We often call China a digital playground, as its highly digital-savvy and receptive population makes it a breeding ground for digital innovation. In fact the new crop of live streaming apps, which allow users to broadcast live video to their followings, has grown in China into a very different business than the one in the West. These platforms enable viewers to reward content contributors with virtual gifts that can be purchased with real money. Platforms in turn take a cut of each virtual item.
The wǎng hóng jīngjì 网红经济
The live streaming sector is growing so quickly in China that it is creating its own economy – referred to by industry commentators as the Internet celebrity economy, or the wǎng hóng jīngjì (网红经济). China’s live-streaming sites have become a thriving cottage industry, offering money-making opportunities and even stardom to their mostly female hosts and an entertaining new alternative for millions of viewers to online dramas and stodgy state-controlled TV. This way of paying someone whose stuff you like first started in Korea and China a few years ago. The Internet celebrity economy has become so big that a report by CBNData valued its gross revenue in 2016 at more than the film industry’s 2015 gross box office total.
Pushing the borders of good taste
The live streams tend to be simple – just one person in front of a web camera, talking about stuff or singing some karaoke or cracking a few jokes. Or eating dinner. Watching that is a curious mix of voyeurism and companionship, gawking and empathy. Many young people are exploiting the trend simply to make some money. Or to crave authenticity instead of the highly polished image that celebrities maintain.
The proliferation of such shows and sites demonstrate the entrepreneurial drive of young Chinese as well as the financial potential of social media in the country, which has 668 million people online—the world’s largest. But their popularity also reflects the loneliness of Chinese urban life as well as the surplus of single men, blamed in part on the country’s former one-child policy. Much of the content on various live streaming sites could be considered seedy, and some goes well beyond the borders of good taste.
In the intense competition for eyeballs, content streamers have pushed the envelope, prompting media regulators to ban livestreamers from filming themselves eating bananas in a “seductive” fashion. China’s major streaming video providers like iQiyi, Letv, and Youku – who also sometimes offer live streams – published a group promise to abide by certain standards when live streaming, including watermarking content, saving all livestreamed content for at least 15 days, confirming the real names of streamers, blacklisting streamers who violate the content rules, and having staffers watching live-streamed content at all hours of the day and night.
Virtual Fruit, Cigarettes, Money and Booze
These sites derive a small proportion of their revenue through advertising. They survive primarily through a practice invented by Chinese companies: virtual gifting. Viewers can buy these imaginary gifts such as images of flowers or bottles of beer for their favorite performers, who receive a portion of the cash, with the site getting a hefty cut. Viewers can also send comments that pop up onscreen, giving them the perception they are interacting with the host.
This business model works in China because it builds on the traditional culture of giving red envelopes stuffed with money at weddings and fruit, cigarettes or bottles of booze at Lunar New Year. Young Chinese don’t just only pay for their clothes, food and some other basic demands, they also want to pay for entertainment.
“Showing, rather than telling”. Live Digital Strategies
The apps are also being used for commercial purposes. Individuals and companies have used them for selling makeup and skin care products. Celebrities also use live streaming to directly interact with fans. Even the person considered to be China’s richest man, Wang Jianlin, has used live streaming to publicize his company. Wang is chairman of the property development company, Dalian Wanda Group. He streamed live video while visiting a company theme park. He also sent video while relaxing aboard his private plane last week.
While things were understandably slow at the start, these live-streaming apps have already attracted a number of celebrities, media outlets, and brands to register. Nonetheless, it seems that most brands are still unsure of the best way to utilize live-streaming, both on its own and within their own existing digital marketing strategies.
Live-streaming shortens the distance between the brand and the customer and opens up a new realm of in-the-moment experiences to create. It’s a platform for developing authentic and personalized connections with clients because it is live and unpolished. Showing, rather than just telling, and being able to answer customer concerns on the spot goes a long way in developing trust and loyalty.
We can’t afford bureaucracy anymore.
If live-streaming enables an unprecedented connection with audiences, it also represents an unprecedented risk for marketers, where anything could happen as an avalanche of comments pours in in real-time.
As opposite of showing Powerpoint presentations or Apple-style product lunches, the most successful content is the conversational one, such as Q&As with staff members and informal office tours. It’s a spontaneous conversation, real time. Not a pre-edited TV commercial or episode. At the same time, live-streaming is indeed similar to a new TV in terms that, live-streaming strategies must be based on appointment-watching, and editorial calendars.
This means brands have to build social teams that can think on their feet and build ties with dedicated agencies that truly understand their core values, products and customers base. Real-time digital strategies can not afford the delays of bureaucracy anymore.
Overview on the potential of live-streaming strategies:
- Sneak peeks and teasers. Give a behind-the-scenes experience to the customers pool.
The ephemeral nature of live-streaming apps makes the platform great for teasers. There becomes an added value to customers for following brand accounts closely and making sure they don’t miss out on any news. This approach is ideal before product launches or major announcements, where you want to attract close attention and create major buzz among consumers.
- Unveil new products with live demonstrations. Announce promotions and contests.
Live-streaming is the Holy Grail when it comes to achieving a high CTR. Compared to a traditional tweet or even online video, a live-stream audience is much more engaged, and this means instant-traffic to one’s website. Since these apps are so closely connected to existing social media channels, the potential for extended sharing increases as well. Your fans can become your promoters in a race to get in on the live-action.
- Demonstrate transparency by answering customer questions. Get quick feedbacks.
Live streaming apps bring brands closer to their target consumers than ever before. Connection is real-time, and this means that answers to real customer questions, comments, and even feedback can be provided instantaneously. However, live streaming does not allow any time for editing, or control over the questions fans may ask. Brands must decide how much risk they are willing and capable to take. Taking real-time questions and answers from investors can go a long way to reassure all stakeholders that their well-being has not been forgotten.
- Showcase company culture & the people behind the brand. Provide group coaching sessions. Demonstrate expertise by providing useful info for the customers.
Showing a real face behind the brand is the best way to humanize a company and create a personal attachment with a brand. The fact that nothing is rehearsed and there is nowhere to hide means customers can feel that they are receiving the real, authentic brand experience. As a fan, I can be sure that someone has actually read aloud my question or suggestion, and that I will not just receive an automated reply.
- Collaboration with online influencers/KOLs. Network with the target audience by being a participant in other shows.
Video influencers are strong brand ambassadors because they are valued for their authenticity and esteem among their viewers. The ability of viewers to interact with an influencer in real time is a powerful tool, and one brands should definitely take advantage of. Let’s say Coca-Cola wants to spread the love and spread joy. The company can drop into a broadcast of an influencing broadcaster and tip dollars. Someone’s going to be very happy, and shout out to their audience that Coca-Cola made their day.
- Crisis management.
In a crisis situation, nothing escalates customer anxiety quite like a lack of transparency or an untimely response. Live-streaming from a trusted source within the company is the quickest and safest way to take control of the situation to show that there is nothing to hide.
- Record and re-use a conversation as a podcast or blog post.