Messaging app WeChat is becoming a mobile payment giant in China

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WeChat, China’s smash hit chat app, has long been a bellwether for the future of mobile messaging. It was first to popularize putting brands in chat and integrating third-party services, two trends Facebook-owned WhatsApp and Messenger and others are jumping on, and it looks like payment is the next major focus.

Tencent, the company behind WeChat (known as Weixin in China), just announced impressive end of year financials (PDF) that included its highest quarterly revenue growth for three years. Among the other items disclosed, WeChat is now up to 697 million active users worldwide each month having added close to 200 million to that figure over the past year.

Beyond text messaging, voice and video calling, the service includes a social network timeline, branded accounts, shopping, games and more. Payment is another area and over the past year, Tencent has put considerable focus into its China-based service, WeChatPay, which can be used to transfer money between WeChat users (peer-to-peer) and make payments online and with participating offline retailers. Tech In Asia tested it out for a day in China and came away reasonably impressed, although it seems there’s room for improvement.

Tencent previously disclosed that 200 million user cards were attached to the payment service as of November 2015, thanks to a genius campaign that taps into China’s tradition of sending red envelopes during New Year, but now it said the figure is “safely more than 300 million” while it also gave us clues as to how large its volumes could become.

Tencent said today that it banked over RMB300 million ($46 million) from bank transfer fees from WeChatPay, almost all of which came from China. (The service did recently go live in South Africa via its first international expansion, while Tencent is offering it globally to merchants who can use it to take payment from Chinese tourists.)

Reuters reported that Pony Ma, Tencent CEO, told reporters at a Hong Kong press conference that the company took 0.1 percent on transactions, which means the service saw close to $50 billion in bank transfers that month. At that same pace, that would mean close to $550 billion in payments processed per year — that’s close to double the $282 billion that PayPal processes a year.

That’s hugely impressive and it shows that WeChat is a growing threat to Alipay, the service controlled by Alibaba’s $60 billion-valued payment affiliate. Alipay hasn’t disclosed its annual payment volume since 2013 — when it recorded $519 billion — though that figure will be much higher now. While Alipay is established as China’s top payment option with 500 million users and 200 million credit cards, the sheer convenience and mainstream adoption of WeChat play massively in its favor.

Tencent is also stoking the fire by dropping fees for peer-to-peer transactions, a move aimed at making WeChat the standard for moving money between friends. Another new policy charges users a fee when they transfer a certain from their WeChatPay wallet to their bank account, thus incentivizing them to retain funds in their account, which will presumably then be spent on or distributed to others via the service.

WeChat pulls in more money from games and advertising, and President Martin Lau said that Tencent’s doesn’t anticipate WeChatPay becoming a profitable business because of subsidizing merchants and other costs. But, the real value, Lau argued is that WeChatPay “will benefit our overall ecosystem,” such as empowering future advertisements with one-click purchasing from users, and synergies with financial services like Tencent’s wealth management fund and online bank.

Focusing back on the U.S. and Facebook again, the social network’s messaging strategy appears to be a few steps behind where WeChat is at right now but, potentially, it is on a similar path.

Last year, Facebook turned Messenger into a platform that will accommodate brands over time, while WhatsApp will also soon allow users to connect with companies too. Facebook offers peer-to-peer payments in the U.S. only for now, but it makes sense that it will push the payment angle much harder once users of both messaging apps become accustomed to liaising with companies there.

Article updated with further information about WeChatPay

Featured Image: Sinchen.Lin/Flickr UNDER A CC BY 2.0 LICENSE