Bundling and unbundling – learning from the China trip

In August 2014, Benedict Evans (considered one of the foremost thinkers on mobile and all things related) wrote a blog post called App unbundling, search and discovery. It is a really fascinating post and one which a lot of PMs around the world would have read. One of the key things he talks about is how WeChat and Baidu have been able to successfully bundle several features into messaging and maps respectively.

In March this year, as we were gearing ourselves for the next stage of our evolution as Helpchat, there was this question that really kept hammering at us. As Helpchat, are we trying to bundle too much? Will the Indian user be like the American user (preferring more or less unbundled apps) or like the Chinese user (preferring more or less bundled apps)? Would we end up competing with apps which serve a specific use case? E.g. would users book cinema tickets on a dedicated app or book it on the same app on which it might see cabs, food, laundry etc. There are no right or wrong answers in tech and sometimes mental models only go so far.

So, Avinash from my team and I went to Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai to understand more about the Chinese internet market. The agenda was to also spend time understanding the WeChat ecosystem and generally test the hypothesis of bundling in Chinese apps. A lot of the meetings were arranged with the help of Sequoia’s team in Singapore. We did 10-12 meetings on the 4 day trip.

Here are some of the things that we learnt:

WeChat

– WeChat has mainly 3 tabs – messaging, feed of friend’s updates, payments or commerce. It’s like a combination of what Facebook, WhatsApp and PayTM might look like here in India.
– Apart from the main use case of messaging friends, payments was the other killer feature on top of which other things were based. Users were using the product for a lot of peer to peer payments or gifting (apparently, WeChat Wallet created a campaign around China’s gifting season and creating a viral loop to attract more and more people to use WeChat Wallet).
– Large corporates had subscription/service accounts but most of the updates are left unread by most users.
– A lot of SMBs had created WeChat channels (similar to having a Facebook page) and were using it generate business for themselves. (The challenges of doing this are exactly the same as Facebook where getting people to like your Page and also buy from you requires you to build a huge audience using content, generally not possible for most SMBs).
– The feed of friends’ update did not yet have an EdgeRank kind of algorithm and also did not have any updates from businesses
– Because of payments being integrated so beautifully, the users propensity to use the app for commerce was much higher.

After talking to various people, what we understood is that the primary use case for WeChat users is P2P messaging, feed and payments i.e. people prefer to use it to chat with friends, see their updates and pay their friends. Users don’t see WeChat as a shopping destination and actually use specific apps for most of the other use cases. As one user we met put it, “The commerce tab is just leakage and we only go to the app to check messages from friends”. In a way the similarity between Facebook and WeChat is striking – when we think of Facebook we don’t think of it as having bundled commerce into my social network. In fact despite various overtures for doing commerce using Facebook pages, the users don’t really see Facebook in that way. So while it is bundled in terms of features, it is not truly bundled in terms of user perception or usage.

Of course, at the scale WeChat and Facebook are, any kind of “leakage” of users towards commerce itself would be worth a lot of $$$.

Baidu

– Spoke to several users who use Baidu Maps and none of them really use any of the bundled features which come along with Baidu Maps. E.g. if you search for directions from point A to point B, Baidu lets you book, say, an Uber. It seems that users are only using Baidu to search for directions and then going to the Uber app to book a cab. The person we met said: “No one clicks on book a cab inside of Baidu Maps”.

Xiaomi
– Met a senior PM guy and when discussing whether the Chinese user was different and what made him more open to using bundled services v. his American counterpart, he didn’t really feel that the Chinese user was really that different – they also wanted an app to do something specific. Also, the concept of bundling and unbundling itself is so difficult to define – Slack maybe an unbundling of colleagues-messaging on WhatsApp (something quite common in India) but one may not always see that. (Since the trip, more recently, someone suggested that Slack was going to bundle Dropbox into itself over time). So these models may not always be useful in understanding or predicting the future.

Conclusion

We met several other companies including some companies which consult businesses to market on WeChat. After reconciling thoughts from these various meetings, here is the conclusion:

– the only thing that matters is – “What is the MAIN reason the user has downloaded the app for?”

So if the app has been downloaded for a bundled use case (e.g. I can book flights AND trains AND buses from the same app), it never strikes the customer as something odd. Similarly, if the user downloads the app for an unbundled use case, bundling new features doesn’t generally work (e.g. food into the taxi apps – Ola/Uber) because the user doesn’t really feel that that is what the app is for.

And this was an important lesson for us. As someone building a horizontal platform for helping consumers to connect with businesses and get things done, we needed to make sure that the customer actually downloads the app for that reason and the best way to subsume all of those use-cases in the customer’s mind was to call it a personal assistant.

So if you want to bundle somewhat discrete use cases in someway, make sure you are able to communicate them in a holistic way (preferably using a simple noun like travel, personal assistant etc.)

PS: Since our trip to China and us rebranding to Helpchat in June, a lot has changed. Some of the thoughts I have mentioned above had been formulated during the China trip and then reaffirmed now that Facebook has launched M, a personal assistant and so has Baidu.

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One thought on “Bundling and unbundling – learning from the China trip

  1. Hey Ankur,

    This is interesting. I’ve been following Benedict’s work on mobile for a while now, and the thing that is really interesting, and a big opportunity/threat, is how significantly the interaction model on the operating system level is changing, with Apple/Google as gatekeepers.

    Separately, I think a lot of the unbundling vs bundling debate really gets decided by the customer experience. A lot of the surrounding infrastructure (NLP, identity, inventory/POS systems, logistics) is simply not mature enough for a full stack service model to work just yet. Single app models are ultimately going to be seen as clunky vestiges in 10 years time as we solve some of these problems, and (as a lot of Ben’s work talks about) the interaction models get deeper on mobile (Touch 3D is huge!).

    I have a lot of scattered thoughts about this, and we’ll find out as we go. It’s pretty why I joined Simpl (getsimpl.com), because fundamentally credit is going to be about identity and reputation systems, and likely to be, whether Simpl or someone else, one of the core infrastructure pieces that really get us to a mature model.

    Would love to shoot thoughts some time. Hit me up.

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