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Should I build an e-commerce App or WeChat Mini Program in China? (Part one)

Should I build an e-commerce App or WeChat Mini Program in China? (Part one)

WeChat Mini Programs (MPs) are mini Apps built within the WeChat super App, and have risen in popularity since their launch in 2017. Now there are over 3 million WeChat MPs (compared to around 2 million Apps on the Apple Store. 


One of the most common questions clients ask us when they strengthen their focus on China is whether to build an e-commerce WeChat MP or an App. This is not just restricted to traditional retailers, but also clients embarking on their Direct-2-Customer (D2C) transformation journey, such as an automotive manufacturer moving to an agent direct selling model (vs through dealerships) to an agricultural seed provider who wants to establish direct customer relationships and orders. 


While the answer is often ‘it depends’, some pros, cons, and constraints can help guide the discussion. Whilst information is ever-changing, this blog will aim to explore all of these factors. 

Where Apps perform better:

User interaction experience


  • The underlying performance optimization and support for offline data in a WeChat Mini Program is not as powerful as in an App. Therefore it is more difficult to achieve a smooth user experience for complex e-commerce features such as AR/VR car viewing and customization. 

  • WeChat MPs are also limited in size (20MB), which means they cannot contain as much content as an App. We see many brands trying to replicate their App features in WeChat by splitting into smaller WeChat MPs (e.g. one focussed on e-commerce, another focussed on community, and another focussed on after-sales services) and these WeChat MPs can jump to each other but it makes for an awkward user experience. 

  • WeChat MPs on WeChat for iOS need to be closed when the user wants to go back to their chat. That means decisions that need longer time or are made in discussion with others, can be difficult through WeChat as users need to close the MP and reopen to find they need to restart the process.




  • WeChat MPs have built-in ‘service notifications’ in WeChat but customers must actively provide consent to get each notification. That means if you want to update your customers on order status (e.g. your car is now leaving the factory and heading to your city, your car is now at the dealership and ready for pick-up) you won’t be able to proactively push this message to your customers via WeChat unless they individually consent to each message. On the other hand, Apps can do this as long as customers allow for notifications.

Where WeChat Mini Programs perform better:

Customer Acquisition


  • There are lower costs of acquisition to WeChat MP compared with App. With 1.25 billion monthly active users on WeChat, brands can leverage this social traffic to help share WeChat MPs and target customers via WeChat advertising. 

  • There are lower barriers for customers to enter a WeChat MP with no installation required compared to an App, no download fees (there are no ‘paid’ MPs), and doesn’t take up phone storage. There are multiple entry points via brand official account and video account (“Channels”), offline scan QR code to open, WeChat search, location-based MPs nearby, and more.

  • WeChat MPs allow brands to easily acquire customer information with one click to log in with WeChat ID or acquire the user’s phone number.



  • WeChat MPs can be easily shared and opened by others in WeChat chat messages. This is very important for increasing views and conversions of promotions where you can leverage your customer base to refer others. While App content can also be shared with WeChat, it takes the form of an HTML5 web page or can be connected to a WeChat MP.

  • Surprisingly, there is no easy way for WeChat MPs to share to WeChat Moments whereas Apps can do so.

Cost to build


  • Chinese customers use a wider range of mobile devices. In Q2 of 2021, smartphone sales were distributed 23% to Vivo, 21% to Oppo, 17% Xiaomi, 14% Apple, 10% Huawei and the remaining 15% other brands. Therefore the cost of building and testing native apps can be very high. In contrast, WeChat MPs can easily be adapted for different smartphones with little additional development cost.

  • It’s easier to find talent on the market to build WeChat MPs compared to Apps. WeChat MPs are developed using a language that is similar to HTML, Javascript and CSS on top of a framework provided by WeChat which makes it very easy for web developers to get started in MP development.

  • WeChat MPs can also leverage existing WeChat components to reduce the cost of development, such as integrated payments, live streaming, analytics, customer service chat (through WeChat Service Account).

  • However, some multinational companies may face difficulties integrating WeChat MPs with their global CRM. Extra work and costs (e.g. buying a social CRM product or adapting the current CRM solution) may be needed.


This article continues in Part two where we look at some quick rules of thumb and what our clients chose to do.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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