WeChat Businesses and
How Chinese College Students get their Side-Hustle on
“I sell socks.”
I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised when one of my students revealed what kind of widgets he was peddling to make money, but I wasn’t expecting that.
“Okay, you sells socks,” I said, “but who buys them? And do you reap an income big enough to make it worth the time you spend selling?”
He wouldn’t give me an exact figure, but my suspicion is still no. I’m pretty sure the time vs. money exchange is very much skewed in someone else’s favor (like so many things these days), but I still thought that WeChat Businesses were worth investigating.
If you live in China, you’ve probably already seen this phenomenon in mobile app culture. After adding an acquaintance, you might find that instead of personal updates, they share pictures of products in their moments feed.
When I starting seeing too many images of sneakers and beauty products from one person, I just went to their settings page and opted out from seeing their posts. I imagine this is what most people do when they realize they’re being sold.
But some users are craftier than that. They might sneak in a personal photo along with the pack of nine other images of products. When a girl adds a cute selfie into the mix, some people might think twice before opting out. These are people you know in real life after all. Some of their posts are like personal updates, only laced with commercialism. The social manipulation is real; it’s just another example of the way that marketers ruin everything.
Reading the comments below one post, I saw a woman leave her friend business recommendations. She wrote, “The lighting and the positioning on the first photo needs an adjustment.” I realized then that some of the promo shots were being taken by the individuals themselves. I thought, ‘Wow, what a sweet deal for whoever is getting these people to sell for them.’
Despite my misgivings about the paradigm, it would appear that some people have successfully used WeChat sales to support themselves. If you ask around, you might find at least one person that sells on WeChat for a living.
One student told me that her sister (cousin) feeds her son with the money she makes. When I asked the student why she didn’t participate in the system if she knew so much about it, she said, “You have to know how to self-promote and have lots of friends. You also have to spend a lot of time chatting with people to make money.”
She also said, “If you want to do good business for the long term, you also have to verify that the products are real and of quality. In many cases, that means purchasing the items for yourself.”
Taking a poll in one of my classes, I was surprised to find how many people have occasionally made a purchase from these WeChat salespeople. Most were female, and they said that they purchased clothes, but one student explained that she bought her most recent laptop from a person she’d added on WeChat.
When I asked these students why they would buy from a person on social networking instead of going to a store, they gave me a few good reasons. One said, “Convenience,” of course. Another said “Quality and you know who they are.” And then I understood. Trust. Because China’s online commerce is rife with fraudsters, having a real person vouch for the authenticity of your purchases increases buyer confidence.
While I was starting to see the merits, I was having trouble reverse-engineering the sales process in my mind. So I asked my sock-dealing student, “How exactly does it work?”
He said that after adding countless people to his WeChat funnel, he would spend the day posting different images of socks. Once in a while (and I imagine once in a great while), he’d get a bite. From there he would chat with the prospect, and if they decided to buy, he would sit in front of a desktop and enter the customer’s information into an online form. The customer then would make a payment through WeChat Wallet, and after a period, the salesman collects his commissions.
Immediately, this triggered an image in my mind of a Chinese businessman idly scrolling through his WeChat feed on his phone at lunch while chowing on noodles. He scrolls past a photo of socks with his thumb, then quickly swipes back. Socks! I need socks!
In case you would like to see all the platforms that are available, you can run a search on Baidu for the word “Weidian” (Wēi diàn = 微店). As you’ll find, so many platforms have popped up. All of them work in about the same way.
After having a chance to think about it, this kind of experience could be beneficial for a student to develop business skills before graduation. It really runs the gamut of prospecting, marketing, sales, and administration.
To make a prediction, perhaps this will be the future of income for society after all the jobs are either too specialized or lost to automation. I imagine that this trend will not only be in China but everywhere in the industrialized world.
Everyone will have a store. Everyone will become a brand. Everyone will support each other, spending the money they earned from selling in their virtual stores to buy products from the virtual stores of their friends and relatives. And the cycle will perpetuate itself for as long as the commission percentages allow.
This new, emerging standard is right around the corner.