ASIA NEWS: Swipe and shake for a deal

When Fosun Property, the Shanghai-based real estate investment and management platform of the Chinese conglomerate Fosun Group, decided to go public about an office investment in Australia in late January this year, there was no immediate email blast. An official statement on the company website was also published only several hours later. Instead, a press release in Chinese was first posted on Fosun’s freely accessible company page on WeChat, China’s answer to WhatsApp, the globally popular mobile messaging application.

Better known as Weixin (pronounced as wah-shin) in China, the social networking platform launched by the internet giant Tencent is an all-encompassing platform. A single alternative for Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn combined. With over 500 million monthly active users according to data released by Tencent in March, WeChat has achieved an unrivalled ubiquity in China, leading to its widespread adoption as a business platform in the country.

The real estate industry is no exception. Brokers, property consultancies and even fund managers are using the platform as a marketing and advertising tool, in addition to leveraging its reach to create a dialogue with potential Chinese investors.

“We find WeChat very useful,” says Ivan Ho, Hong Kong-based managing director of KaiLongRei Investment. “The real estate industry is evolving in a way that you cannot just engage in a traditional way ignoring technology, O2O (online to offline platforms), community, and so on.”

When Kevin Cheng, a Shanghai-based retail asset manager, recently met a group of government officials, one of the first questions he asked after the meeting ended was whether the officials were on WeChat. A few minutes were then spent scanning their WeChat QR codes to add them as contacts.

Cheng follows the same routine after most meetings in China.

“There can be times when someone is in a meeting and can’t take calls. But they will always reply on WeChat,” he says in a matter-of-fact tone.

Cheng, like most other users, gets his daily news digest from the app as well. In addition, he is also part of a number of property-specific groups, which discuss the local market sentiment and the leasing outlook for different sectors among other topics.

“We don’t share with the public much information about our fund as our business nature is still private equity real estate,” Ho explains. “However, we share information about our view on the market, updated market news, our K foundation and charity programs, our sport activities, news of our achievements, and so on. It would definitely benefit our corporate image and communication with friends, investors and the public.”

Networking and information sharing aside, the most obvious use of the platform is for marketing and advertising purposes. “Especially for retail management, we don’t send out fliers any more. We use WeChat,” says Cheng.

An added function, which could potentially unravel more opportunities for many industries, is the mobile wallet, which means Chinese users can link their bank accounts to the app and make purchases. According to a local real estate investor, Mosaic Shanghai, a retail mall acquired by Macquarie in 2012, is planning to set up an e-commerce store exclusively for WeChat.

The international version of the app, which allows users to open it in any other language other than Chinese, doesn’t have the entire gamut of features that the Chinese version has. Moreover, given that all conversations and groups are in Chinese, foreign investment managers have not been able to tap onto the extensive user base.

Also, like all other social media in China, WeChat too is censored by the government, making firms wary of revealing too much sensitive information. Oftentimes therefore, it is used to forge introductions with potential clients via public groups or private messages, and the conversations are then taken offline.

And in some cases, a WeChat connection is enough to broker millions of dollars’ worth of real estate deals. Early last year, following an inquiry received via WeChat from a Chinese investor, a New York-based broker was able to sell two luxury residential units for a total of $13 million, without the investor coming to New York even once, according to news reports published during the time.

“IT and communication platforms are evolving in China. Merely focusing on traditional businesses may not work. You need to open your mind, understand and adapt to the changing industry,” says Ho.