Why everyone will become a live streamer

The past few months, millions of people in every country got stuck at home. Our calendars filled up with Zoom links, WebEx invitations, Google hangouts or Teams instructions. Virtual meetings...

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June 16, 2020

To escape this colorless new existence, I would like to take you along into one of my favorite movies of the 80s called ‘The Purple Rose of Cairo’ from Woody Allen. Tom, the main character in the movie, suddenly notices ‘real life person’ Cecelia looking at him from the other side of the cinema screen. Attracted to her, he decides to step through the screen and out of the movie. He emerges from the inner film's black-and-white world into the full color real world on the other side of the cinema screen, where she takes him around her wonderful futuristic New Jersey world. Let’s do like Tom and add some more color and adventure into our new parallel world post corona and step into the future. A future we can more easily picture by watching the most recent trends happening in China. A future of video streaming where everyone is becoming an actor facing the camera. Ready, set, action!

When it comes to online streaming, we can learn a thing or two from China. As the corona crisis put the whole country in sudden lockdown, Chinese companies quickly sought novel ways to keep their bleeding businesses alive, and with incredible success. Live streaming in e-commerce emerged in China already in 2014 and became very popular by 2019, but since the Covid-19 outbreak it became almost an obsession for brands, retailers, farmers, cities, artists, …effectively making it mainstream today. The latest trends of video streaming are now putting the Chinese world of retail, commerce and marketing on its head, cutting out the middleman altogether. It is happening in every industry, for every product and service, for B2B and B2C, both online and offline. A movement to leverage the previously invisible people, the new actors of the New Normal, getting prime air-time now.

Companies like Taobao (Alibaba), Douyin (TikTok), JD Live, and Kuaishou started offering any brand, merchant, retailer, farmer or service provider a live streaming platform with millions of potential clients who were all seeking new ways of entertainment and learnings whilst in lockdown. The real attraction for tens of thousands of entrepreneurs to flip from traditional offline channels to online live streaming came as these platforms offered a delivery network at a time when most transport and distribution centers stalled completely. Let’s explore just three examples on how China turned on the camera and made it the hottest trend for 2020.

Farmers turned celebrities

When coronavirus hit China, the agricultural industry could no longer sell its fresh produce. For many generations, farmers boxed up their daily vegetables or flowers from their fields onto trucks driving away to a distributor who sold them to consumers or grocery stores. Where they ended up, was unknown to the farmer. When Wuhan went into full lockdown on January 23rd, Chinese farmers were celebrating Chinese New Year, but what should have been a moment of joy quickly turned that holiday into moments of panic and fear. Luckily, China’s largest online retailers JD.com and Alibaba started offering farmers to use JD Live and Taobao Live to talk to millions of consumers confined at home directly in exchange for a small commission. Both JD and Alibaba made the applications easier to use for farmers, helped them create an online shop and took care of distribution all the way to people’s homes. Farmers started to daily stream live content for an hour or more about their crops or fruits, talking about their characteristics, how they were grown and cared for, how to preserve or prepare them. Or they even shared more personal stories about themselves - the real people behind the produce. These new, most authentic daily TV programs of rural live streamers of China gave a face to thousands of farmers in despair; who since they started streaming are now one-by-one lifted out of poverty by cutting out the middleman in the supply chain. Chinese farmers are swapping wholesalers for fans whilst improving their bottom-line at the same time. Chinese farmers are hooked on the lens and millions of consumers are binge watching.

Chinese influencers can sell anything

The Chinese influencer Huang Wei, known as Viya, sold in April alone for a 5,6 million USD in goods and attracted an audience of more than 37 million people through live streaming. She is the queen of China’s 60 billion USD live online shopping ecosystem. Viya has enough star power to summon whatever she wants from brands and sell anything to customers whether it is doorbells, carpets, toothbrushes, furniture, mattresses, …anything really. Back in November, the world’s best-known digital influencer queen Kim Kardashian sold her perfume online in China and reached 100,000 viewers in a livestream with Alibaba; so Viya decided to help her out a little to reach 13 million people when she came online with Kim selling 15,000 bottles of her perfume in minutes. But don’t be fooled, Viya is not the only influencer in China with a strong emotional influence over consumers. Livestream shopping in China has become an industry of its own, deeply embedded in the habit of consumers and a critical sales tool for retailers and brands.

