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Asian e-commerce live streams attract early-mover sports properties

Panini's live stream launch on Tmall in April. (Image credit: Mailman)

  • Home shopping television has been rebooted for the digital era in the form of e-commerce live streams
  • Sports brands including Panini and Tottenham Hotspur are testing the format’s potential
  • China and Asia are the growth centres currently, but worldwide adoption looks likely

E-commerce live streams are a growing phenomenon in online retail in Asia. Online retail platforms and brands are creating live video content to showcase their wares and drive sales in what is a digital-era reboot of home shopping television. Sports businesses are starting to dip their toes in the water.

China is a hotbed of activity in the emerging sector. It is the leading e-commerce market globally, with a mind-boggling $1.9tn (€1.7tn) in sales in 2019, driven by platforms such as Alibaba’s Tmall.

Nike and Adidas now run regular, sometimes daily, e-commerce live streaming sessions on their online stores in China. Sports trading card company Panini America used a live stream to launch its online retail presence in China in April. English Premier League club Tottenham Hotspur has run e-commerce segments in live streams for fans in China.

The content that is emerging in the space is not limited to showing off products. Southeast Asian online marketplace Lazada has been streaming home workout sessions via its mobile app during the Covid-19 lockdown. The streams include links for viewers to get information on and buy the clothing and equipment used by the presenter.

“Most, if not all sports businesses in China with a direct-to-consumer play have some kind of a live-streaming presence,” says Justin Tan, managing director at Mailman China, the digital agency. Mailman works with sports organisations including Panini and Tottenham Hotspur on their digital activity in China.

Tan says: “Sports businesses, especially those that have been in the Chinese market for some time, will be looking to build a comprehensive business model including B2B and B2C elements. The B2C element will include direct-to-consumer plays such as e-commerce and merchandise. In this case, tactics and content marketing tools such as livestreaming will help sport businesses build a strong direct-to-consumer presence.”

Running a live stream

E-commerce live streams in China are carried on, among others, e-commerce platforms Tmall and rival JD.com, as well as the ubiquitous WeChat app.

“The content typically focuses on showcasing products in a fun and authentic manner, as well as interacting with the live audiences,” Tan says. “Payment for products can be done online within the live stream, with delivery made by the brand after.”

The cost of producing the streams varies, particularly depending on the presenters and other guests that appear. Costs will increase when popular influencers – or ‘KOLs’, key opinion leaders, as they are referred to in China – and celebrities appear.

Tan says successful live streams have three attributes: ‘brand authenticity’, great products and interactivity.

“Brand authenticity refers to making sure that the brands’ DNA is reflected prominently, is localised, and resonates with the audience,” he says. “Great products that deliver on efficacy and cost-effectiveness are key to sales performance… Finally, Chinese audiences are accustomed to the live streaming format. They expect that the content is a two-way communication.”

Interactive features in e-commerce live streams may include Q&As in which audiences post questions for the presenters using comment functions; chat functions allowing viewers to message each other; and competitions which viewers can win by answering questions or writing phrases in the comments.

Jason Howarth, vice president marketing at Panini America, says the products that work best on the live streams “are ones that are visually appealing, that you can talk about and have interactions with consumers on”. He adds: “An engaging host running the live stream and a compelling product are the two biggest drivers of running a successful live stream.”

While generating sales is obviously a big focus of the live streams, there is also significant scope for companies to develop their brand and educate consumers about it.

Tan says: “Live streaming…is a content vehicle to carry brand messaging. This can be used for branding purposes, e.g. to educate the audiences on the heritage of the brand, and at the same time it can also be applied for e-commerce and sales.”

Panini’s experience

Panini in April joined the long line of overseas companies looking to break into China. Its Tmall live stream marked the official opening of its store on the platform. It is selling products including trading cards and memorabilia such as autographed jerseys, basketballs and posters. Prices range from $9.99 for Panini Instant Player cards up to $5,000 for a card autographed by NBA player Zion Williamson.

In a press release after the stream, Panini said its total viewership was 250,000, it got 295,000 ‘likes’, and it had sold out of most of its featured products within the first hour.

Jason Howarth says: “One of the key pieces of our marketing strategy is introducing our products to sports fans and engaging collectors, the live streams are a good component of doing that with wider reach.” 

Video is already a major part of Panini’s marketing. ‘Case-breaking’ videos, both recorded and live streamed, in which collectors open up packs – cases – of player trading cards are popular among its US customers.

“From ‘Casebreaking’ in our trading card community, to regular ‘box break’ videos which we have done for years to preview new products – we now have the ability to live stream those,” Howarth says. “One of the most compelling things about live streams is not just the actual live views – but the fact that people can book and rewatch the stream which boosts overall views.”

Alongside sales, Howarth says the key metrics for Panini in measuring the success of the live streams included views and interactions. He says there is also large value for the company in “educating consumers to what’s in the product and what they can expect, whether they chose to make a purchase during the live stream, at a later date, or if they go in to their retailer to buy the product”. This is clearly particularly important when the company is introducing its products to a new market.

Panini’s launch stream was based around its NBA products. Howarth said it expects “similar success” with its English Premier League and NFL products. The company is the exclusive trading card partner of the three rights-holders.

Concept spread

Mailman’s Justin Tan expects e-commerce live streams to become a worldwide phenomenon. Howarth agrees, pointing to the existing success of case-breaking live streams in the US. “I could see this also having great potential in that market to help introduce and preview new products,” he says. “As well as markets where our trading card products are popular, including Japan, Australia and the United Kingdom.”

Tan says: “E-commerce dominates, and is expected to grow even further with restrictions to physical retail in the current Covid-19 environment”. Mailman expects the major e-commerce and social media platforms prevalent in Western markets to ‘converge’ and incorporate live streaming and other e-commerce elements now seen in China.

Tan warns that the space does not offer an easy win and organisations considering entering it must have patience. “It takes time to find the right blend of brand messaging, content, products and talent. What works for one brand may not work for another.” Organisations must have a good understanding of their customer bases and “be prepared to experiment”. Additionally, he says, “it would help if the brand already has a strong digital following”.

Given that many sports organisations have strong digital followings, e-commerce live streams could be an avenue worth exploring.

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