Every day 19 year-old Wang Hao spends three hours in front of a camera at her home in Yiwu, Zhejiang province, showing the hundreds of viewers on her Taobao Live channel different pairs of leggings while offering advice on which ones will keep them warm in sub-zero winters.
“Look at this pair – it’s super stretchy and lined with fleece, you’ll definitely stay warm,” she tells viewers, as she holds up a pair of beige tights.
“There’s a 20 per cent discount if you buy it today, and we can still have it shipped to you before the Lunar New Year holiday.”
Wang is just one of thousands of merchants cashing in on China’s live-streaming craze, displaying their wares in real-time to customers on e-commerce platform Taobao’s live-streaming platform in the hopes of driving up sales.
The live-streaming industry has exploded in popularity on the Chinese mainland. A recent Deloitte report forecast the Chinese live-streaming market to be worth US$4.4 billion in 2018, with viewer numbers topping 456 million. To stand out, live streamers in China do everything from deadly stunts to eating mountains of food, and even going under the knife to improve their looks and boost their popularity.
The scale of live-streaming has not escaped the eyes of China’s largest e-commerce firms, including Alibaba Group Holding, owner of the South China Morning Post. Both Alibaba’s Taobao and JD.com have launched live-streaming platforms for merchants on their sites, allowing shop owners and brands to either broadcast live video on their own or work with influencers to market their products.
“Live-streaming in the e-commerce industry has become similar to home shopping channels in the US … except you can engage with the merchants and they can answer any questions you have live. Right away, you hear positive comments about the item you’re interested in, and it’ll urge you to buy it immediately,” said Tiffany Wan, general manager of VS Media, an agency that represents content creators and live-streaming stars in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the mainland.
“E-commerce and live-streaming in China go hand in hand, where brands and merchants see the opportunity to make sales on the spot.”
The situation is very different in the US and Europe, where live-streaming and e-commerce platforms largely operate independently of each other. On Amazon, the largest e-commerce retailer in the US, no live-streaming platform exists for merchants to use as a marketing tool.
“There may be a possibility for e-commerce platforms in the West to start implementing live-streaming, but right now it is still viewed more as entertainment and separate from e-commerce,” said Wan.
“On the [Chinese] mainland, you have big players like Alibaba and Tencent whose services are so intertwined in your daily life, where you depend on their ecosystem for services like ordering food, making payments and for e-commerce and entertainment. So it seems almost natural to blend all of this together.”
What it takes to be an Internet live-streaming star in China
On Taobao Live, merchants can link a series of products to the stream, allowing customers to add the items to their cart and check out in one seamless transaction without clicking away from the live video.
For small merchants like Wang, live-streaming is a godsend – not only can she show customers the quality of her products, she also interacts with them by looking at the comments stream and answering questions in real-time.
“Thanks to live-streaming, I receive about 40 orders a day now. In the past, sometimes I would not even get a single order because competition is so fierce on Taobao,” said Wang, who has been selling on the platform for the past two years.
“There are thousands of merchants selling the same thing and it’s difficult to stand out, but Taobao Live lets me engage with viewers and there is a higher chance they will purchase something.”
Just as the homepage of Taobao is personalised for each user, Taobao Live operates the same way. It recommends live streams for each consumer based on their search history and previous purchases, although consumers are free to browse and discover new categories of products.
On the platform, the topics covered by the live-streams are almost endless. There is a category for food, where users can click to watch farmers picking strawberries, or a bee keeper collecting honey. In the jewellery section, shop owners open oysters on camera to reveal gleaming pearls, while fielding consumer enquiries and explaining the differences between saltwater and freshwater pearls.
Often, shop owners will try to hook customers by offering discounts – available only if the customer makes a purchase within the next hour.
China’s booming live streaming industry may have reached its peak
According to Taobao, its live-streaming platform has a conversion rate of 32 per cent – meaning 320,000 products are added to customers’ carts per million views. During Alibaba’s Singles’ Day shopping festival last year more than 330,000 live streams were broadcast, racking up over three billion views. During certain promotional periods, as much as 90 per cent of sales for certain stores came from Taobao Live, according to the company.
The popularity of e-commerce live-streaming platforms like Taobao Live have also spawned a new category of influencer whose sole objective is to be a “clotheshorse” for the thousands of viewers that tune in to their video stream.
A Hangzhou resident who goes by the name of Eva is one such influencer. On Taobao Live, she is known by her handle “Nange’er-Eva”, which translates loosely as “South Song Eva”.
The 23 year old university graduate started her live-streaming career last July and has since racked up over 300,000 fans on her Taobao Live page, thanks to her good looks, petite frame and bubbly on-screen personality.
Six days a week, starting around 9am, Eva appears bare-faced in front of the camera, applying make-up and chatting with fans. Once that is done, her work begins. Standing next to a small board that displays her height and weight, she tries on hundreds of outfits from merchants she partners with, each of them numbered so users can easily find the corresponding product listing.
Often fans ask her to try on a specific product and she is happy to oblige, offering tips on how to style the different items. During peak hours, the number of viewers tuned into Eva’s stream can be as high as 100,000.
Fans start to trust your recommendations and the items you try on, so I make sure to only work with merchants who sell good quality clothing that fits my style
Eva Nange’er, live streaming celebrity
“Apart from when I’m doing my make-up, or eating lunch in front of the camera, I am trying on outfits every two to three minutes without a break,” said Eva, who estimates she tries on more than 600 items of clothing a day.
She works on a commission basis, taking a 20 to 30 per cent cut of each item bought by buyers through her live-stream.
“After some time, you become something like a spokesperson for brands. You develop your own image. Fans start to trust your recommendations and the items you try on, so I make sure to only work with merchants who sell good quality clothing that fits my style,” Eva said. “I don’t want to give my viewers a bad experience and push inferior quality clothes as that affects my reputation.”
New merchants like Chen Kuangde, who has just set-up a woman’s clothing shop on Taobao, often end up working with Taobao’s live-streaming celebrities to increase sales.
“To live-stream on Taobao as a merchant, you need at least 40,000 fans and must have been operating online for a few years. For new merchants like me who don’t meet the requirements, working with celebrities is the best way to gain customers and get my store off the ground,” said Chen.
For customers like 30 year-old Zhou Huihui, who lives in Yancheng city in Jiangsu province, watching live-streamers like Eva try on clothing adds an element of entertainment to online shopping.
“I watch Taobao Live on a daily basis. Whenever I have time I’ll log on to watch my favourite live-streamers try on different outfits,” said Zhou. “They are often very engaging and interesting, plus watching them is a great way to see what’s trendy in fashion.”