WeChat is already China’s most popular social platform, but Tencent seems eager to make even more money from its ubiquitous app. It plans to achieve this with a not-so-secret weapon: Mini programs.

At the 2020 WeChat Open Class Pro event in Guangzhou on Thursday, Tencent announced that its users spent 800 billion yuan (US$115 billion) through its various mini programs in 2019, a 160% increase from the previous year.

WeChat says that the number of its international and domestic users reached 1.15 billion last year. (Picture: Shutterstock)

Now Tencent is looking at ramping things up. The company said that in 2020, it will focus even more on adding merchants and services to mini programs, giving them new capabilities like live streaming. In September, the company said it would enable sellers to sell products through live streaming within WeChat. That puts it in direct competition with the likes of Alibaba’s Taobao, which has built its own ecommerce live streaming kingdom.

“At WeChat, we used to focus on perfecting every feature we launched. Today, we are more focused on how to prioritize and dedicate our efforts to creating value for users and customers,” WeChat head Allen Zhang told developers over video at the conference.

WeChat creator Allen Zhang spoke more about business opportunities than new features at this year’s WeChat Open Class Pro event. (Picture: Handout)

Mini programs have become an important component of the omnipresent messaging app. The miniature apps that live within the platform take just seconds to load, allowing users to avoid downloading another bulky app if they just need some limited additional functionality. Mini programs already allow for all kinds of functions, including renting bicycles, buying tickets, playing games and even fortune telling.

At the event, Tencent celebrated the third anniversary of the feature’s launch. The number of mini programs passed the 1 million mark in 2018 and there are now estimated to be more than 2 million. According to Tencent’s most recent numbers, mini programs have over 300 million daily active users, with usage up 45% from last year.

WeChat is already an indispensable part of life in China. It connects everyone, keeping people in touch with family, friends and colleagues. Even before mini programs, the app had a wide range of nifty features. With WeChat Pay, it’s become one of the country's two largest mobile payment apps.

When WeChat first launched mini programs, many hailed the feature as an app store killer. It enables WeChat to take over many functions that you’d expect in an operating system like Android or iOS. Some smartphone makers like Samsung have been trying to highlight the power of mini programs even more by giving users direct access to them on the home screen with a simple swipe.

During the conference, which is Tencent’s traditional event for announcing big changes to the app, the company also said that WeChat reached 1.15 billion monthly active users last September. That’s about half of what Facebook has, but WeChat still primarily relies on one country for most of its users.

Correction: Story has been updated to reflect that WeChat users spent 800 billion yuan in mini programs last year, not 800 million yuan. We regret the error.