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Livestreaming the China Dream: Grassroots Micro-influencers in China

This post was written by Dr. Yingqin Zheng, you can find her profile here

On 20 April 2020, President Xi JinPing stood in front of a livestreaming set in the Jinmi village in Shaanxi province where villagers promote online their local speciality, cloud ear fungus. He said new industrial development in e-commerce has great potential to promote agricultural products, alleviate poverty and foster the revival of rural economy. This became the headline on all major state press outlets the next day, and marks the highest official endorsement of the livestreaming trend that emerged in China in the last couple of years, capturing the fascination of millions who are dreaming to make a fortune by becoming a livestream micro-influencer.

Livestreaming in e-commerce is similar to television shopping but takes place real-time online, across different platforms, and combines content marketing, influencer marketing and entertainment. It first appeared on Alibaba’s e-commerce platform Taobao in 2016 and later spread to other major social media platforms like Quaishou and Douyin which mainly supports individual livestreaming for entertainment.  In 2019, over 400 million viewers watched during 350,000 hours of livestream shopping on Taobao. Over RMB 200 billion of transactions were made, which has been increasing at over 150% in the last three year[1]. Livestream micro-influencers have also drawn the attention from marketers in other countries[2], seen a surge of popularity during the covid-19 lockdown[3] and even hailed as a “post-pandemic game changer”[4].

I stumbled into this ‘brave new world’ of livestream micro-influencers (MI henceforth) at the end of 2019 when trying to research Taobao villages in China, where residents of rural villages collectively adopt e-commerce to transform their livelihood. I travelled to Yiwu where the most famous Taobao village is located. Upon arrival, however, I was told that Taobao villages were already yesterday’s story, and now everybody was doing livestreaming. I was referred to a village called Bei Xia Zhu (BXZ), which congregates hundreds of stores open by external business owners, occupying the ground floor of all the streets in the village. BXZ is renowned for pioneering in livestream e-commerce and attracts waves of MIs eager to make a fortune by marketing products online. The reason they came to Yiwu was that it hosts the world’s largest small commodities market, where numerous types of products can be sourced directly from suppliers at a very low price, a critical competitive advantage in the ‘battleground’ of livestream e-commerce. Yiwu also offers logistics service at the lowest cost.

So this is where I started to explore the topic of grassroots livestream MI. Many MI aspirants saw the rise of livestream e-commerce as an opportunity of digital entrepreneurship and self-realisation, encouraged by the ‘miracles’ created by top-tier influencers like Austin Li and Viya Zhang who frequently break daily sales records in the realm of multi-hundred-million-yuan. One hears stories about individuals who came to Yiwu with debts and turned into a millionaire after 6 months. Most MIs in Yiwu do not operate on Taobao which is a mature and well-regulated online marketplace. Instead, they preferred to start livestreaming on popular short video apps like Kuai-shou or Dou-yin, which are not originally e-commerce platforms but capture a vast number of viewers who are perceived as potential buyers. In effect MIs are creating a micro-enterprise themselves through livestreaming, which involves creative content production to attract viewers, procurement at the backend, marketing, sales, and customer relationship management all combined in the livestreaming sessions.

I spent about three weeks in Yiwu talking to various people to acquire some initial ideas about the livestream MI industry and the multiple actors in the ecosystem. In the midst of this fast-speed city that grew from a small village to a major hub of global trade in a few decades, an epitome of China’s economic rise, I reflected on how the surge of livestream MI was simultaneously driven by the neoliberal values of self-enterprise, individual success and the pursuit of wealth, as well as the national discourse of poverty alleviation and economic development, the two main pillars of the ‘China Dream’[5].

While the research is ongoing and at an early stage, I can share a few preliminary observations on the experience of grassroots livestream MIs in their pursuit of online success. First of all, many grassroots MIs took an ad hoc approach and simply tried their luck by setting up livestreaming equipment and started livestreaming from their rental room. Most of them quickly failed. “It is not as easy as it looks!” – as one of my respondents proclaimed. Some started by shooting entertainment short videos and managed to accumulate a fan pool, but had no idea how to convert them into buyers. So many people get enrolled into one or more training programs which deliver the basic knowledge of how to set up accounts on the platforms, how to navigate the complex rules of the platforms, how to set up a consistent and attractive ‘persona’ that appeal to a particular target audience, how to upload regular short videos to cultivate and maintain a fan pool, and how to capitalise from the fan pool by selling products. 

