China’s Live Streaming Commerce Goes Viral (No Pun Intended)

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Content is king. This isn’t just some sexy catchphrase. Pandemic prophet Bill Gates penned it in his 1996 essay on how to sell online. Fast forward 24 years - throw in social media - it takes more than content to be king. Other than how you market it, where you market it can also be a make-or-break. In China, if your product isn’t live-streamed, you’re falling behind.

Keep Up With Kim Kardashian

Western audiences may be more familiar with live streaming in a gaming context (think Twitch), but for Chinese audiences, live streaming is for online shopping. According to Deloitte, live streaming in Chinese e-commerce brought in 456 million viewers and US$4.4 billion in 2018, which represented a 37 per cent growth from the previous year.

In November 2019, Chinese e-commerce giant, Alibaba-owned Tmall, hosted a surreal bilateral coalition: Kim Kardashian West joined top Chinese live-streamer Viya Huang to promote her signature KKW fragrances. The live stream session was viewed by over 13 million and sold out 15,000 bottles of Kardashian’s perfume within minutes.

By marrying retail with entertainment on e-commerce sites, live streaming creates a seamless shopping experience that’s highly interactive and social. Teenagers and young adults, in particular, delighted in watching live-stream hosts trying out products and responding in real-time to customer enquiries, according to Vogue Business.

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger

The pandemic killed lots of brick-and-mortar stores and forever changed much of life as we know it. How has it disrupted live streaming commerce, which seemed invincibly robust? Well, it didn’t kill it. And we know that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

According to the Economic Times, Shanghainese brand Forest Cabin Cosmetics closed off more than half of its 300 stores across China at the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak and was forced to turn online. It didn’t push out ad campaigns or announce big giveaways. All it did was unleashing an army of live-stream hosts. In just one month, its February sales soared 20 per cent compared to last year despite the inferior store sales.

This is just one small player in the expanding empire that stood strong in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. The scenario echoes what happened with e-commerce during the 2004 SARS pandemic. People got used to shopping online and retained the habit after the pandemic.

The West Is Entering the Game

Amazon is the Western e-commerce figurehead. So naturally, it can’t be missing out on what’s working so well for its Eastern counterpart. But wait, what? Amazon actually launched its live stream shopping platform, Style Code Live, in March 2016. Never heard of it? That may explain why Amazon aborted it in May 2017.

Now, Amazon is giving live streaming a second try: Amazon Live. What’s different this time? Well, in keeping with the meritocratic spirit of social media, anyone (with an Amazon seller account) can be a host. 

Clearly, live streaming commerce is a big, delicious piece of pie that other Western players are eagerly trying to bite in. Facebook is testing a live streaming feature in Facebook Marketplace in Thailand. Instagram already has Instagram Live and is now trialling a new checkout feature that enables browsing, shopping and paying for products without leaving the app, according to eBusiness Institute.

It’s official: the game is on. How are businesses going to adapt to this new model of real-time sales with the potential of targeting millions of viewers at once? With no vaccine or cure in sight for COVID-19, customers are shopping online more and more. We shall see the answer to this question very soon.

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Wetopia New Media is a Vancouver-based digital marketing and public relations agency. We create consistent, relevant, and inclusive social media content and campaigns to bridge the gap between Chinese and non-Chinese audiences.

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