This article was written by Lauren Hallanan and originally published in Jing Daily
“What do you do for a living?”
“I’m a full-time live streamer in China.”
Probably not the answer you would expect from a blond-haired blue-eyed American woman like me.
But that’s right, for a year-long period from spring 2016 to spring 2017, I was a professional live streamer streaming on several Chinese apps including Momo, Yizhibo, Meipai and Huajiao. I had a total following of more than 400,000.
I first began live streaming on the popular video sharing app Meipai with the intention purely of growing an audience. Then an agency that worked with Momo, a dating app that has now become famous for its live streaming, recruited me to stream on Momo. At that time, Meipai had not yet introduced gifting features, but Momo had, and the thought of earning money directly from live streaming was enticing, so I decided to give it a try.
With the help of the agency, my following grew rapidly and within a couple of months, I had nearly 300,000 fans on the Momo platform. I was making a full-time income from my live streaming, usually 20,000-30,000 yuan (HK$24,990 to HK$37,490)per month, most which came from virtual gifts from my followers. This didn’t happen by chance; I took live streaming seriously and treated it like a job, streaming at consistent times, one to two times a day, for a minimum of two to four hours a day.
Seeing as most streamers in China make less than 10,000 yuan per month, with my viewer numbers and income, I was considered an above-average streamer. Yet, I was also far from the best. For the top one per cent of Chinese live streamers, 100,000 yuan per month would be considered normal.
Time for a change
Yet, despite my success, I quickly realised Momo wasn’t a good choice for me long term. Like many of the live streaming apps in China, the only way for streamers to earn money is through gifting. There are no e-commerce functions or any way to include links to other platforms. Even awareness campaigns that didn’t require links were frowned upon unless the brand went through Momo.
The longer I streamed, the more I disliked the gifting model and felt it would not be a sustainable source of income. I decided to transition to a new platform and focus more on becoming an influencer that live streams as opposed to a pure live streamer, which, by the way, are two very different things.
Different types of streamers in China
To clarify what I mean by that, I must first explain that, in China, live streaming has already become a mature industry with many different segments whose streamers, audiences, and monetisation methods are all quite different. In general, we can break it down into three types: entertainment, educational and e-commerce.
Entertainment live streaming is the most common type where viewers are watching purely to be entertained. It consists of gaming live streams (an industry unto itself), dancing, singing, chatting, comedy, etc. For these streamers, their main source of income is gifts from fans, and they rarely do brand collaborations. Main platforms for this type of streaming are Douyu, Huajiao, Yingke, YY, and Momo.
The second type of streaming is educational, essentially meaning a live stream where people are coming to learn something. While this could be an actual live streamed class, it could also be a beauty influencer giving a make-up tutorial, a fitness guru showing people how to lose weight, or a food blogger teaching people a new dish. While these streamers will receive gifts from viewers, most their income is likely to come from brand collaborations, or they might be using live streaming as a way to grow their following. Main platforms for this type of streaming are Yizhibo and Meipai.
The last type of streaming is e-commerce live streaming, which has become very popular in China over the past year. This type of live streaming is very similar to QVC or the Home Shopping Network. Viewers tune into this type of live streaming because they want to buy things and learn about new products. In China, where e-commerce is rampant with fake items, live streaming provides transparency and trust. The most common platforms for this type of live streaming are Taobao Live, JD Live and also Yizhibo, which can host links to Taobao and Tmall.
The switch to Yizhibo
When I chose to move away from Momo, my first choice was Weibo’s live streaming platform Yizhibo. Yizhibo is an amazing choice for influencers because the platform is synced with Weibo, meaning that every time I streamed, my stream would get shared on my Weibo page and my Weibo followers could easily click in and watch. On top of that, any new followers that I got on Yizhibo would automatically become my followers on Weibo as well. What’s more, besides appearing in the stand-alone Yizhibo app, my live streams also appeared in the live stream section on the Weibo app, meaning that I was exposed to Weibo’s massive user base.
Yizhibo’s viewer demographics were a better fit too, with what seemed like a worldlier, more educated audience and a more even male to female ratio. Many of China’s entertainment style live streams apps are notorious for their large gender imbalances with most of the streamers being female and oftentimes up to 70 per cent of the audience male. In a complete reversal, e-commerce live streaming platforms Taobao Live and JD Live are dominated by females.
Being a foreigner
Some may be surprised that being a foreigner both helped and hurt my growth as a live streamer in China. The most obvious way it has helped is that as a foreigner (who speaks Chinese) I stood out among a sea of Chinese streamers and was able to attract a large audience.
However, there were also a lot of drawbacks. As a foreigner, I had a lot more trolls than a Chinese live streamer might. People wouldn’t give me gifts because I was a foreigner, and they didn’t want to “give a rich foreigner their money”.
And some might be wondering how I managed to live stream at all since, technically, foreigners are banned from live streaming in China. Let’s just say there are ways around it.
While not confined to foreigners, the real icing on the cake was the temporary ban on all live streaming outside China that happened in June 2017. By then I had moved back to the US and was gaining significant momentum as a travel and lifestyle live streamer on Yizhibo. The ban on my account lasted for several months and, although I now have access to my account and I do stream occasionally, I have moved on to other things and am not streaming to the extent that I was before.
How is my experience relevant to luxury brands?
While the heat has cooled down a bit around live streaming, it is still an amazing tool to connect with fans. I experience a much closer connection with my live streaming viewers than fans on other platforms.
I think brands need to be very careful working with live streamers, especially those that primarily monetise with gifts. It’s important for brands to do due diligence and understand the different types of streamers and platforms, the viewer demographics, and really figure out what is the best fit for your brand and product. I have seen a lot of money wasted by brands who just randomly invite live streamers to broadcast at events without really knowing anything about the streamer and their fans.
At the same time, don’t expect that any influencer can host a successful live stream. While it may seem easy, live streaming is a skill, very similar to hosting a show, and it takes practice to learn how to create an engaging live stream that is both entertaining and interactive.