From wishing a friend happy birthday to contacting a colleague about a meeting, text messaging is central to much of 21st-century life, with one glaring exception: commerce.

For the most part, western businesses continue to rely on mass emails to promote their products, while they continue to field phone calls through often overburdened customer service departments.

But the potential for brands to engage with customers and sell goods using pithy, personalised messages is vast. On the Chinese app WeChat, 170m people browse for products — and pay for them — every day on more than 600,000 “mini-programs” within the app. They hail cabs, buy…

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