Right now there’s a lot of buzz in the U.S. surrounding the live streaming apps Periscope and Facebook Live; social media marketing experts are saying live video apps are the next big thing, some brands are starting to experiment with them, and many celebrities are jumping on and giving this new technology a try. Last August, Periscope reported it had more than 10 million accounts and many of the app’s popular hosts have followings in the multiple six digits. Available to the public starting only recently, Facebook Live has already captured events like the attempted military coup in Turkey and the shooting death of Philando Castile, as well as the hilarious Chewbacca Mom video.
Yet for all the buzz, neither of the apps have really taken off. Periscope numbers have been declining and, while Mark Zuckerberg has been paying celebrities big bucks to use his new app, ordinary citizens don’t seem that interested in giving it a try. So the question is, will live streaming really catch on in the US or will it just be used by celebrities and marketers? And if it does catch on, how long will it take to become mainstream?
These are all good questions, and while the American market is still exploring this new medium, the Chinese market has already fully embraced live streaming apps. Currently there are already more than 200 live streaming apps in China and in June this year, the China Internet Network Information Center reported that these apps have a total of 325 million users, meaning that 45.8% of the entire internet user population of China uses live streaming apps! Some of the most popular apps have reported that every day during peak viewing hours there will be around 4 million online users and over 3,000 live broadcasts occurring at any given time.
So why has live streaming taken off so quickly in China? Let’s take a look:
China has had live streaming for quite a few years now, starting with the online gaming community. Popular gamers would live stream while fans and other players would tune in to learn new skills. Later on, websites like YY became famous for their girly, sexy female live stream hosts, oftentimes in cosplay outfits, who sat in their bedrooms and sang songs or danced. This type of live stream became very popular among lonely men in smaller cities, but had a bad reputation among the general population and was looked down upon as being trashy.
These two types of online live streaming platforms were popular among a small segment of the population, but didn’t grow beyond that as there didn’t seem to be any innovation in the industry. Besides limited content, there were a lot of barriers to entry with online platforms. If you wanted to live broadcast, you needed a higher than average internet connection and a professional microphone. If you wanted to watch, you had to watch on your computer. With Chinese internet users being primarily mobile there wasn’t any way these platforms were going to reach a larger audience anytime soon.
Around the same time as the emergence of Meerkat and Periscope abroad, Chinese companies also saw huge opportunities for live streaming apps. By the end of 2015 dozens of live streaming apps were popping up in China.
Many, if not all, of the online live streaming platforms came out with app versions and now hosts can choose whether to use the traditional computer live streaming or mobile live streaming. At the same time, many entirely new apps offering only live streaming appeared such as Ingkee and Xiandanjia. In addition to these, many other types of platforms such as video sharing apps (Meipai) , social media apps (Momo), educational platforms (gensheixue) and online shopping sites (Taobao) have added mobile live streaming capabilities.
Nowadays it seems like every platform is adding live streaming capabilities and for those wanting to host a live broadcast, the decision of which platform to choose can be pretty overwhelming (and many marketers think choosing between Periscope and Facebook Live is hard enough!)
At first glance some might say Chinese developers are just copying western apps with the little hearts for likes and use comments coming from the bottom of the screen, but honestly that’s about all that is the same. Here’s a list of the major differences:
- Gifts – I will go into length on this topic in a later post but probably the most unique feature available on a majority of the Chinese live streaming apps is the ability for viewers to send the host virtual gifts during their live broadcast. There are a variety of gifts (such as flowers, cakes, microphones, cars and boats) which are assigned different point values and these points values have a RMB equivalent. Essentially the viewers are giving the host a monetary tip disguised in the form of a virtual gift. Hosts can privately keep track of their earnings in the back end of their account and at the end of the month the live streaming company will directly deposit their gift earnings in their bank account, similar to the way Youtube sends a check to a popular Youtuber. Popular hosts with large audiences are earning lucrative salaries and many of them treat hosting as a full time job.
- Length of live broadcast – I’ve seen many marketers in the U.S. suggesting that short 5-20 minute broadcasts are best. In China that doesn’t work. Viewers expect hosts to be online for at least an hour if not more. Many hosts with live stream for several hours at a time.
