companies and, perhaps, is the most telling sign that we should expect the same in the West in the future.
While China lagged the West in online services for many years, it now appears that they are the leading in many areas. With nearly the whole country on a single platform with integrated payments, China is now pulling ahead by adopting new online behaviours that, until recently, were not even possible in the West.
This was initially apparent in how consumers were using the internet, but it is now true in the enterprise as well.
And though it's not likely that Western companies will follow China exactly, marketers should be aware that messaging apps have the potential to displace the communication mediums which may seem to be with us permanently – namely the telephone, email, and even the web.