First Published on 27th July, 2017
Ai Editorial: Many foreign companies, including travel technology entities, are looking at WeChat to serve Chinese travellers. There are 4 key areas they need to look at for the same – business licence, developer account set up and verification, payment issues and data privacy regulations, writes Ai’s Ritesh Gupta
“By integrating with WeChat, a technology company is just one step away from gaining access to a massive chunk of users in China.”
This remark from Maximilian Waldmann CEO of Berlin-based, conichi, aptly summarizes how important it is for airlines, hotels and other companies to capitalize on Tencent’s WeChat platform to serve users of this app. As per the first quarter results of the company, WeChat had 938 million monthly active users.
Before delving into what sort of effort is needed to integrate with WeChat, it must be underlined that being a part of this ecosystem, WeChat isn’t just about messaging. In addition to the communication layer for person to person, there is also a social layer, a media layer and also a connectivity layer (a rich set of API’s connects people to organizations, hardware to software, etc.).
As it turns out, travel companies are diligently finding ways to make the most of connectivity layer and be a part of this robust ecosystem. The user interface has emerged as a vital tool for service and support, whether human-powered, bot-powered or a combination of the two. For instance, in case of conichi, the company is working with hotels to either use a hotel’s app or WeChat to greet guests when they arrive at the hotel, and also focus on hyper local marketing, and GPS geo-fencing. This seems like a pragmatic move, as any message or visual that can add value to a guest/ passenger’s journey or even let them complete a transaction makes for a meaningful interaction with a traveller. And going by the popularity of WeChat, this platform can’t be ignored.
There are interesting developments on the anvil as far as WeChat is concerned.
Barcelona-based Inaki Uriz, co-founder and CEO at Caravelo says if an airline believes they can serve Chinese travellers just by translating or featuring a chatbot on Facebook platform, rather than the WeChat domain, then the effort wouldn’t be too fruitful. Uriz, whose team is working on a chatbot for WeChat for an airline in Europe, says it is important to move from being Chinese compatible to a Chinese friendly interface. “So this (developing a chatbot for WeChat) would mean analyzing what’s so popular about the interface, the use of buttons, the functionality of the entire platform, it is about being an integral part of the customer’s lifestyle etc. Mere translation won’t work,” highlighted Uriz.
But integrating with WeChat is challenging or at least demands preparation on several fronts.
According to Beijing-based experienced Chinese entrepreneur George Cao, Co-founder/ CEO, Dragon Trail Interactive, there are 4 areas where one needs to focus on:
1. Business licence: “There are a few restrictions on the platform. They are primarily related to meeting the requirements stipulated by the government. Any organization that intends to introduce any offering on WeChat or even as simple as opening an account on WeChat, it is must to possess a local licence. You can’t do it as a foreign company. So there are two ways to do the same – register a subsidiary in China and use that business licence to do business with Tencent. Or work with a local company, and use their credentials,” says Cao. This aspect can be time-consuming for any entity trying to leverage digital platforms, including WeChat, in China.
2. Integration/ Verification: Post account creation or for integration, an organization needs to register as a developer. When this entity develops a “Mini-Program” (an initiative taken to deepen the services offering in low-frequency use cases, connect more offline services to online users and offer a way to sample functionalities offered by apps) or leverage the WeChat API, one has to go through the verification process (cross checking of licence). So in addition to setting up an account for publishing content and building dynamic services that run within WeChat, how challenging is it for hardware developers to enable their devices to send and receive information between their products and the user’s WeChat mobile app? How can a travel app let users of WeChat to share your app’s content to friends via chats and their Moments feed, as well as add your content to their “Favorites”?
“Working on a conversational interface or message-based user interface isn’t challenging, its already happening here. These preferred platforms (where users are spending their time and are being offered functionalities such as search, voice messaging etc.) can help in engaging with a potential travel buyer and rather than sending them to a website and eventually them abandoning their purchase, companies can facilitate bookings here,” said Cao. “Like Facebook Messenger API, WeChat API’s can be worked upon for an offering. Companies can build HTML5 –based used interface that are embedded within WeChat. All these are possible and technically not a huge endeavour if one passes through the regulatory requirements.”
