A few years ago, many people thought the party could soon be over for China’s livestreaming video industry, as the tens of millions of yuan a year paid to top presenters becomes unsustainable amid a decline in online viewer numbers.
The industry, however, has continued its rapid growth because of the integration of livestreaming video features with various e-commerce and entertainment platforms, and more recently, strong household and corporate demand during China’s coronavirus lockdown.
In the middle of this spectacular boom, a number of mainland China’s tech industry leaders and entrepreneurs have also become livestreaming stars, eager to cater to the vigorous appetite for online shopping in the world’s second largest economy.
“Livestreaming in e-commerce is a very innovative model that enables interaction and participation of users,” said Zhang Dingding, an internet industry commentator and former head of Beijing-based research firm Sootoo Institute. “That interaction, in turn, can drive up transactions to some extent.”
Alibaba Group Holding founder Jack Ma, for example, was one of the first major tech industry leaders to make a big splash in China’s live-streaming video market in 2018, when he did a campaign on Taobao Marketplace. Taobao, China’s biggest online retail platform, is a subsidiary of Alibaba, parent company of the South China Morning Post.
Ma took part in a one-on-one competition against professional livestreamer Austin Li Jiaqi over who could sell more lipsticks on Taobao Live, the Alibaba retail platform’s marketing channel.
Their widely viewed match, also seen on Alibaba-owned streaming video platform Youku, was easily won by Li, who has gained popularity as China’s “Lipstick King” since he started doing streaming videos almost everyday on Taobao in 2017. He once sold 15,000 lipsticks in just five minutes on Taobao Live.
Last year, Ma did another livestreaming video campaign for farm produce with Taobao’s top livestreaming broadcaster, the former singer Wei Ya.
Trip.com Group, China’s largest online travel services provider, has cultivated its own livestreaming star in co-founder and executive chairman James Liang Jianzhang. On his live-streamed video campaigns, Liang wears ancient Chinese clothing, known as hanfu, to pitch hotel room bookings with the Nasdaq-listed Trip.com, formerly known as Ctrip.com International.
In one of Liang’s hour-long livestreams via Trip.com’s mini app on WeChat, he broadcast to an online audience of about 610,000 and generated RMB 20 million (USD 2.8 million) in sales. This effort from Liang has provided a much-needed boost for his company, which has also been affected by the pandemic’s impact on the global travel market.
Sohu’s failed attempt in 2016
Charles Zhang Chaoyang, the founder, chairman and chief executive of Sohu.com, said he was itching to try livestreaming like his peers in China’s tech industry. He described himself as “very optimistic” over the opportunities in livestreaming e-commerce.
Sohu launched an unsuccessful livestreaming service Qianfan in 2016, when the industry seemed to have reached its peak. The number of livestreaming platforms at that time grew to more than 100, but monthly active viewers were in decline, according to market intelligence firm iResearch.
Luo Yonghao, whose failing smartphone venture Smartisan left him bankrupt last year, took a shot at redemption when his three-hour live-streamed campaigns on ByteDance’s popular short video app Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, became a viral hit.
He sold 110 million yuan worth of products on April 1, when about 48 million Douyin users tuned in. He was joined in the live-streamed campaign by Wang Xiaochuan, founder and chief executive of online search firm Sogou, who pitched his artificial intelligence-based voice recorders.
On Luo’s next live-streamed campaign on April 10, the reception was softer with about 35 million yuan in sales and around 11 million viewers, according to data provider newrank.cn.
These developments in China’s livestreaming video market show the potential of how fast the tech industry can recover, following the broad economic slowdown caused by the coronavirus crisis.
With e-commerce and entertainment helping spur increased adoption, the total number of livestreaming video users in China is projected to reach 526 million this year, up from 504 million in 2019, according to iiMedia Research.
A 900 billion-yuan market
“The popularity of livestreaming was already strong before the pandemic, but the [coronavirus] lockdowns moved it up another notch,” said Mark Tanner, founder and managing director of Shanghai-based consultancy China Skinny. “I expect its popularity will continue beyond the pandemic. Still, a drop from its peak is expected because Chinese consumers will have less idle time [in future].”
The stakes are also high for China’s major tech players in livestreaming video services, including Alibaba, Tencent and ByteDance. The industry’s size is predicted to surpass 900 billion yuan this year, according to iiMedia, as China remains the world’s largest internet and smartphone market.
While tech industry leaders taking part in livestreaming video campaigns may offer less novelty than professional streamers, the “shoppertainment” trend is blurring those boundaries.
“This model will continue to grow rapidly and become the new growth engine for China’s e-commerce industry and even the new digital economy,” said analyst Zhang. “The market is inclusive and big enough for a lot of participants.”
This story was originally published in the South China Morning Post.