Can DingTalk Be Successful in Foreign Markets?
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DingTalk (钉钉) is an office monitoring chat app designed by Alibaba. Still, some netizens describe it rather differently – “DingTalk is just a tool for capitalists to crush us, better that it dies.

In China, DingTalk is called DingDing (钉钉) because this is the default notification sound the app makes, a double bell clap. 

Besides chatting with your colleagues, you can use the app for many office admin and collaboration functions, including address book management, corporate organization charts, internet calling, notifications, file transfer, calendar, meeting scheduling and timecards, as well as for HR functions such as applying for leave or applying for reimbursement. 

Launched in late 2014, DingDing counted 7 million enterprise clients in June and surpassed 100 million registered users last December, according to an internal message that CEO Chen Hang sent to his staff.

Moreover, DingDing had roughly 100 million registered individual users, which represented an astonishing growth rate of 400% in just six months, according to public information released by Alibaba last year.

The idea behind DingDing is that, in the future, people will do much of their work from inside the chat app. That could include basic tasks like file sharing, as well as other functions that weren’t traditionally handled by enterprise apps – such as booking business trips and procuring office stationery.

“If we exceed customer expectations, they end up evangelizing our product,” says Zhang Sicheng, vice president of Alibaba’s workplace app DingTalk. “In China, companies run in networks. So, if a company likes a product, it will likely say to its partner, ‘Why don’t you try this?’

In its early days, DingDing thrived on this type of word-of-mouth promotion and barely spent anything on marketing, says Zhang.

Keeping in close contact with clients in this way has also enabled DingDing to notice new enterprise needs quickly, and update their platform based on these needs. Moreover, to be able to cover the spectrum of services at scale as soon as possible, DingDing has invested USD 151 million for a fund to attract third-party developers.

Just like they would in an app store, users can discover a lot of third-party services on DingDing, though it doesn’t offer advertising to developers. Products are ranked based on customer reviews.

So far, most of DingDing’s investments center around product development and human capital. Zhang is hoping that the app will eventually turn out profitable, but he says monetization “isn’t a concern” at this stage. 

“Jack Ma said this early on – if your client manages to earn 100 yuan, he’s happy to share with you 1 yuan. If you have 10,000 clients, you then end up with 10,000 yuan in revenue,” recalls Zhang.

Instead, DingDing is focusing on optimizing its partners’ money-making ability as well as the user experience of its products.

It appears that Bosses and Employers are happy to use DingDing as the app developers work closely with them and pay attention to their needs. However, a company is not only about bosses and employers. In fact, it mostly about employees – and their happiness plays the primary role in a company’s successs.

What about employees and their experience with the app? 

DingDing, at first glance, seems like an app designed purely out of the idea of meeting small and medium enterprise’s needs in managerial terms. However, employees think that DingDing was designed to migrate Chinese consumers away from WeChat forcibly.

In China, almost everyone uses Tencent’s WeChat. WeChat is very convenient because it allows users to handle many daily necessities such as chat, internet calling, social media, photo editing, map and real time location services, translation of chat messages, online payments, sending and receiving money instantly, ordering a taxi, food delivery, paying utility bills, buying movie tickets – and probably other things that you can imagine. 

This creates a big problem for Alibaba. If you are in WeChat all the time, you will tend to use WeChat wallet rather than AliPay. As a result, AliPay has been losing the important online payments battle to WeChat.

According to H. Johnstone – a tech reporter for, Alibaba realized that there is only one class of people that can force millions of Chinese users to open and engage with Alibaba apps – “bosses and employers.”

Why is DingDing attractive to employers and often hated by employees in China? The answer is, predictably, that DingDing is firmly on the side of the employer. The app makers target the overworked urban middle class. The way they do this is by making it easy for the boss to control, micro-manage, monitor – and (arguably) exploit their employees.

For instance, the automated timecard function basically  tracks employees’ locations – one of the most hated features of DingDing.  It starts working when the DingDing administrator in the office allocates one of the WiFi networks (or a GPS co-ordinate) as the office location. The first time that the employee comes within range of the WiFi network each day, they are registered as being at work on the app.

But it does not stop there, when an employee goes to the toilet, to lunch, to a meeting, or finish work, basically each time they leave the range of the WiFi network, her/his absence is recorded. The employer’s HR department then enforces penalties according to the company’s rules.

Li Xiaoyang, a former software sales agent in Beijing, said he had to use DingDing’s geolocation function at his previous firm whenever he met a client, and use a face scanner to verify he was attending meetings. “I felt so disgusted by it,” he said, adding that managers constantly dinged him.

In the morning, DingDing even sends the employees messages telling them how many minutes they have left to get to work – “Hurry up! You have 5 minutes to get to work.” The practical effects of this can be seen every morning at every metro station in Beijing, stressed-out people elbowing, shoving and running to get to the office on time and not one minute later.

“Our office work starts at 9 am. If I arrive at 09:01, I am late. I am allowed to be late once per month. If I am late more than once, I will have my salary deducted with a penalty of 20 yuan for each time I am late. HR doesn’t care what the reason for being late is. It comes in the system and they deduct the money. The boss likes it because each month the salary they paid me is less than they should. It is impossible not to be late sometimes,” a Shanghai employee reports of her experience with the app.

Additionally, every absence from work must be applied for and approved through the DingDing system. Using location tracking, DingDing can even report if the employee has attended a place other than the meeting location applied for.

Employees don’t like the messaging system of DingDing either, because it is so intrusive. Like in WhatsApp, when a message is read, the sender can see the read receipt in DingDing. Moreover, it can also be set to send out an alert in the app, by SMS, and even by phone call to advise that a message has been sent. 

This may work in offices where there are not so many employees working together, but imagine that you are in a project group, a department group, a management team group, a whole company group – any of which could contain dozens, or even more, employees.

The messaging and chats are constant. The pressure to keep up with the dialogues and messages is constant.

Can DingTalk be successful in foreign markets?

Alibaba does not specify DingTalk’s revenue in its financial statements. However, a company spokesperson said in response to the poll that DingTalk provided a useful communications tool for the workplace.

DingTalk has many satisfied customers using our tool in Asia, Europe and the US, which points to its success and customer satisfaction.”

Yet, Chen Bikui, a partner at Liuhe Ventures who invests in enterprise software startups, said he doubted that DingTalk would succeed abroad, citing issues like privacy concerns in the West.

DingTalk is so much tailored to Chinese companies – it would be hard for it to be adopted by companies from other countries,” he said. His observation supports this statement that, despite there being an English language version of the app, none of the foreign companies in China adopted DingTalk.

Besides, there are more employee-oriented competitors to challenge DingTalk in foreign markets – ByteDance’s Lark, Tencent’s WeChat Work, TIM and China Mobile’s Fetion as well as Canadian Slack.

To sum up, if Alibaba wants to make a profit with its office communication app DingTalk abroad, the company will likely have to consider employee needs in the office environment. DingTalk cannot be widespread in foreign markets if it remains a product made only for the needs of the bosses and employers – while completely ignoring those of the employees.

Editor: Luke Sheehan

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