The secret to this trend has less to do with the power of influencers than with the power of the platform. It is unique to China’s social media that there is zero friction between entertainment and buying, where social e-commerce platforms from Alibaba, Pinduoduo to RED lets viewers watch livestreams, chat with other viewers, select recommended products and pay for them on the same superapp. Live video streaming household names like Douyu, Huya, Huajiao, YY, Inke, Xigua, iQiyi, Douyin or Billi Billi might not sound familiar, but they have 30 to 300 million viewers in China for each one of these platforms. Western social media on the other hand just isn’t quite there yet due to the un-integrated array of offline and online shops, website recommendations, payment and delivery solutions and many portals. On Western cyberspace you can discover product ideas, but you can’t simply buy them on the same site; while Amazon can sell you any product, but you typically browse their app only if you are looking for something specific. Last month, Facebook disclosed a partnership between Instagram and Shopify; announcing hereby the first real marriage between buying and entertainment in the West too. This trend is set to go global. Therefore, if you prep for the acting job now…you could end up a Queen like Viya. And like any queen would do: reach out in person, stay above the fray and most important keep calm and carry on. Face the camera today and claim your crown later!

Luxury brands in the clouds

Luxury brands were the last ones to embrace digital and e-commerce. Their hesitation made sense as they relied on a sense of exclusivity, beauty, heritage and store experiences to sell to customers face-to-face. With 35% of all luxury buyers worldwide being Chinese, and 88% of them born as digital natives no older than 35 years, it’s no surprise that high-end fashion brands started using live streaming already a few years back for catwalks; or to provide high-net-worth clients a way to find product info on their smartphones, offer customer service or add e-commerce options for accessories. But COVID-19 triggered this trend to go industry-wide and all premium brands are now lining up to create their own livestreams, with three main trends to watch: runway shows, product launches and butler services.

This year’s Shanghai Fashion Week in March teamed up with Alibaba to broadcast over 100 brands and designers from around the world on Taobao Live, making it the first fashion event to go fully digital and attracting 2,5 million viewers. Besides watching the catwalks, buyers could with one click buy items online or leave a comment during the sessions on the “cloud catwalk”. China, being the first out of lockdown, became the best hope for luxury brands to find revenge buyers to offset the losses elsewhere. Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Dior and many others are streaming product launches to China’s vast online audiences or on invitation only for their VIPs. Brands like Gucci are now even setting a new standard to offer remote butler services with Gucci Live to let its client advisors dressed in black suit with white gloves keep in touch with clients. Luxury is being democratized, without losing its appeal. Luxury brands are walking into the cloud to stand out. No category will be able to stay in the background anymore in the future. We will all have to face the power of the camera one day! Why not start early on?


I could share a dozen more examples on how China has turned on the live streaming camera; making retailers become educators, city mayors broadcasting local produce, beauty brands moderating make-up advice, employees interacting with clients through mini-games, DJs hosting cloud clubbing festivals, teachers converting to cloud travel guides, restaurant owners selling self-heating hot-pot pans, real-estate agents managing open house virtual parties, …I think you get the picture. Live streaming has become ubiquitous in China and is here to last as an effective selling channel. Accelerated by the pandemic, live streaming e-commerce in China has expanded from promotion of products like cosmetics and clothes to both upwards and downwards categories. It’s growing to become the new standard for exclusive and more sophisticated products like automobiles, houses and luxury. It’s also becoming popular for selling low-end commodities such as daily necessities, furniture or ticket sales. It can increase the short-term sale, which we all need right now to get out of this crisis, but more importantly for brands is that it enhances customer loyalty. Because at the end of the day, the best way to win the hearts of anxious clients is to face the camera and show your true self so they can keep trusting you, and you can regain trust in yourself again. And do remember: There is no business like showbusiness! Even after corona, the show must go on!

Pascal Coppens
Pascal Coppens
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June 16, 2020