Last Wednesday marked the one year anniversary official launch of WeChat’s open submissions platform for user-designed stickers. At the time, the media touted this as a “way to make a living” for anyone that cares to try it. But just how WeChat stickers make revenue, and who gets to share in it, are much more complex issues.
As a feature, WeChat’s sticker packages are sandwiched between the free messaging functions of the app and the “extras,” from games to wallet to corporate accounts, that actually make up WeChat’s revenue base to the tune of US$7 per user on average by the end of 2015—not a number to be sneezed at as WeChat had nearly 700 million active users at the time, and comparable platforms such as WhatsApp and Line make, respectively, only $1 and $3.16 per user. During the first two years it operated its sticker store, WeChat also offered a number of paid “expression packages” (表情包) for download for 6 RMB a package.
While text-based substitutes for smiles and facial expressions first appeared online in the early 1980s, and pictoral emojis have been regular parts of earlier messaging platforms such as MSN Messenger and QQ, it was the Japanese messaging app, Line, that was first to monetize this essential feature of electronic communication. According to CNII.com, Line users send out 390 million expressions per day. Unlike WeChat, the majority of sticker packages have to be purchased for around 120-240 yen (US$1.20 – 2.40). This does not seem to have daunted users; Line raked in a respectable $268 million from stickers last year. Moreover, their bright colors, zany themes, and crisp animation have made stickers—as well as individual sticker characters—one of Line’s signature offerings and a factor in its continued popularity throughout much of Asia.
WeChat had a different experience. By 2015, the entire sticker store had been revamped and the animated stickers became free. The reasons for the switch were never officially revealed, though both the media and the users like to surmise that the public was simply not interested in stickers they had to pay for. They have also contributed their own guesses as to why: either because the stickers lacked distinctive style and were “awkward” compared to their Japanese counterparts (echoing a common Chinese complaint about their domestic animation industry), or because Chinese users were used to consuming “free” media. It’s also likely, though, that by this time, having a free sticker store to go with its free messaging platform was something that the powers behind WeChat wanted to have as their signature, corresponding with the three major tenets of the app: “open public platform, communication, and social exchange.”
It also must have been telling to Tencent that while WeChat’s paid stickers experiment was floundering, users were taking the openness of the platform into their own hands. Today, one of most recognizable features of WeChat—that was, incidentally, written about on Vice just last week—are the flurries of low-resolution, “Internet Ugly” photos, illustrations, and gifs that have become widely shared in messaging threads and serve similar functions to emojis and animated stickers. These are amateur efforts that actually predate WeChat, having been used on QQ and everywhere else that Internet memes are found. Users download or make screen captures of photos and videos of celebrities, TV and movie characters, or other individuals with hammy expressions. Yao Ming and the character Er Kang from the 90s series “Princess Returning Pearl” are two staples of the genre.
Afterwards, these images are sent out over WeChat’s messaging platform, sometimes paired with captions or heavily PhotoShopped to existing memes. The recipients can download these to the “favorites” folder right alongside the rest of their downloads from the sticker store, possibly after further PhotoShop treatment. The infamous “Ge You Reclining” meme, featuring screenshots of the floppy-spined side character of a 90s comedy series “I Love My Family,” was one of the most sent stickers of this summer. It has been altered or captioned to illustrate everything from a lazy weekend, hopelessness with life, and (fittingly) the addictiveness of one’s phone.
Taiwanese talk show host Dee Hsu, a favorite subject of Chinese Internet memes due to her comical personality, was once presented with a WeChat sticker of herself on her show “KangXi Lai Le.” In response, she joked, “why don’t they pay me?” Today, moving images of “Xiao S” (as Hsu is known in entertainment) are sold in a package for WeChat also at 6 RMB a pop, alongside other celebrity “expression packages” that make up the remaining paid sticker packages in the WeChat sticker store. First introduced in July, 2015, there are six such packages at the moment being offered featuring images of mostly young entertainers such as Angelababy, Lu Han, and Kris Wu either as an exclusive package such as Hsu’s or in a package shared with other celebrities. The use of the image is officially authorized to Tencent, and according to China.org, a single celebrity in a multi-celebrity package earned up to 1 million RMB, out of an estimated 50 million total downloads, in the three months after the first of such packages was introduced.
In a way, WeChat stickers have come in full circle, now adjusted to the unique currents of the Chinese market. Having abandoned Line’s approach after starting out on similar paths, WeChat has embraced both its public identity of open access and its user base’s apparent love of recognizable faces doing funny things. Fans of these celebrities, as the Chinese media surmised a year ago, would be willing to drop 6 RMB in enough amounts to offset the free stuff and put WeChat back in the revenue-making stickers game. Everything else in the sticker store becomes a loss leader, just like WeChat’s messenger and most other free things on the Internet, to attract and keep the interest of users for the benefit of advertisers, investors, and the other revenue-making functions of the platform.
Aside from celebrities, advertisers, and Tencent itself, who else can earn money from WeChat stickers? Many artists are familiar with the story of Xu Han (“Hans”), creator of the character Ali the Fox, who as a grad student at Tsinghua University illustrated his posts on QQ with the big-headed, underpants-clad red fox and now owns a company, Dream Castle, which has created other characters and expressions packages for WeChat and other social media platforms. Ali’s success in the social media world provided Xu with a stream of investors for further projects, such as an Ali picture book series, an animated TV series, and various licensed merchandise.
With Line’s platform for user-generated stickers, the artists receive a percentage of the sales revenue when their work is accepted and downloaded. Due to WeChat’s free model, artists on its open submission platform can instead enable a “reward” button through which users and admirers of the product can make a donation to the artist. According to Beijing Daily, a sticker package earns roughly 2.02 RMB for every “like” it receives on the submission platform, though this is almost certainly calculated from extreme highs and lows. The competition is fierce, as hundreds of stickers may be submitted in one month. WeChat will push stickers that have received more attention from likes and downloads to a more visible position on the download list.
One year after the launch of the user-submission system, it is still not clear how much of a viable platform it is for the independent artist to earn their living. To submit, users have to register their real name and photo of their Chinese ID card. They can then upload individual files or albums of 16 stickers or more and wait for review, which typically takes a week or two and usually comes with suggestions for improvement, after which the artist submits the work for further review. WeChat publishes a list of the most popular user-submitted stickers in a month. As of May, 2016, the most recently available ranking, most of the top stickers appear to be submitted by artists with multiple submissions and an existing following, or who like Xu have already set up a business; many new stickers are also continuations of characters that have appeared in previous packages. There is no authoritative source on the number of submissions that do not make it through review, or how much is earned by artists who are not part of the top rankings.
One Internet artist interviewed by Beijing Daily admits that most artists can’t support themselves only through WeChat stickers, though many still like it as a source of income, a hobby, an outlet of expression, or a way to gain experience, exposure, and maybe eventually some capital like Xu did with Ali the Fox. What is clear is that the world of online sticker-making is precarious, full of changes, and filled with almost too many possibilities. When Line unveiled its own package of officially sanctioned Xiao S gifs, users discussing the product on a Douban thread almost unanimously agreed: “netizens’ screen captures from ‘KangXi Lai Le’ are more interesting,” “more natural,” and “more fun.”
Cover image from sgmsw.cn