We thought that Whatsapp, WeChat, Line, Viber, Skype, were messengers, and first four particularly more of mobile apps as they were tethered to a mobile number. While one could have ‘group chats’ on at least a few – if not all – largely they were seen as personal communication apps, more than social. However, WeChat had shown from the beginning that it had other plans. With plugins like ‘Shake’ ‘Look Around’ and ‘Drift Bottle’ one could find random friends around the world.

While Whatsapp would charge a nominal annual fee after the first year, it’s still not clear, what Viber’s revenue model would be. WeChat, meanwhile, is becoming the Facebook of the mobile world. It’s getting social quite fast, without losing its personal essence. And that it’s personal, brands can cosy up much better to consumers and can do a one-on-one talk with the consumer without making it public at large, which usually happens in the Twitter and Facebook world.

Paid-stickers and games are of course its latest revenue churning initiatives – in version 5, which was released yesterday for iOS, and the Android update is expected today – but it’s brands that have caught the fancy of the app for their feedback, support and marketing initiatives.

In India, it’s tied up with Panasonic to have the app preloaded on its upcoming smartphones. But that’s nothing new. The excitement builds up as Panasonic opened an ‘Official Account’ on WeChat called ‘Panasonic Smart’. ‘Official Accounts’ is a feature of WeChat, that can be utilised by companies and merchants alike to build interactivity with followers. As consumers can stay updated with Panasonic news, they can share their views & queries related to their Panasonic smartphones through text, voice or video messages through WeChat; consequently enhancing the overall customer experience.

Panasonic is a much publicised first Indian brand to get on to WeChat. But in China, the service is not new and was launched last year around August, wherein brands can register and promote their account through QR codes. Due to the various plugins that WeChat has like Drift Bottle and Look Around, brands can send out messages to consumers. Both these plugins are paradoxical in their approach. While a message in a Drift Bottle can be picked up by anyone, and brands can use it for reactions by incentivising people. The service though seems much of a wide ocean as far as target audience is concerned but I am sure, WeChat can control paid communication in the bottle to a particular geography.

On the other hand, through Look Around. Brands, particularly retailers can target users in the vicinity and send push messages. These messages could be promotions.

Similarly, followers of official accounts, can get promotional discounts and other loyalty benefits. The benefit of WeChat as an effective marketing tool is the fact that it delves on strong closed networks and brands can break into that circle and have a meaningful discussion. However, on the negative side, the close-knit circle offers no room for brands to make a mistake or get frivolous. The close group could initiate strong negative reactions which could be more damaging than an open platform like Twitter or Facebook.

On the flip side, considering that Look Around uses geo-targeting, competitive brands can lure away customers from stores with push messages and discounts, in malls and markets. One such example – though not exactly – happened when China’s biggest e-commerce website banned sellers from using WeChat, after it found a fraction of sellers using the WeChat service to lure customers outside Alibaba’s online shopfront, Taobao and payment process, Tmall.com.

Coming back to how brands can leverage WeChat, the app can get interactive beyond text messages, which has been the limitation of Twitter and Facebook. Videos though could be published on Facebook or shared through Twitter links, what probably was missing was personalisation. Though personalisation of videos could be costly, however, voice and image messages can be personalised to any extent. Similarly, voice feedback or messages can be sought from users. Like a radio, but without getting public, WeChat’s voice message functionality allows great scope for brands to get close to the consumer.

Now coming back to WeChat’s latest update. The update adds a sticker shop, a game centre with 11 games currently, mobile payment options for brands and speech recognition, right now limited to Mandarin.

While, WeChat hasn’t announced the following service, yet brands can use the sticker shop effectively for marketing by pushing their branded stickers across. In turn the brand can make the payment on behalf of the consumer for downloading the branded stickers and the liberal usage of stickers can earn them reward points, which can be redeemed for discounts.

The entertainment industry can make good use of it where sticklers of actors and actresses and characters from their upcoming movies can be pushed across as stickers. Users can get personalised messages from movie stars. WeChat is using the services of actress Parineeti Chopra to promote the app in India. As a part of it, it’s promoting her official id, iamparineeti, big time. The account right now doesn’t have much messages except that users can download Parineeti emoticons.

Also in the new release is a scanner which uses the phone camera to scan books and DVDs and other goods for sale.

The latest update also brings in the feature for ‘Favourite’ Messages or Moments (read pictures) – much like ‘Like’ in Facebook. The Favourite Messages section too has much scope for usage by brands to run contests.

But all this means what? An another learning curve for marketers when they were just getting around a hang of Facebook and Twitter. As WeChat would be a much closed world, brands might find it a bit more challenging to get through.

WeChat claims to have over 400 million registered users across the world. However only as little as 70 million users are outside China.