Livestreaming’s Next Battleground

Reworking ecommerce into a social shopping experience

Similar to late-night infomercials or the Home Shopping Network, livestreaming in ecommerce offers more engaging and interactive content for a personalized and social shopping experience. Influencers or retailers display and try out different products, and customers can ask questions about the product in real-time.

For example, Li Jiaqi–also known as Austin Li–is one of the most recognizable faces in China. Thanks to his 40 million followers on Douyin, TikTok’s Chinese version, and his unique approach to sales, he was once able to sell 15,000 lipsticks in five minutes through a livestream video. 

The power of livestreaming in today’s retail environment has eclipsed almost every other ecommerce trend. The model had already proved lucrative for early success stories like Park Seo Yeon–whose ‘Mukbang’ videos (when hosts film themselves eating copious amounts of food while interacting with viewers) raked in over US$9,000 per month. But with bonafide ecommerce platforms getting into the game, brands are now seeing real potential in this model.

Livestreaming in retail first emerged in China in 2014, when ecommerce platform Mogujie released a feature that combined live video with another burgeoning trend: influencer marketing. Alibaba’s Taobao followed suit soon after. Initially leveraged primarily by key opinion leaders (KOLs) and celebrities, small retailers have jumped on the bandwagon since.

The trend took off in 2018 and 2019; while customers looked for engaging, entertaining, and social shopping experiences, retailers were looking for new ways to interact with customers and enhance their platform. Now, in the age of COVID-19, providing that social element is crucial to keeping a brand afloat.

The success of livestreaming as a sales strategy has pushed players outside China like Shopee to join the group. As ecommerce giants strive to provide the platform for livestreaming, retailers are seizing the opportunity to monetize another source of revenue.

Taking a walk on the retailer’s side

For most ecommerce platforms, the cost of developing the livestream feature has more than paid for itself. In 2018, Taobao generated over $15.1 billion in gross merchandise value (GMV) through its livestreaming sessions, recording an increase of almost 400% year-on-year, according to Alibaba Group’s news hub Alizia. 

“The popularity of livestreaming, pre-COVID-19, is a testament to how interactivity has become a critical component of the modern-day shopper’s experience, as it continues to bring people closer to their favorite sellers and brands,” says Junjie Zhou, Chief Commercial Officer of ecommerce facilitator Shopee.

Shopee launched its livestreaming feature in March last year, and saw an average of 10,000 hours of content streamed each day. Almost 1 million messages were also recorded every hour on Shopee Live Chat across Taiwan and Southeast Asia. Special campaigns such as ‘Shopee 9.9 Super Shopping Day’ and ‘Shopee 11.11 Big Sale’ recorded over 50 million and 65 million views on Shopee Live, respectively, Zhou says. 

Livestreaming in ecommerce has picked up momentum since the outbreak of the global pandemic, which forced millions of retailers to shut shops for months amid social-distancing regulations. According to China’s Ministry of Commerce, there were more than 4 million livestreams in China in Q1 2020.

According to Zhou, the number of Shopee Live streams from brands and sellers in Singapore increased 40 times, and an average of over 200,000 messages were sent daily since the start of the pandemic, as retailers looked to connect and deepen engagement with consumers virtually.

“Online technologies such as live-streaming have proven to be an essential lifeline for many businesses during this [pandemic],” he says. “It provides an opportunity for [retailers] not only to sustain their business but to thrive, paving the way for brick-and-mortar retailers to adapt to the digital economy and diversify revenue streams.”

The compelling power of the livestream

Livestreaming in ecommerce establishes a direct connection between buyers and sellers, helping retailers build meaningful relationships with customers and provide a more personalized and engaging online shopping experience. In an increasingly digitized world, livestreaming aims to replicate the social aspect of traditional offline shopping. 

Live video also makes it much easier to trust a brand, which is a large part of what makes it so powerful. It puts a face to the name of a retailer who would otherwise be a faceless entity and allows consumers to see a product being trialed in real-time.

“Authenticity and intimacy are what make the livestreaming experience so popular. It adds a human element to marketing, which can help retailers build trust and stronger relationships with their customers,” says Zhou.

He adds that livestreaming is a powerful tool for businesses to widen their reach, stay connected with highly social customers, and build a loyal customer base. Moreover, as a sales strategy, it offers smaller retailers an additional platform to grab customers’ attention, especially in the pandemic context.

For example, popular Singaporean Facebook livestream salesperson Max Kee of Lian Huat Seafood, who joined Shopee in March, conducted regular livestreams on Shopee and saw a drastic increase in orders from around 50 to over 400 per stream.

However, with platforms like Alibaba, Tencent, TikTok, Kwai, Shopee, and Twitch competing fiercely for customers’ time and money, smaller retailers are struggling to find new and innovative ways to make their livestreams stand out. Repetitive content is a big no-no and leads to a loss of customer interest. 

Owing to this caveat, Zhou believes that livestreaming should not only be seen exclusively as an avenue for sales, but should also be used to build brand loyalty and increase consumer engagement, which will serve brands much better in the long term.

“With a growing demand amongst online shoppers for captivating online video content, it is crucial that livestreamers are producing content that interests and encourages interactivity with their viewers,” he says. “Livestreaming is also a tool with a range of capabilities, including stimulation of sales, influencing purchasing habits and behaviors, and engagement through entertainment.”

While livestreaming in retail originated in China, it has spread rapidly through Asia in the last two years and has been further accelerated by the pandemic. In Thailand, for example, the number of Shopee Live streams from brands and sellers has increased five times since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, says Zhou.

According to Zhou, livestreaming is on the path to continue growing considerably, especially in Southeast Asia. Now, more than 50% of people discover new products on social media, according to a survey by Facebook and Bain & Company. The need for entertainment and social engagement in ecommerce has never been more compelling, as shoppers increasingly place a higher value on shareable experiences, he adds.

Globally, ecommerce platforms are increasingly investing in developing livestreaming platforms further, deploying new strategies like live chats and in-app games to increase the interactivity of their offerings. Shopee’s in-app games were played over 1 billion times in 2019, indicating the strategy’s growing popularity. 

“As users in Southeast Asia continue to crave a more engaging and social experience, Shopee will continue to roll out initiatives which seek to capture the hearts and minds of shoppers in our region through deep and sustained user engagement,” says Zhou.

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