- Ability to post other content – As I mentioned above, many of the popular live streaming platforms were originally video sharing or social media platforms that have now added a live streaming component. This means that, on these types of platforms, hosts can have a profile page with photos, a self introduction and other information. Hosts can also send out posts with photos, short video and text (similar to Facebook) giving them other ways to engage with followers and notify them of their live streaming schedule.
- Follower communities – In China, if you’re going to be a professional host you need to create a discussion group for your most loyal followers. Chatting with them every day in this group with give them a sense of personal connection and they will be more willing to show up to all of your live streams and promote you. Some live stream apps have the ability to create groups, others don’t so hosts will send followers to other platforms such as QQ or Wechat.
- Contests – Some live stream apps will hold contests where hosts who receive the most gifts in a certain time period can earn additional monetary prizes. Loyal fans will want to support their favorite host by sending them more gifts and the app will earn more money.
- What makes a successful host – In Chinese live streaming beauty comes first, then good content. In the past some of the most successful hosts were girls with heavy makeup in sexy clothing who pretty much did nothing but chat a dance around a bit. Now, as the industry is growing and becoming competitive, viewer’s expectations are becoming higher and hosts are having to develop better content. Now, the winning combination is a good looking host AND interesting content.
- Finding new hosts – Most apps will have a front page with recommended hosts where they will promote the hosts with the most viewers, the most gifts or interesting and unusual content. If you can get onto this recommended page it is like the New & Noteworthy for podcasters aka. much easier to get followers!
- Managers – There are often hundreds in not thousands of viewers at any given time and large percentage of them are trolls! At times there can be some nasty comments flying across the screen. To solve this problem, some platforms give hosts the ability to assign managers (loyal fans) who have the ability to kick people out of the live streaming room on the host’s behalf.
There are a couple reasons why live video has exploded in China. First is that, as I mentioned previously, live video is not completely new to China, so there was already an existing foundation.
Second is that Chinese people are very quick to adopt new technological trends, a prime example being that a couple years ago China was a cash economy and now most stores, even small mom and pop shops, will accept electronic mobile payment through Alipay or Wechat systems. Many of my Chinese friends often leave the house without a wallet; they say a phone is all they need these days.
Moreover, the number of mobile internet users in China is enormous, with a majority of people using mobile devices more frequently than a computer and 85.7 percent of 514 million online video viewers in China preferring to look at the small screens on their smartphones to watch videos. Now that live streaming has gone mobile, it is now incredibly convenient for mobile users to view live streaming (and host a live stream!)
Last but not least is social culture. China has a lot of what they call “zhainan” and “zhainv” meaning homebody boys and homebody girls. Many Chinese people are reluctant to go out, maybe they don’t have a lot of friends, maybe they are shy, maybe they think its more fun to just stay at home and play video games or shop online. Whatever the reason, there is a large population of people who are lonely, bored and isolated. People are craving personal interaction and community, which can be satisfied through live streaming without the stress of having to go out and actually meet someone.
While this article paints a pretty rosy picture of the live streaming industry in China, there are a lot of issues. With over 200 live streaming platforms the competition is intense and many platforms are not profitable and are struggling to survive. There is likely to be a lot of consolidation in the near future.
Furthermore, there have been a lot of issues with illicit content and the China government is taking measures to eliminate these hosts and more tightly regulate the industry.
With all the incredible growth, everyone and their cousin is trying to become the next big influencer and the space is getting saturated. Even watching beautiful people can get boring pretty quickly. To avoid losing viewers, platforms are partnering with celebrities, brands and TV channels to draw in more fans, while also promoting those hosts with more exciting and unusual content.
Despite these problems, brands in China seem to be embracing live streaming and, while it will keep evolving, it is definitely here to stay. Many popular brands in the U.S. are starting to add Periscope and Facebook Live into their social media campaigns and brands looking to attract a Chinese audience should consider using a Chinese live stream platform as well. Right now in China live streaming is an incredible opportunity to engage with large audience for a relatively low cost.