Cao also recommends that brands should look at multiple layers of WeChat. “So, for instance, during a conversation with users, companies can send a link to complete a booking. Or one can leverage the content publishing platform – send users information that is already prepared, related to products, or aid the decision-making of users. If you just focus on messaging via chat, and not push contextual content that matches the intent of the users, then you are missing out on opportunities,” asserted Cao.
3. Payments: As for WeChat Pay, options include scaning a one-time transaction code displayed on the user’s phone, scanning a QR code that users scan using WeChat to complete payment, and letting users pay via WeChat Pay within a mobile app, the last one being only available in Mainland China. As for cross-border settlement, users can pay in Chinese Yuan but have the transaction settled in a foreign currency when remitted to the vendor. “Receiving payments from China is more flexible now for foreign companies, as long as there is a local bank in a market or that country that can work with Tencent (money transfer being worked out). So Chinese customers pay in their currency, and the beneficiary can receive payment in a specific country in local currency. In case, a developer is keen on building payment functionality and intend to get the money transferred outside of China then again local licence is needed to do that,” explained Cao.
4. Data-related restrictions: Not specific to WeChat or Tencent, there is one legal issue every foreign company has to deal with and even be wary considering the repercussions that an organization can face in case of not following the law. As widely reported, the country’s new Cybersecurity law introduced last month, is a major initiative in data privacy regulations. It has also been mentioned that authorities haven't provided enough information about how the wide-reaching law will be implemented. And any failure to comply would result in a penalty of US$150,000 etc. The law has been drafted to shield “personal information” and individual privacy.
Personal information – recorded in electronic form or otherwise, which can be used, solely or together with other information, to determine the identity of a natural person, including but not limited to the name, date of birth, ID card number, personal biometric information, and address and phone number of the nature person. Similarly, foreign organizations also need to understand areas – like what does “network operators” and “critical information infrastructure” stand for.
“All customer data or information a non-Chinese travel company collects needs to stay in China – if you are collecting customer contact information, payment-related details etc.,” shared a source. Of course, for travellers going outside of China, name, their address, and other requisite information is forwarded to various airports to make it possible to check them in at airports. So what sort of restriction is being referred to?
As highlighted by CNBC, illegal collection, disclosure and receipt of a citizen’s personal information now constitutes a criminal offense.
“Practically how it (collection and transfer of data) is being done, whether the law is being followed or not as of now – it is tough to say and probably not. It is a complicated issue, lots of brands are struggling right now with what it means.” There is no case as of now, and there are ways to work around this.
Now take the case of a traveller interacting with a foreign brand via WeChat. This traveller shares some information that is related to a trip with an airline, and while interacting with the chatbot, this passenger shared some information about the ground transportation or car rental in China, and intends to carry on with the airline to offer an ancillary product. Can the airline act on this data that is being generated in China and match it with historical purchase behavior stored outside China? Or how to collect and act on data that is being garnered from touchpoints within and outside China? “So the airline could use an identifier of the data stored in China, and use some sort of a key to match with data stored in the central database…to access Chinese customer data, you can access storage in China, it’s possible. The key is to where the law in China stands when it comes to accessing and usage of customer data,” pointed out the source, referring to the current complexity. “It could become an issue if you don’t take the government’s stance seriously.
Questions have been raised about what it means for the foreign companies and is China facilitating free trade and an open global Internet with their new data privacy initiative. For their part, the government has already stated that the new law safeguards national cyberspace sovereignty and security.
Hear from Matt Brennan, WeChat Expert, China Channel at the upcoming Airline & Travel Payments Summit (ATPS) Asia-Pacific 2017 conference, to be held in Bali, Indonesia.
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