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This article was published on May 7, 2014

Chat app Tango plans push into China, positioning itself as a window into the West

Chat app Tango plans push into China, positioning itself as a window into the West
Kaylene Hong
Story by

Kaylene Hong

Kaylene Hong was Asia Reporter for The Next Web between 2013 and 2014, based in Singapore. She is bilingual in English and Mandarin. Stay in Kaylene Hong was Asia Reporter for The Next Web between 2013 and 2014, based in Singapore. She is bilingual in English and Mandarin. Stay in touch via Twitter or Google+.

It was quite a surprise when Tango, a free messaging and calling app for iOS and Android, scored a $280 million funding round led by Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba earlier this year. After all, Tango’s largest market is the US — out of its 200 million registered users, 50 million come from the US.

Back when the deal was announced, co-founder and CTO Eric Setton was pretty vague about future plans for Tango in China, only saying it would help boost the messaging app in China and other parts of Asia, but that there wouldn’t be a China-specific partnership involved.

However, Tango CEO Uri Raz told TNW at the sidelines of GMIC Beijing that it has plans to enter China, hopefully within this year. And it isn’t necessarily seeking to compete with WeChat in pure messaging and calling — it wants to expand its platform to add more value-added services to target users who may be seeking a different experience from WeChat. He said:

The bottomline is that we are now considering coming to China and we are looking for differentiation and bringing something new to the user — not necessarily competing with WeChat, but to add on, so users can have two options.

WeChat is by far China’s number one messaging service and is rapidly catching up with the world’s most popular messaging app WhatsApp, which has 450 million monthly active users. The combined monthly active users of WeChat and Weixin (the version available in China) reached 355 million as of end 2013.

In fact, Raz’s description of what Tango will eventually look like in China seems far off from just a chat service.

tango crop

Raz revealed that Tango will be soft launching ‘Channels’ in July, something that is reminiscent of WeChat’s ‘Official Accounts’ or even Twitter, where you can subscribe to content providers and get direct information from them. Raz notes that it will be “more than Twitter” though, as Tango supports many forms of communication including video, audio, animation and movies.

And ‘Channels’ will be a huge contributor to Tango’s strategy in China. Raz told TNW:

We feel there are opportunities to bring the West into China. We are interacting with our user base and we have content providers, as our next release is ‘Channels’. So we will have hundreds of content providers, big brands that focus on the US and are Westernized and have entertainment and content that might be interesting to part of the population in China.

We know that China is opening more and more. So there is a percentage of the population in China that will find it very nice for them to interact with (for example) Disney, Hulu, all the content providers in the US. Content providers are working with us to attract the US user, but we say hey — let us take you into China.

When asked whether censorship in China would be an issue since Tango will be providing content, Raz noted that it focuses mainly on entertainment and there are already tons of Western movies, for example, that have made their way to the country. If the government ever objects, Raz said that Tango will do what it has to do and censor as needed, because it respects different cultures in different countries.

Another angle that Tango is thinking of taking is reminiscent of Google Helpouts. Raz told us that Tango is “very, very strong on video channels” and the company is seeking to partner with experts, such as doctors, to connect them to users all over the world via video calls. He said that for example, a Chinese user can do a video call with an expert on special diseases all the way in Boston. Raz revealed that such calls will be charged, forming another revenue stream for Tango. However, Tango still needs to carry out tests for this particular feature.

Raz is confident that what he calls the “uniqueness” of this offering can help it get a headstart in China, even if it may be a small percentage of users.

We believe that Chinese users can work with WeChat on messaging, but still work with Tango in order to smell, view, and listen and be part of the Western world. And the high level philosophy and vision is really connecting the world. It’s not just messaging… it’s really the culture. We believe in this and we are researching these points right now.

Given Tango’s partnership with Alibaba, the chat app is seeking a breakthrough in e-commerce. Raz told TNW that he believes companies still haven’t figured out properly how mobile, social and e-commerce can work together seamlessly. “We have a chance to be innovating more than WeChat and doing something related to e-commerce, especially when we have a partner that is a master at e-commerce,” Raz said.

Headline image via Tango