Live streaming in 2020 was already a huge business particularly in e-commerce, but the COVID-19 pandemic only caused the format’s stock to rise to new heights. When stores were shuttered and in-person activities ground to an abrupt halt in China from late January and into the spring, brands turned to live streaming like never before. Fast forward to 2021, and the industry shows no signs of slowing down. Here are our predictions on e-commerce live streaming in 2021 based on lessons learned from the year in review.
E-Commerce Live Streaming in 2021: Where to start?
The live streaming format wasn’t just an attractive option because of the popularity of platforms like Bilibili and Douyin among Gen Zs, nor was it because of the staggering sales results racked up by the genre’s leading exponents. By its nature, the format also offered a rough digital approximation of an in-person retail experience – and that proved a powerful selling point for brands who were desperate to retain some of the human engagement that the pandemic had denied them.
There’s a lot to learn for brands venturing into e-commerce live streaming in 2021 for the first time, and there is no shortage of pitfalls, but there are also tried-and-true paths to success. Conventional wisdom says that the smart option is to partner with KOLs who are established and enjoy the “stickiness” (ie. loyalty) of a large fan-base. Aside from having a ready-made audience and an established style, the very best live streamers are devastatingly effective salespeople who can literally sell anything – Viya Huang, for example, has sold everything from educational courses to real estate on her live streams.
Brands can go to multi-channel networks (MCNs) to search for KOLs who are a good fit for the brand’s values and goals. These talent agencies can help streamline the process, but not all MCNs are created equal – some are less reputable than others, so marketers need to do their homework. Asking peers for referrals to MCNs is a good place to start.
Choose the right KOL to work with
Choosing the perfect KOLs to partner with is a case of trial and error. As with other areas of influencer culture, the live streaming industry divides hosts into the “head” KOLs, superstars like Viya and Li Jiaqi, mid-tier KOLs who still have respectably large followings, and micro-influencers who have smaller circles of loyal fans and operate in highly specific niches. Brands don’t need to pay top dollar to achieve success with e-commerce live streaming in 2021 – KOLs and micro-influencers with smaller followings can make very reliable partners and may have more intimate bonds with their fans than the superstar KOLs do.
Brands need to screen live streamers rigorously before any deal is made. That means learning about who the KOL’s fans are, whether the KOL’s content is a good fit for the brand, and asking the KOL or MCN for metrics or case studies demonstrating a track record of effective collaborations. It’s also important to understand the cost structure of working with live streamers, as fees can multiply and popular live streamers are able to demand sizeable discounts on featured products. Brands should make a clear accounting for the likely ROI on any collaboration and be sure that the deal is worthwhile before proceeding.
While many brands will simply be unable to afford the fees commanded by the leading KOLs, even those with deep pockets may find themselves shut out by the big guns. The top performers, like Viya Huang, are in such high demand that they can pick and choose which brands they work with. Viya has a team assigned exclusively to selecting products that she will endorse on her live streams. The team includes experts in a range of product categories, following a strict process to screen items and come up with a shortlist. The shortlisted items are moved on to Viya herself, who is famously meticulous in her research, testing, and learning about products before selecting those that make the final cut.
Apart from the quality of the products, other considerations include the brand’s history, consumer interest in the brand, and factors like customer service, and the overall consumer experience. Again, Viaya’s team tests these elements out by actually making purchases from the brand’s store and evaluating the experience.
Brands have been doing their own Live-streaming in 2020
In 2020, as well as with e-commerce live streaming in 2021, live-streamed content was and will continue to be heavily centered around the hosts introducing products and demonstrating how to use them. Brands will instinctively want to work with live-streamers whose style and audience aligns with their own, but brands are growing increasingly comfortable with crossing categories and working with KOLs who are not natural partners. The key is to understand that if the target audience is desirable, the brand can trust the KOL to know their people and find the appropriate pitch for the product.
Many brands have also decided to set up their own live-streaming operations, especially during this year’s lockdowns. Some brands have set up live streaming studios inside their stores. Others retrained their sales associates in the skills of live-streaming and social media marketing and redeployed them as live-stream hosts.
One of the most notable success stories in this regard was high-end imported beauty retailer Afiona, which trained over 1,000 employees to become live-streaming hosts. The retailer’s average two-hour live-stream will bring in sales equivalent to about 20 per-cent of a day’s takings in one of its stores. However, Afiona has also achieved blockbuster tallies for one-off events, including taking in RMB 5 million in sales in just one three-hour live-stream. One store manager, Pika, has even been dubbed the “Li Jiaqi of Yanli” by colleagues due to his outstanding sales record during live streams.
The retailer’s CEO, Zhu Hucheng, has identified a number of suggestions for optimizing the kind of products featured in a brand’s live-stream. Zhu’s rules include selecting products in categories that inspire high levels of engagement, focusing on high-quality products, and products with potential for repeat purchasing. Like many of the top KOLs, Afiona also invests heavily in operations, employing a large team of support staff to make sure that the brand doesn’t fall down on areas like shipping and customer service.
Other factors like communities and private traffic
Last but not least thing about e-commerce live streaming in 2021 is that brands should be prepared to use live-streaming content to galvanize the brand’s existing communities. Whether the brand runs its own live-stream or partners with KOLs, promoting live-streams across owned channels and private traffic networks is a powerful driver of affinity among fans, and the interplay between live-stream and community is mutually reinforcing.