Independent MIs have to work very long hours. Their days consist of selecting and sourcing products from the suppliers, producing regular short videos to grow and maintain their fan pool, marketing the products during daily livestreaming sessions (usually 2-3 hours), and then making sure the sales are completed by the supplier. Depending on the target audience they may livestream at different times of the day. Some MIs form partnership with others to distribute the tasks but these teams often fall apart after a while due to conflict of interest. The competition is brutal and individuals undertaking all the risks and work burden could be easily overwhelmed.

MIs contracted by MCNs don’t have to worry about the supply chain, but are required to build a particular persona to match the products, especially branded products. YY is a young woman who started livestreaming when studying in Korea and later worked in Yiwu for an MCN. She was instructed to present herself as a sweet lively girl dressed in a typical ‘cute’ Asian style. Her short videos have to follow certain templates to maintain consistency, which made her feel like a puppet. “I can never relax and have to constantly think about how to shoot the video”, YY said. She also had to be very careful with what she said and put up with cyberbullying. The platform also imposes penalty and even closes down the account if the algorithm picks up anything considered inappropriate or politically incorrect.

Most of the female MIs mention the physical toll of livestreaming, e.g. from standing in high heels (for women’s fashion) and talking for hours on end to the camera with hardly any time for breaks. On nationwide e-commerce big sales days, they had to livestream for a whole day to push as much sales as possible. An MI recalled that “I couldn’t feel my legs any more after 10 hours and just collapsed.” The gig economy logic of self-exploitation, subjugation to technological governance, as well as the performativity of the ‘self’ in the digital arena finds strong echoes among livestream MIs.

An MCN coach and manager, herself an experienced influencer, said that 70% of MIs quit after a few months. Those who make it need sufficient grit to persevere, enduring not only physical challenges but more importantly extended period of frustration and disappointment at the beginning, while keeping up the spirit to chat with possibly a small number of viewers in the livestreaming sessions day after day. Moreover, to generate steady revenue and scale up the fan base, a professional team is required to manage each link of the process. The industry is increasingly dominated by big MCNs with substantial capital investment and professional teams. After China’s pandemic lockdown, a rising number of celebrities (actors/actresses, singers, opinion leaders etc.) appear in livestreaming sessions with influencers to promote products. Some even became influencers themselves. Big players occupy the top and middle level of the industry, whereas grass-roots micro-influences remain at the bottom of the pyramid, looking up to the star performers. Some may be lucky enough to hit a hotspot and make a fortune, while many others may eventually see their bubble of dreams burst amid the hustle and bustle.  


[1] Huang, Z, The Surge of Livestreaming (2020), Life Week (San Lian Zhou Kan), Issue 25. P.36-51 http://www.lifeweek.com.cn/2020/0617/53719.shtml

[2] How to Leverage Taobao influencers to generate Sales in China’ (2020) Marketing China, 2 March. Available at: https://www.marketingtochina.com/how-to-leverage-taobao-influencers-to-generate-sales-in-china/

[3] Freegard, S. (2020) Why Micro-Influencers Are Seeing Big Growth During Lockdown, [Talking Influence]. Available at: https://talkinginfluence.com/2020/05/05/micro-influencers-growth-lockdown/

[4] Stein, S. (2020) Bringing The Store To The Consumer: How Live Streaming Could Become A Post-Pandemic Game Changer, Forbes. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/sanfordstein/2020/05/08/bringing-the-store-to-the-consumer-how-live-streaming-could-become-a-post-pandemic-game-changer/

[5] Hizi, G. (2019) ‘Speaking the China Dream: self-realization and nationalism in China’s public-speaking shows’, Continuum. Routledge, 33(1), pp. 37–50.

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