Employees of the live shopping industry are categorized as a number of things, especially by Westerners. There’s “influencer farm,” “influencer incubator” and “social sellers” — all titles given to the hundreds of e-commerce influencers who are reinventing the infomercial for millennials and Gen Z.
As TikTok Shop starts to enter the cultural lexicon, it’s important to understand why the platform would want to pivot to livestream shopping. In Asian countries like Indonesia, South Korea and China, the influencer farm tactic has helped build a multibillion-dollar industry.
What are influencer farms? The concept is foreign to Westerners who see footage of them on TikTok
Influencer farms is a term used to describe groups of content creators who sell products while livestreaming on social media platforms. The practice has been called “factory-like,” with influencers filming in a similar environment to a call center — using their own phones and ring lights, but everyone streaming in the same room or area — hawking products to thousands of viewers like “QVC robot sellers,” as one publication put it.
The practice dominates in China, where the e-commerce market grew more than 280% between 2017 and 2020. In 2022, reports found that in China trained influencers were setting up the e-commerce industry to surpass $500 billion in revenue.
Alibaba-owned Taobao is the world’s biggest e-commerce streaming platform, followed by Kuaishou and Douyin, China’s version of TikTok. It’s estimated that there are over 1 million livestreaming influencers working in China.
Who works in these influencer farms?
According to the BBC, in China there are two types of internet celebrities: the type who create original content and the type who sell products.
In 2021, the New York Times documented a day in the life of one of the up-and-coming celebrities in the latter category, a creator named Jin He, who initially wanted to be a musician but ended up being recruited to be a livestreamer.
The agency He works for — which was not named — told the New York Times that it employs more than 200 influencers at any given time. Training takes one to two months on average, and there are managers that help shape the influencer’s online persona.
“At first, Jin was all about sexy shorts and so on. We were going for sexy,” talent manager Emma Wen said in the documentary. “But there’s an interesting phenomenon in this industry — taking the sexy route pulls in low-quality fans, not big spenders.”
David Borenstein, who directed the documentary, said the talent manager’s involvement in influencers’ lives and image was what drew him to the project in the first place.
“I was interested in this story because of how voraciously management was constantly reining in Jin He,” he said in a Reddit AMA. “I didn’t see much self-regulation and self-obsession of image from the talent themselves; it all came from their managers, who regulated every little aspect of their personalities, sense of humor, music taste, clothes, etc.”
Social selling factory in Indonesia 🤯
This is UGC industrial mass production. This is a freaking factory.
Selling things online is changing so fast. Everything is changing so fast.
This is unreal pic.twitter.com/8rig77MGuR
— Linus (●ᴗ●) (@LinusEkenstam) August 20, 2023
The documentary claimed that He was making anywhere between $30,000 to $45,000 USD a month — although the company takes a portion of the earnings, it was not disclosed how much. To make that much money from streaming requires more than a regular 40-hour workweek.
“To make even a modest living, online presenters have to work long hours in cramped conditions and all under the watchful gaze of demanding agents,” a South China Morning Post article from 2017 says.
Viya, whose real name is Huáng Wēi, was one of the first streamers to join Taobao in 2016. She filmed from a studio in a warehouse in Hangzhou that housed the Qianxun Group, a 500-person content livestream agency, and was at one point called “the world’s livestream queen.”
Her influence was impressive. In April 2020, she sold a rocket launch service for $5.6 million USD during a livestream that had more than 37 million people watching. In an interview, she revealed that she streamed every night for four hours — from 8 p.m. to midnight — seven days a week, shilling 30 to 40 products. Immediately after, she and her team would prep for the next stream by reviewing 200 to 300 products.
Viya’s social accounts were taken down after she was fined $210 million USD for tax evasion in 2022.
Why are influencer farms so successful?
While China isn’t the only country with influencer farms or a booming e-commerce economy, the country is active in setting up young people — especially women — with opportunities to get involved.
In 2017, a college in Chongqing was one of the first to offer students a training program to teach them how to be a successful internet star. The program was advertised to teach aspiring influencers to ask for gifts, how to go viral and how to sell products.
New York Times China correspondent Vivian Wang speculated that the pandemic contributed to the explosive growth of influencer farms and e-commerce. In 2022, nearly half of China’s 1 billion internet users shopped through a platform like Taobao or Douyin.
“Time-limited tactics are an old sales trick. And yet, combined with the charisma of livestreaming influencers, they have strong appeal for young consumers, helping to create sales records in China’s e-commerce sector,” the South China Morning Post reported.
Wang added that Americans may recognize the tactics from TV shopping networks, like QVC or HSN, but they are much more interactive and, therefore, more compelling for viewers.
“Consumers — especially Generation Z and millennials who value interaction — also welcome the opportunity to pursue the best prices while engaging with opinion leaders,” the South China Morning Post wrote.
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