How livestreaming in China is creating engaging shopper relationships

Along with Tiger King and banana bread, video calls, Zoom quizzes and TikTok have been some of the defining characteristics of British lockdown. It would be difficult to imagine being shut indoors without the technology we have had at our fingertips to help us to connect with our loved ones, and indeed work colleagues, during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The last four months has given us plenty of time to become accustomed with the video functionality of our smartphones, and jumping onto a virtual meeting will probably continue to be part of the “new normal” we face as lockdown eases.

Livestreaming and KOLs

Look over to China, where Covid restrictions began to ease back in April, and consumers have taken to this technology in their millions to shop for the latest products presented to them by social media influencers, some of which have created a substantial fanbase from this new way of shopping.

In China these particular influencers are known as KOLs – ‘key opinion leaders’ who use video to connect with potential customers in real time. Viya is one such KOL who delivered 13 million viewers following a livestreaming session on the Taobao marketplace app with Kim Kardashion during Alibaba’s 11.11 shopping festival last November. She regularly sells hundreds of millions RMB worth of products, attracting millions to her daily stream on Taobao. Meanwhile, Austin Jiaqi Li – dubbed the lipstick brother – tries on 300 lipsticks a day and he once sold 15,000 lipsticks during 15 minutes over livestreaming video.

This technique is not new, but as Chinese customers were confined to their homes earlier this year, the platform grew in popularity and more brands have turned to the channel. And the shopping technique doesn’t just lend itself to beauty and fashion. The agriculture industry tried out livestreaming in lockdown – 15 million kilograms of agricultural products were sold via a Taobao livestream over a three-day period during the pandemic, while 370,000 viewers tuned into a livestream with the British Museum, as people turned to their phones for entertainment and connection during lockdown.

“As brands were putting traditional ways of consumer engagement on hold, they were increasingly turning to livestreaming to stay connected with consumers for recovery and reboot,” said Liyan Chen, manager of international corporate affairs at Alibaba Group during a webinar earlier this week.

How does it work?

The webinar gave attendees a live demo of a Chinese fashion store conducting a livestream via the Taobao marketplace app to show off a new collection. Within moments the app was gaining comments from real-time customers admiring the dress worn by the model and asking questions about size and fit.

So many customers placed an order within the same app that the dress sold out demonstrating the urgency the platform creates. You could liken it to home shopping channels on television – only these customers were able to respond to the host, and even talk to each other in the comments.

The comments were coming in thick and fast and the presenter conducted a quick competition by counting down from 10 then taking a screen shot, those five or so comments that were on the screen at the moment received a $10 voucher to spend in store. A little later the app’s voting functionality was demonstrated, showing how the app provides retailers with a live focus group to ask audience and VIPs which dress they like best.

Whittards of Chelsea case study

134-year-old British brand Whittard of Chelsea has seen success after experimenting with livestreaming in China. The brand, which has been working with Alibaba for several years on its Chinese international strategy, has watched a behavioural shift to shopping via livestreams in the region rather than browsing a website.

“China moves so fast, and it feels like livestreaming has always been a thing, but it can’t have been that long ago that it was a new traffic-driving tool for us,” says Lexie Morris, Whattard of Chelsea’s general manager of China.

The Chinese consumers enjoy the informality of livestreaming and how shoppers can interact, explains Morris. She describes how livestreams can turn into a “shopping frenzy” as shoppers feel they have to buy a product while it is on a limited deal – “it makes it such compelling viewing”.

Morris says the brand has experimented with livestreaming for driving sales, as well as branding and awareness. “For us it’s getting the product into [a KOL’s] hands and getting potential customers to find out how amazing our tea, coffee or hot chocolate is,” she says. “But it’s also about driving super-targeted and quality traffic on Tmall, and getting our Tmall metrics to work harder for us as well.”

But the popularity of livestreaming can come with challenges for brands. “The numbers are just so big with China and we were surprised at the depth of stockholding we needed – you might find it’s in a product that’s not a bestseller in your home market.”

She warns: “The Chinese market is moving so quickly, I can never emphasise that enough.” Morris explains how you may be told your product will be feature on a livestream with only four or five day’s notice and many brands would not have enough time to prepare marketing messaging or ensure the stock was ready. “But if everyone else is able to mobilise to this timescale and you are not, you will have some happy competitors.”

She concludes: “Brands can be concerned how it comes across – it’s casual, but the informality is a big draw, don’t worry too much about that.”

She recommends trying different formats before setting up your own livestreaming channel. “You don’t need to go big initially, working out what products work, and what doesn’t. But it comes down to knowing your customer. Test and test and test again to find out what works best for you.”

If you are one of the many who looks towards China for the latest technology trends, you may be inclined to think this new type of shopping may soon become popular in Western markets. But what is clear that if it is about to be adopted outside China, the pandemic will have only have aided in its potential take-up among younger consumers who have had nothing better to do in lockdown than perfect their TikTok lip-sync videos.