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  • Ada Luo

WeChat Blocks External Links From Major Apps Sparking Controversy

What happened

In order to protect its users from disruption to their browsing experience, on 13th January WeChat announced they have blocked external links from certain Chinese social network and online community apps. Big players such as Baidu, Red, Kuaishou and Hupu, even Tencent's own app QQ music is in the list.

(WeChat warning when use click into external link in question)

The news created a major splash in the public and marketing industry in China. Some applaud WeChat's move while others are concerned about its increasing dominance. Although its market share has been eroded by newcomers in recent years, WeChat remains the King of Social Networks in China in both active users and time spent in-app.

What does it mean for your WeChat operations?

Many marketers and brands may worry this new climate will affect WeChat official account operations, as inserting links in articles or in the WeChat official account menu is a standard approach.

WeChat’s official announcement provides some guidance by outlining a few clear examples of external links that violate its policy - any links that are forcing users to install apps or leave the WeChat ecosystem while the user is browsing the content on the page.

Thus, as long as your web pages are optimised without disrupting the user experience (e.g. avoiding sudden pop-ups asking users to install your app, or requiring users to use your app to see the rest of the content (which is very common for news media apps in China), you are safe.

(An example of disrupting browsing experience on external link which force users to visit the app to consume the video)

Netizens response

Like Twitter, Weibo is where you can get a glimpse of the major trends and views of netizens. Sina, the news giant, asked netizens if they considered “WeChat’s blocking [of] external links as monopoly [power]?", to which 220k chose “Yes” and 170k chose “No”.

More importantly, one of the most trending themes around this hashtag is Pinduoduo. WeChat users are applauding the ban as they no longer have to help their relatives get cheaper prices on Pinduoduo (and don’t forget, WeChat is what made Pinduoduo’s viral expansion possible).

Does it pose a threat to your China marketing strategy?

The reason this news was controversial in the industry is that many suspect WeChat’s is attacking its competitors and attempting to limit their growth within its ecosystem. Some believe WeChat is becoming a bully that will establish its own rule over its competition.

Even before this latest ban, web links from Taobao (Alibaba Group) and Douyin (Tiktok’s Chinese cousin) were already not accessible within WeChat's ecosystem. WeChat is not the only one - Douyin has implemented a higher commission fee on external links from Taobao or other e-commerce platforms to encourage usage of its own social commerce.

Tech platforms in China are extremely fragmented and every player wants to create its own ecosystem that spans social, payment, e-commerce, gaming, office and more. As a result, platforms are squaring up to each other. No-one is safe from a fragmented tech world, particularly from a marketing perspective.

Brands who are overly-dependent on platforms belonging to a single group are running the risk of being thrown under the bus. One prime example is a brand putting all their resources into Alibaba’s eco-system while ignoring main web development or social storefront. If other tech platforms decide to block links from Alibaba there will be a huge impact to the brand's traffic.

Having a diversified media portfolio is the key to minimising disruption from the tech giant conflicts.

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