Travel firms need to watch WeChatNews / OnlineBy Viewpoints | July 21, 2015Share This article was originally published on WeChat is introducing a wealth of new features and some of them could be of interest to travel marketers.NB This is a guest article by Ritesh Gupta, a reporter from China Travel News.WeChat's monthly active user base is expanding, reaching 549 million at the end of the first quarter this year, a year-on-year growth of 39%. As a result, more and more travel brands are trying to understand the opportunity.WeChat, also known as Weixin in China, has evolved from a free messaging and calling service. Travel brands today are particularly keen on how to get involved with its “Moments” feature, where relevant content is shared between users.WeChat offers options for businesses to communicate via service or subscription accounts. A major development over the past few months has been the introduction of in-feed advertising.But travel firms need to look beyond this in order to make WeChat a meaningful channel in the overall digital marketing mix, believes George Cao, co-founder and CEO of Dragon Trail Interactive.Connected worldCao points out that brands need to be proactive and remember that WeChat's owner, Tencent, continues to reveal interesting features.For instance, at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, it linked up with Caesar’s LINQ Hotel & Casino for a “connected” suite. By scanning a room-specific QR code, WeChat users were able to connect to the suite and control various aspects of the room remotely through their handsets.Gaining prominenceKate Chang, regional director China for the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board, says: "WeChat fits in the marketing mix, with multiple features including video chat, voice calling, SMS, games, QR code scanning and much more. “The functionality has been expanding, so it is not merely a media platform. It is a platform connecting active interaction between friends and industry."Share this quote Its WeChat post on June 11 this year, "14 reasons for visiting LA by Instagram", got 27,236 views which ranked third among all destinations on the weekly ranking for WeChat content posts.Understanding different layersCao offers a handy way to understand the full scope of what WeChat offers . "First and foremost, there is a communication layer for person to person interaction. "Then there is a social layer, termed as Moments, where one can share updates, similar to Facebook's timeline. "Then there is a media layer, where content generation or publishing via subscription accounts takes place. "In order to reach out a wide audience, brands need to find ways to touch the Moments section for users to share and interact with a brand, because 85% of media consumption happens on this layer. "Finally, there is a connectivity layer consisting of a rich set of APIs which connects people to people, people to organizations, hardware to software. "This has the most potential, and brands aren’t really capitalizing on it. They need to be more open-minded and creative.”Share this quote Meeting objectivesUS-based Chris Breikss, president, Sheng Li Digital and 6S Marketing, says Tencent has worked on aspects such as how and when to show ads in users’ newsfeeds, as the illustration below shows.Source: Sheng Li DigitalWhile performance-based social advertising is growing, marketers need to strengthen their efforts in gaining valuable customer data by leveraging new features offered by WeChat, asserts Cao.Tencent has been cautious about monetizing ads. There is a ‘Not Interested’ button on each ad presented. Companies should avoid such resistance anyway. As, Breikss says, it is vital to understand that brands need to offer relevant content and it shouldn’t be intrusive.ConnectivityThe connectivity layer, Cao says, can be used to engage every WeChat user staying at a hotel. Using iBeacon and related technologies, incentives or promotions, hotels can bring guests, into their digital ecosystem.There are options to interact and post content in various formats -- voice, video, photo and text. When Eric Michael Garcetti, the Mayor of Los Angeles, visited China last year, WeChat was used as a tool to interact with people via live questions that were broadcast on the app.Chang mentioned that LA has been working with China’s biggest online video platform, YouKu, to create a series of digital movie posters using the tagline ‘Travel with Movies’.One of China's most famous singers, Li Jian visited more than 20 iconic locations - restaurants, theme parks and museums - in LA, covering over 100 classic movies shot in LA.“Our social media accounts, specifically WeChat, also released a series of posts facilitating the video promotion by creating additional video distribution channels, and introducing more details about LA as a destination for movies," Chang said. "WeChat acts as a complement to video content and has been very well distributed in a collective way to get more exposure and attention.”Customer support and paymentsAnother way brands are using WeChat is for customer support. China Southern Airlines has been running its customer service via WeChat.Travellers, who follow the airline’s account on the app and integrate their loyalty programme details have access to self-service options. gain flight-related self service options. There is also an option to interact with a representative.Payments using We Chat are also an option - users can synch their bank account with Tencent's TenPay to add credit and conduct transactions via WeChat.NB This is an edited version of an article by Ritesh Gupta, a reporter for China Travel News. Click here to read the original version.NB2 It is the first of a two-part look at WeChat. Part 2 will be published soon and looks specifically at how brands can take bookings through the channel.