Inside the wealth and power of China’s e-commerce influencers

Livestreaming sessions by Chinese livestreamers Li Jiaqi and Viya, whose real name is Huang Wei, (L) are seen on Alibaba's e-commerce app Taobao displayed on mobile phones in this illustration picture taken Dec 14, 2021.
Reuters

The scale of China’s lucrative live-streaming business model – revealed by the 1.34 billion yuan (S$284 million) tax evasion fine for top influencer Huang Wei, known as Viya – has taken ordinary Chinese by surprise.

“Is it reasonable for live streamers to earn so much? What’s their contribution to the country apart from persuading customers to buy things they don’t really need?” said one comment on social media platform Weibo.

“Poverty limits my imagination,” another said. “I’m a graduate from a top university. However, no matter how hard I try, I’ll never earn so much money in my life!”

When the Zhejiang tax authorities announced Huang’s whopping fine for evading tax payments of roughly 700 million yuan between 2019 and 2020, she was found to hold stakes in at least 16 companies, with a major shareholding in eight, including trade and e-commerce consulting firms.

Huang, 36, and her husband Dong Haifeng ranked among China’s richest 500 in last year’s Forbes list, with an estimated fortune of nine billion yuan. Her estimated net worth in 2020 was more than US$30 million (S$40.4 million) – generated from live online sales, advertising and virtual gifts, according to the Hurun Report.

The former Beijing clothing shop owner and singer rose to fame in 2016 for generating 100 million yuan in sales over four months after becoming a live-streaming host on China’s largest e-commerce platform Taobao, operated by Alibaba Group Holding, which also owns the South China Morning Post.

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Other live-stream celebrities, from “sales king” Li Jiaqi to Cherie Zhu Chenhui, are also reported to be millionaires or billionaires, based on the sales they generate via live commerce.

The business model is simple. Influencers, or their multichannel network (MCN) companies, charge a “pit fee” of between 100,000 yuan and 500,000 yuan for a live-stream session. On top of that, they can take 20 to 40 per cent in sales commissions.

When sales can run to millions or even billions of yuan, the influencers’ incomes are unsurprisingly high, according to Zhang Yi, chief analyst with Guangzhou-based iiMedia Research.

They also hold a lot of power, thanks to the sheer numbers of followers attracted by the leading shopping hosts. Huang has 92 million while Li, 29, another of China’s most influential, counts 47 million followers on his Taobao live stream.

In November, L’Oreal offered vouchers and an apology after customer complaints about a pricing issue prompted Huang and Li to threaten to suspend their collaboration with the French cosmetics giant.

“It’s ultimately the users of live commerce who give streamers their big bargaining power, influence and wealth,” said Zhang.

“Young customers don’t accept the traditional way of shopping – reading words and graphics which they cannot interact with. And more and more older consumers are also starting to enjoy engaging with their opinion leaders. It’s an irresistible trend.”

According to consulting firm McKinsey, live commerce can help brands, retailers, and marketplaces primarily in two areas – accelerating conversion and improving a brand’s appeal and differentiation.

In a report last year, McKinsey said some companies were seeing their share of younger audiences increase by up to 20 per cent. Companies also reported conversion rates of nearly 30 per cent – up to 10 times higher than in conventional e-commerce.

Joey Zhu, a snack food processor in eastern China, said his company chose Huang to sell its products because “she had a positive image and strong appeal to young consumers”.

“It was difficult to access Huang. She was so hot that we paid a third-party company to reach her and persuade her to sell our products,” he said. “What we offered her was a very good price for our products. We barely made a profit. We took it as an advertising opportunity.”

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With little exposure or support from the e-commerce platforms, most of China’s 1 million or so live commerce hosts are far from as famous or wealthy as Huang and other top influencers.

According to a 2020 report by Beijing-based headhunting website Boss Zhipin, nearly half of China’s live-streamers had fewer than 10,000 followers, while most live commerce hosts had a monthly income of between 8,000 yuan and 15,000 yuan.

“A better regulatory environment is needed to reduce irregularities and give smaller streamers a fairer chance to participate in the industry,” Zhang said.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.