What people do, where they do it, and with whom, has turned inside out thanks to the stay-at-home boom in live streaming. One result of this has been to make patterns of internet use in the West look more like China.
More particularly, it is the range of activity and the depth of its penetration into daily life that recalls China’s own deep love affair with the format.
In the West it is something born of necessity. And while this has accelerated uses that were already in the pipeline, such as remote video conferencing for office workers and students, it is the more unexpected and small scale that have proved most popular.
Not long after lock down was introduced in the UK on March 23, Jay Flynn, from Darwen in Lancashire, began hosting his local pub’s quiz night on YouTube. The first 90-minute Virtual Pub Quiz was streamed on 24 March. Within a week it was attracting six-figure audiences from around the world.
Another recent live-streamer is Anna Varone-Johnson, co-founder of Ragdolly Annas playgroup in Milton Keynes. Before lockdown it provided drop-in entertainment for groups of around 30 toddlers. Yet since moving online Varone-Johnson has found herself leading live-streamed sing-a-longs and dance-a-longs for thousands of children and their parents across Europe. “I thought: ‘We’re all in this together.’ If we can make people’s lives easier for just half an hour, it’s worth it,” Mrs Varone-Johnson told the BBC.
Varone-Johnson and Flynn are among thousand of lockdowners who have thrived in niche streaming – from online choirs, language classes and DIY demos to keep fit and cookery tips.
That many of these can feel rough around the edges underlines a sense of authenticity and immediacy.
To this is brought value-added social connectedness, at a time when self isolation denies such a thing.
The same, but more so
While the boom in live streaming has happened almost overnight in the West, the format has been around for a lot longer in China – a result of state support, tech innovation and a large monocultural population.
Yet many of the same qualities are driving growth in both places. The desire for social contact, a sense of community and entertainment have led millions of Chinese millennials and Gen-Z’s to live streaming as an antidote to the anonymising and alienating effect of life in the country’s megacities.
Lockdown, which in China began in January, has only magnified these ideas and introduced the format to a wider audience.
As Brits miss their pubs, so Chinese miss their restaurants, with the result that a population accustomed to ordering in or eating out has been forced into the kitchen – and live streamed the results. Similarly, karaoke nights out with friends have become bedroom singalongs via conference chat on apps such as Youku, Yizhibo and WeChat.
Other popular live streams mirror many of the home-based activities that have found popularity overseas – from fashion try outs and beauty makeovers (always popular), to health and fitness classes and household cleaning tips.
The major differences lie in the sophistication of the infrastructure and the size of the user base, which, in effect, means there’s a willing audience for practically anything.
One amateur actor, known by the username Yuansan, began live streaming while asleep to find out if he snores. He awoke to find his channel had 800,000 new followers. A repeat performance attracted more than 18 million viewers. “I was bored so I decided to live-stream myself sleeping, but I didn’t think that [internet users] would be even more bored than I was,” he said in a follow-up video. “Everyone in the live-streaming room is pushing me to sleep, but it’s 5 o’clock in the afternoon!”
Live-streaming to live-commerce
The East-West similarities start to break down, however, when it comes to combining live streaming and ecommerce – or ‘live commerce’, as it’s become known.
Wide awake to the boom in live streaming, Chinese tech companies and marketers have busily sought new ways to squeeze maximum value from screen time. The result is a sophisticated infrastructure that is well integrated with some of the most common ecommerce and social media platforms – WeChat, Douyin (known in the West as TikTok), JD and Taobao – the country’s biggest ecommerce platform, which pioneered live commerce in China in 2016.
To begin, the formula was dominated by key opinion leaders (KOLs) and online influencers, normally in partnership with corporate sponsors. One of the most successful is Viya, a beauty specialist, who broke her own record last year having achieved one-day sales of RMB 353 million (GBP 43 million). (When Kim Kardashian decided to begin live selling her new perfume, it was Viya she turned to for advice.)
Yet self-isolation has hastened uptake by numerous small sellers and business owners, who have moved online from bricks and mortar stores and taken on the role of being their own KOL.
In January, Taobao reported 700 new sellers on its platform and the number of live broadcast rooms and live-stream events surge by 100 percent and 110 percent year-on-year respectively.
One group of recent adopters is farmers, who have struggled to clear stocks during lockdown. A live stream at Taobao helped one farmer sell nearly 5,000 kilograms of tomatoes, 7,500 kilograms of cucumbers and 3,000 kilograms of strawberries.
Over to you
Could something similar happen in the West? Many small businesses face the similar problems. And with most people now at home and spending more time in front of their screens, the moment seems ripe.
The launch of Amazon Live in February last year suggests that western internet giants – perhaps with one eye on China – are alert to the possibilities. Live streaming and ecommerce plugins at Facebook have been around since 2016 and the past couple of years have also seen YouTube edge closer to the idea, albeit with strings attached.
For the moment, however, the problem is public sentiment. Many will say the difference is cultural, which may be code for a reluctance to try something new and not wanting to look foolish in front of a live audience. Yet how many of today’s lockdown live streamers, in bedrooms, front rooms, kitchens and gardens, might’ve thought the same six months ago?
Five tips for successful live-streaming
1. Prepare the set up. Check the technology and test what format works best.
2. Consider timing. Will your audience be at work or asleep?
3. Be consistent. Make a schedule and stick to it.
4. Don’t be just another talking head – show and tell.
5. Interact with your audience and don’t forget to give shout-outs.