How WeChat digitized a Chinese Tradition

One of my favorite functions on WeChat are the “Red Packets”. In China, it is one of the oldest traditions of Chinese New Year to give kids red envelopes of cash, or hongbao. Thanks to WeChat, the gift-giving is happening on smartphones.

Traditional Chinese Red Envelops.

In Chinese and other East Asian and Southeast Asian societies, a red envelope or red packet is a monetary gift which is given during holidays or special occasions such as weddings, graduation or the birth of a baby. The red color of the envelope symbolizes good luck and is supposed to ward off evil spirits (Wikipedia, 2016).

WeChat was the first app to digitize this tradition and implement a red envelop feature. Over 8 billion “red packets” were sent over WeChat during Chinese New Year 2016. The app accommodated more online transactions over the Chinese New Year period than Paypal had throughout the entirety of 2015 (McEleny, 2016). Through WeChat, users send each other virtual red envelopes, which would be deposited into their mobile payment accounts. One can either send money directly to a recipient or distribute a fixed sum randomly among a group of friends, lottery-style.

In group chats, this gets very exciting: if a member of a group chat sends a red envelop, other members have to be quick. Only the first ones to open it get a share of the package. The amount is completely random. While others get 0.1 ¥ , others get 3.88 ¥. So on national holidays like the mid-autumn-festival or moon festival, you see many Chinese staring into their smartphone, waiting for friends or family members to send a red envelope.

Very few western companies leveraged the phenomenon, even though it’s a great way to engage the community and gain new followers and page klicks. Manchester City FC played a very successful campaign for Chinese New Year 2016 (Year of the Monkey). They adapted the Red Envelope to a Golden Envelope, since red is the colour of their rivals Manchester United. Throug a microsite on WeChat, Fans could sign up to win give-aways. You can have a look at their website here.

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Today, the China’s three biggest Internet companies—Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent—are offering their own version of online red envelopes and dressing up the custom with games and giveaways. Even the Chinese government is latching on to the digitized version of the tradition, giving away a total of 300,000 RMB (about $50,000) through Alipay, Alibaba’s mobile payment service.

Sources / further information:


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