AliExpress influencers on mobile phones
Alibaba hopes its QVC-like shopping streams will translate overseas as part of a strategy to kickstart its international business © FT montage

Huang Wei, better known by her stage name Viya, starts her regular live show on Alibaba’s Taobao marketplace with a lottery.

“No more talking, let’s first do some lucky draws,” Viya said last Wednesday, as small tappable icons showing the 26 products she was promoting that night — from Rmb59.9 pecans to Rmb188 Saville & Quinn face wash — appeared on the smartphone screens of an audience of millions.

Over the past four years, Viya’s streams have propelled her from obscurity to become a household name in China. The 34-year-old is among the best known of the thousands of influencers, shop clerks, farmers and factory reps who hawk products on Taobao Live each day.

So-called livestreaming ecommerce has helped Alibaba fend off surging rivals such as Pinduoduo, engaging millions of potential customers in a popular hybrid of marketing and entertainment. Now the group is betting its QVC-like shopping streams will translate overseas as part of a new strategy to kickstart its international business.

Alibaba bets on livestreaming

Alibaba’s struggling south-east Asian platform Lazada has already invested heavily in livestreaming, as it battles to regain ground over regional rivals such as Tencent-backed Shopee. Meanwhile, AliExpress, the unit that targets global shoppers, has launched a new campaign to sign up 100,000 content creators worldwide by April next year as it looks to increase international shipments.

“If they can help build a system similar to China with agencies and influencers dedicated to selling products, it will definitely help their expansion,” said Zhang Mengyao, an analyst at investment research firm EqualOcean. “Livestreaming increases conversion rates on sales and provides more product information to shoppers.”

Global ambitions

For now, AliExpress’s livestreamers fall some way short of the kind of glitz and panache that influencers bring to Instagram, YouTube or Alibaba’s Taobao feeds.

One recent evening in Europe, the live shows on offer on the company’s app and website included £5 reading glasses, neon-hued fishing flies (“very shiny”), £12 handbags and £250 disco lights, presented by a range of hosts, none of whom appeared to be household names.

The most popular channel, with a few thousand spectators, featured a young woman selling cosmetic contact lenses. Elsewhere a livestreamer called Galinna Lina hawked a polyester polka-dot dress, saying: “Don’t forget to cash coupons — the coupons today are very tasty.”

But Alibaba sees its European influencer push as critical to its international expansion. AliExpress, which was launched in 2010, has built a substantial business in Russia and some eastern European countries such as Poland, but is yet to gain serious traction elsewhere in the west, despite offering a dizzying array of goods at prices that undercut Amazon’s.

In the year to the end of March, Alibaba’s international shopping sites boasted 180m customers and its global commerce sales rose 22 per cent year on year to Rmb34bn. However, they still contributed just 7 per cent of total revenue — well short of Jack Ma’s target of bringing in half of total sales from outside China by 2025.

AliExpress livestreams include everything from product demos to warehouse visits and tutorials for new shoppers

Alibaba’s livestreaming push comes as companies look increasingly to video as a vehicle for ecommerce. Last year Amazon launched its Live service, which has brought in big-name celebrities such as Jessica Alba to headline shopping shows. In China, ByteDance’s Douyin and Tencent-backed Kuaishou earn an increasing portion of their revenue from goods sales promoted by their livestreamers.

In order to rope in talent, AliExpress is working with influencer agencies such as Poland-based IndaHash. Maciej Wojciechowski, who handles client accounts for the company, said that while most of the roughly 200 creators they’ve brought on so far are mid-tier or micro-influencers, a new project was under way to recruit top-tier figures with more than 100,000 followers.

The livestreams include everything from product demos to warehouse visits and tutorials for new shoppers. The company also hopes the streams can help users ask questions and resolve issues, like a tenet of the AliExpress Reddit forum, where users advise: “Never order anything that is more expensive than you’re willing to completely lose.”

Livestreaming builds a “more personal connection between the user and the platform,” said Gary Topp, head of central and eastern Europe at AliExpress, “because there’s someone you can kind of relate to, someone kind of similar to me, they’re also an AliExpress user, they showed me how to use AliExpress”.

Building an audience

AliExpress executives say the streams are starting to catch on. AliExpress Connect, a new platform that brings together sellers and influencers, has already signed up 14,000 creators, and Mr Topp said the number of livestreamers on its Polish site has grown 400 per cent year on year.

Yi Pengfei, head of livestreaming operations, said Russia was fielding the largest audiences, with about 1m viewers watching broadcasts during the mid-year sales festival in June. “But right now the uptake for users in Spain and France is increasing very fast too,” he said.

“For foreign users, it increases trust in the merchants, and at the same time you get more details and info on the product,” said Mr Yi, noting it had cut the return rate from less than 5 per cent to less than 2 per cent.

AliExpress is still working on the business model. Currently, either the company or merchants pay hosts set fees for most shows, but they are eager to work towards the commission model popular in China.

Sofia Zheng, at smartphone maker Umidigi, said it had paid a set fee to a well-known Japanese product blogger who sold $50,000 to $60,000-worth of phones in one of the company’s first AliExpress shows.

Yet Ms Zheng said there were no plans for daily or weekly shows — as is common for streamers on Taobao — pointing out that AliExpress’s global audience could be a disadvantage as well as an opportunity.

“AliExpress is a global shopping platform, everyone speaks different languages . . . it’s not like Taobao in China, where if I use Mandarin I can livestream to an audience of more than a billion,” she said.

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