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2020-01-17 08:34:15

China’s most popular social messaging app is a haven for tens of millions of content creators who blog about an ever-broadening range of topics. Now, WeChat is trying to find out if people are willing to pay to read user-generated content published on its platform.

“We are testing this new feature to encourage high-quality original content,” WeChat told Sixth Tone on Thursday, the day after the optional paywalls were introduced on a trial basis.

WeChat, which boasts over 1 billion monthly active users, is an all-in-one platform that provides dozens of services such as travel bookings, food deliveries, and mobile payments. The platform’s newsletter-like subscription feature for public accounts has also become a popular way for Chinese companies, media outlets, and bloggers to reach broader audiences.

Li Huanxin, a content creator with over 500,000 followers on WeChat, was the first to introduce a paywall to his account, Sanbiao Longmenzhen, where he publishes commentaries on social issues. His article about WeChat’s new optional paywalls costs 1 yuan ($0.15) to read and has been “purchased” over 5,000 times since it was published Wednesday.

“I felt quite innovative trying out this new feature,” Li told Sixth Tone. “This is the moment content creators have waited a long time for.”

The rise of the internet and its capabilities has fundamentally altered reading habits for people in China and elsewhere. Consuming news is no longer limited to traditional media, and the “content entrepreneurship” movement has assumed a life of its own on so-called WeMedia platforms.

There are over 20 million public accounts on WeChat, and over 80% of the app’s users subscribe to at least one, according to independent research. In 2019, articles published by the platform’s 500 most popular accounts received 39,000 views on average.

But top publishers like Li generally don’t make money from clicks. Instead, they partner with companies to turn profits from in-text advertisements.

It’s a bit too late for (WeChat’s optional paywall) feature, as the majority of content creators have already found other pay-to-read platforms.

Now, public accounts that have been registered for at least three months and have published at least three original articles, without any history of violating WeChat’s content publishing rules, may choose to introduce a paywall of between 1 and 208 yuan per article.

While these fees will be subject to tax, WeChat says it will not take a cut for articles purchased through its WeChat Wallet mobile payment feature, though it may charge a service fee in the future. When users buy articles through Apple’s in-app purchasing service, however, the American company takes a commission of up to 30%.

Fang Kecheng, an assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s School of Journalism and Communication, told Sixth Tone that relying on public WeChat accounts isn’t the best way to consume information, given the prevalence of clickbait and fake news on virtually all social media platforms. However, Fang added that the new paywall feature could benefit authors publishing high-quality, well-researched content.

“It is hard to say how much this paywall feature is going to change people’s reading habits,” said Fang, who is himself a prolific blogger with over 240,000 subscribers on WeChat. “(For publishers) at the end of the day, the income from paywalls won’t be comparable to that gained from advertisements.”

An online poll by media outlet Sina Technology found that many people were not enthused by the prospect of paying for WeChat articles from independent content creators. More than 70% of nearly 50,000 respondents claimed they would “unsubscribe from the account if it introduces paywall.”

“I don’t think people will pay to read WeChat articles, which are mainly fragmented information,” one user wrote in the comment section under the poll. “If the intellectual property and product quality of the article are guaranteed, what’s wrong with paying for knowledge?” argued another.

Though this debate should play out in the coming months, industry analysts like Fang believe WeChat has been slow to enter the paid content arena. “It’s a bit too late for (WeChat’s optional paywall) feature, as the majority of content creators have already found other pay-to-read platforms,” he said.

Publishers like Li, meanwhile, say that the initial reactions from prospective readers may not reflect reality. Li said more and more people are willing to spend money to read and gain knowledge, but he also acknowledged that the WeChat paywalls may only benefit accounts that have already amassed millions of followers.

“For small accounts, they only get a few views even when the content is free,” he said. “At least a paywall might limit the amount of trolling in the comment section.”

Editor: Bibek Bhandari.

(Header image: VCG)