WeChat is about to make a huge marketing push in India

Tencent would rather they didn’t use boring old SMS.
Tencent would rather they didn’t use boring old SMS.
Image: AP Photo/Tsering Topgyal
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Tencent, China’s biggest internet company, is about to launch a huge marketing push in India for its instant messaging app WeChat, says a source close to the company’s marketing team.

According to the source, the WeChat India blitz will entail front-page advertorials in the city supplements of the Times of India, a leading newspaper, followed by ad spots debuting during the semi-finals of the wildly popular Indian Premier League (IPL), a cricket tournament, at the end of May. WeChat has signed two young Bollywood actors, Varun Dhawan and Parineeti Chopra, to star in the IPL commercial, the source says.

Tencent declined to comment on the rumor. But if true, the campaign will earn WeChat a massive audience. The Times is the most widely read English-language newspaper in India, with a readership of nearly 8 million nationwide and 1.6 million in Mumbai alone. The IPL clocked 100 million television viewers in its opening week this year.

With some 40 million WeChat users outside China and dreams of becoming as dominant as Facebook, Tencent’s WeChat push in India makes sense. Smartphone penetration is growing and Indians are enthusiastic users of messaging. The app became available in India last August and can be downloaded for free across all carriers and platforms, including iOS, Android, Blackberry, Windows and Symbian.

Though Tencent has released no numbers on WeChat’s India penetration, the app appears already to have a substantial following there. The WeChat India Facebook page has nearly 500,000 likes. By contrast, the India page for WhatsApp, one of WeChat’s competitors, just barely crosses 20,000 (though it is unclear whether the WhatsApp page is an official one).

However, the source close to WeChat’s marketing team tells Quartz that, behind closed doors, Tencent executives admit that the marketing push is exploratory, admitting that they “have no business plan” in India. The idea is to see what effect the campaign has and to grow its user base—figuring out how to make money can come later. The company declined to comment on its monetization plans. However, the lack of a clear business plan for India would hardly be surprising; Tencent hasn’t figured out how to monetize WeChat in China, either.

That apparently isn’t stopping Tencent from spending vast amounts of money on advertising. Apart from the cost of placing the ads, the contracts for Dhawan and Chopra, both of them fast-ascending stars in the Bollywood firmament, can’t be cheap. But, then, Tencent can afford the expense—it’s got “plenty of cash” sitting around.

Its shareholders may be less pleased—WeChat’s aggressive expansion efforts have been gnawing away at margins and worrying analysts. But for a prize as big as the growing Indian market, it may well turn out to be worth it.