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Influencers’ next frontier: their own live shopping channels

Live shopping is already huge in China, and now tech giants want to make it big in the US

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Carla Stevenné’s first live stream terrified her. As part of Amazon Live’s influencer beta group, she needed to find stuff to sell, and she needed to figure out how to fill her allotted hour. She had never tried to hawk products live before, let alone fill 60 minutes talking to herself and a camera. She looked around her house. A few things stood out: a waterproof Bluetooth speaker, Crest 3D Whitestrips, and a Bluetooth karaoke machine.

“I’m looking at the time, I was 15 minutes in, [and] I’m like, ‘O. M. G., 45 more minutes to get to an hour — I do not know how I’m going to do this.’” she says.

Almost no one tuned into Stevenné’s first stream, but now, more than 200 streams later, she says an hour is nowhere near as daunting, and hundreds of people can tune in at a time. 

2020 has been the year of live shopping for US tech companies. Amazon launched Amazon Live for influencers in July, and Instagram and Facebook launched live shopping features in August. Google’s R&D division, Area 21, also launched Shoploop, which isn’t live but offers shoppable stories, and smaller startups continued their efforts to make live shopping not just a thing, but the future of retail. On every platform, it ends up looking like a modern twist on QVC — but with influencers instead of celebrities, and those influencers getting a cut of the sales.

Carla Stevenné showed off beauty products on a recent live stream.
Carla Stevenné showed off beauty products on a recent live stream.

There’s good reason for tech companies to believe live shopping could be big in the US: it’s already massive in China. In March, 60 million people tuned into shopping live streams, an increase of 126 million compared to last June, according to a report published by the China Internet Network Information Center. Even Kim Kardashian West partnered with a prolific Chinese influencer on a live shopping stream and reportedly sold 15,000 bottles of perfume almost instantly. 

“Live shopping is this really fantastic one-two punch of discovery and consideration in one-go, and it naturally is a medium that lends itself to entertainment, so shopping as entertainment,” says Layla Amjadi, Instagram’s product lead for shopping. “You get to not only discover that product but then you get to hear about it, you get to see it in motion, see it in action.”

Plus, with a pandemic shutting down retail storefronts, the transition to online shopping has only intensified. Live shopping could become a tenet of retail, especially when coupled with the reach and enthusiasm of influencers. 

Hélène Heath shows mascara in one of her Shoploop videos.
Hélène Heath shows mascara in one of her Shoploop videos.

Amjadi says that 40,000 people tuned in when makeup YouTuber Nikita Dragun hosted a live shopping event on Instagram. Five thousand items were added to shopping carts throughout the segment, she says. And the sales were all a boon for Dragun since she only sold her own branded products.

“There’s a lot of latent demand for discovering brands and products from the people that you look up to and want to emulate,” Amjadi says. “Creators can show up on Instagram in multiple capacities, though. They can show up in a marketing capacity or a selling capacity, and they’re oftentimes, increasingly, doing both.”

Influencers who don’t sell their own products could make money off affiliate links, depending on the platform. Amazon accepts affiliate links for its live events, while Instagram requires brands to register with Facebook before going live. Only brands can make money on Instagram for now, and Facebook gets a cut of the transaction.

Crucial to live shopping’s success, influencers have already gained their followers’ trust and admiration, says Lauren Beitelspacher, an associate professor of marketing at Babson College, making them the perfect salespeople. 

“This live shopping with influencers, it’s basically like you’re shopping with a friend or somebody that you really aspire to be like,” she says. “I see that trend only escalating.”

Creators have to strike a balance between “sounding like a friend” and “trying to get your audience to buy it”

Communication between streamers and viewers is a major component of live shopping. Like with Stevenné’s stream, viewers can ask questions to learn more. Facebook emphasizes the interaction aspect of live shopping in its best practices guide. Replying to everyone who DMs or comments can help “turn them into new customers,” the guide says. 

Not every creator has had great success yet, however. Google hired Hélène Heath to create beauty content for Shoploop’s launch, but Heath hasn’t made any money off the affiliate links she included with her nine videos. She also hasn’t made more videos since that initial deal ended. Stevenné says she’s been able to focus on influencing full-time, thanks to her success on Amazon’s live shopping service, but she still has to buy all of the products herself, hoping to make the cash back with sales. Heath still sells products on her Instagram, too, through traditional branded posts and affiliate links to products.

“There’s definitely a balance between sounding like a friend who’s genuinely in love with the products, and then trying to get your audience to buy it so that you can make some money off of it,” Heath says. 

Once every influencer starts going live, the onslaught of product marketing likely won’t stop.