China's imposition of a $210 million fine for tax evasion on Viya, an internet celebrity dubbed 'the queen of livestreaming', highlights how quickly the industry has grown to become one of the country's most popular sales channels in a few short years.
Top Western brands from L'Oreal to Louis Vuitton engage livestreamers to help market products on China's top e-commerce platforms, and analysts now describe it as essential to a brand's strategy in the world's second-largest economy.
Where it all began
The first company to combine livestreaming online and shopping in China was e-commerce giant Alibaba Group's Taobao marketplace, which introduced Taobao Live in 2016.
The platform allows influencers to open their own livestreaming channels on Taobao, on which they can market a wide range of products, everything from cosmetics to clothes and snacks to cars. Viya even sold a rocket launch service for 40 million yuan ($6.3 million) last year.
Brands also hold regular livestreams, usually anchored by staff or likely lesser known influencers, on their own self-run online stores on Taobao and Tmall, another Alibaba marketplace.
Why it is so popular
Anchors speak to online shoppers, answering questions about size, colour and fit in real time, engaging them with a chatty, informal approach and also encouraging quick purchases with discounts available for a limited time.
One big attraction is that it all happens on a single mobile app interface - shoppers can watch, ask questions and click to purchase all on the same page during the livestream.
Some of the personalities, especially top sellers like Viya and her main rival Li Jiaqi, have also grown extremely popular as they are seen by consumers as a credible go-between after past scandals involving product quality and fake goods left many distrustful of brands' claims.
Top influencers also develop their own popularity with shoppers, as well as that of brands. Viya's image became that of a reliable, friendly 'sister', while the excitement in Li Jiaqi's catchphrase "Oh my god, buy it!appeals to many.
Getting a product placed on their livestreams is seen as a big vote of confidence in the quality, consumers and brands say.
Li counts 47 million followers on his Taobao livestream room and Viya, prior to the shuttering of her room, counted more than 90 million followers.
How big it is in China
The pandemic was a big boost for the livestreaming industry, spurring demand for online entertainment and shopping services. Beyond the big names, there are now thousands of livestreaming anchors operating in China. Last year, iiMedia Research said there were more than 28,000 so-called multi-channel network agencies in China, each of which tend to manage multiple online influencers. Many e-commerce platforms, including ByteDance's Douyin, the Chinese equivalent of TikTok, Kuaishou, JD.com and Pinduoduo now offer their users the opportunity to shop via livestream. Douyin is extremely popular and a keen rival to Taobao on this front.
The types of hosts also vary widely in China. Farmers to factory owners, government officials to the heads of top Chinese companies such as travel giant Trip.com have all appeared on live streams to hawk products.
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