While Facebook Messenger and the Facebook owned WhatsApp are still dominant globally, the picture changes significantly when you look at countries in East Asia, and Asia as a whole. And since messaging app use has now surpassed traditional social media use in many ways, app companies that succeed in this rapidly changing part of the world could very well shape how information, and digital communication platforms, are disseminated among widely varying populations (and ultimately controlled) in Asia, and beyond.

Businesses that understand local languages and markets, like Tencent’s WeChat in China, LINE in Japan (also big in Indonesia, Taiwan and Thailand) and KakaoTalk in South Korea, have distinct commercial and cultural advantages (often boosted by their respective governments) over their competitors when it comes to targeting specific language-based or community-based smartphone users.

But even with the phenomenal success some of these messaging apps are enjoying on their home turf now — exemplified by WeChat, with over 700 million monthly active users (MAU) in China alone — it isn’t always easy when they try to crack other Asian markets, or try to break into the WhatsApp dominated European Markets, or shake up Messenger’s hold on North America and Australia.

WeChat in China and abroad

china-smartphone-userIn China, WeChat, and its little brother QQ, have pretty much cornered the domestic Chinese messaging app market. Much of this success comes from tailored features designed with Chinese users in mind — although the fact that Facebook and Twitter are officially banned in China (WhatsApp, as of this writing, still works in China, although the Chinese government’s dislike of end-to-end encryption presents some thorny issues) probably doesn’t hurt either.

Eytan Oren, CEO of Block Party, a messaging app consultancy that helps businesses, celebrities and media outfits build their presence on chat apps, thinks WeChat is one the most mature chat apps on the market today. “People in China use it to talk to friends and family, but they also use it for e-commerce, to book taxis and doctor appointments, to pay bills, check traffic or air quality, and all kinds of other daily activities,” he tells The Stack. And thanks to its phenomenal success in China — a massive market the planet salivates over — the WeChat platform “has been very influential on other major chat apps around the world.”

That being said, as Tencent’s attention turns abroad, the company has run into some significant obstacles. WeChat has struggled in India (a smartphone market growing at breakneck speed), as well as Indonesian and other Southeast Asian countries. Even WeChat’s costly Lionel Messi advertising campaign a few years back (football superstars don’t come cheap) fell short, as did its advertising push with Bollywood favourites Parineeti Chopra and Varun Dhawan, which failed to translate into a significant foothold in India, where WhatsApp reigns supreme.

wechat84395834958“I don’t think WeChat has notable weaknesses, but at this point it can be very hard for any messaging app to break into a new market if other chat apps already dominate that region,” Oren says. “This challenge has much more to do with network effect and timing than with app quality.” Chinese apps tend to put China first, which makes sense considering how lucrative the Chinese market is — but that can lead to localization snags in other countries, entering foreign markets too late, or offering a version of an app that doesn’t come with all the bells and whistles (wallet functions, ordering food and ride sharing services outside of China, etc.) that the Chinese version has.

LINE aggressively targeting foreign markets

china-user-beijingLINE, part of the Korean corporation Naver, but headquartered in Japan, filed for an IPO in NYC and Tokyo recently, getting quite a few tech investors excited about the future earning potential of messaging apps.

Kristie Wong, a marketing specialist at btrax, an Asian localization and marketing agency based in San Francisco and Tokyo, tells The Stack that LINE in Japan — plus a few other markets, like Taiwan and Thailand — has done very well, thanks to the strength of the company’s “network effect, and their sticker store,” but has had a hard time in other Asian markets, like Hong Kong, Korea, and some parts of Southeast Asia, due in part to LINE’s initial focus on Japan. LINE is now aggressively trying to expand overseas, with offerings like the recently launched LINE Lite for Android, which targets users in countries with slower networks and smartphones, and of course LINE’s IPO.

Eytan Oren calls attention to the fact that LINE “helped popularize stickers, and makes much of its revenue on mobile games,” and similar to WeChat, “supports payments and has experimented with a variety of services, like taxi booking and food delivery.” The company releases many secondary apps for its games and stickers, opening up its sticker market “so that anyone can create and sell stickers in its shop,” Oren says. This openness helps entice local artists, who “create and promote stickers that appeal to users in that region.” That, in turn, leads to a stronger local presence (attractive to users) for the company overall.

The IPO should help elevate global awareness (users and investors alike) of LINE, which lags behind WeChat and WhatsApp. An infusion of funds should also give LINE a bit of wiggle room when it comes to experimenting in foreign markets with new services and offerings.

One app to rule them all

While undoubtedly every company in Asia involved with mobile messaging apps would like to rule over as many markets as possible, most will likely have to learn to cohabit (on some level) with others as the world becomes more digitally interconnected.

And even though messaging app networks are often in flux, with the likes of South Korea’s KakaoTalk (with over 50 million global users) rolling out new features like Kakao Pay (similar to PayPal), which now boasts 10 million users, or Snapchat slowly gaining traction in Japan, room clearly exists for more than one player in one market — providing governments like China and India aren’t too distrustful of foreign companies and their encryption methods.

Kristie Wong works with Japanese people who tell her that they use LINE for personal communication for Japanese family and friends, but use Messenger for communicating with friends overseas. “Overly domestic apps that are popular in one or two countries should be quite wary of Facebook’s power in social networking in that sense,” she explains, which is probably why many app makers in Asia are trying to expand globally.

“The data I’ve seen indicates that several major chat apps can co-exist and thrive simultaneously,” Oren says, “and there’s no reason to assume that there will be an eventual ‘winner’ in the chat ecosystem.”

While the battle for dominance in Asia, and abroad, won’t abate soon, as companies compete, localize, integrate functions and offer more services on their apps, it seems consumers will be the ones who come out ahead (as long as technologies don’t get too muddled) — no matter what, or how many messaging apps they choose to use.