Sunday Share: Social Selling in Southeast Asia

Each month, I'm writing at least one post based on a theme. For March, it's all about unpublished drafts.

Earlier this year, a friend and I challenged ourselves to write more. We were blindsided by 2022 — these first few months have been tough on multiple fronts — but I figured I’d try to revive that modest aim anyway.

We’d previously set different themes for each month. I’ll try to post at least once a month then, though I’ll be shuffling the themes around as I go. For March, though, we’re sticking with the original one: unpublished drafts.

This was a short piece I was asked to write for a job application to a branding and research agency that specialises in ethnographic and culture-focused approaches to market strategy. There are more thinkpieces coming out these days about social commerce / social selling, so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to put another one out there.

The prompt was: “An important shift in society / culture, and what it will mean for related brands / industry.”

With livestreaming, Southeast Asia’s new e-commerce frontier revisits old territories

There’s no denying the e-commerce boom in Southeast Asia, where an estimated 310M people  are expected to spend as much as US$150B online by 2025. In the race to win over the region’s consumers, however, one sales format is emerging as a frontrunner: shopping livestreams.

At their simplest, shopping livestreams entail nothing more than a seller standing in front of a camera, hawking products, answering questions, and offering deals over the course of a real-time video broadcast. Yet in China, mega-platforms like Taobao and Tmall have transformed this approach into an e-commerce model that racked up more than US$61B worth of transactions in 2019 alone. 

Now, platforms like Shopee and Lazada are striving to adapt this approach to Southeast Asia. Both platforms have notched considerable successes since launching their respective livestream features in 2019: In less than a year, Lazada had reported 27M active viewers on LazLive, its in-app channel; Shopee Live, meanwhile, boasted 30M hours watched in just one quarter of 2020. With competitors like Indonesia’s Tokopedia, Thailand’s Pomelo, and even TikTok offering their own versions of the feature, livestreaming seems poised to dominate e-commerce in the region.

The question now is: Will it stick?

Circumstance has expanded the potential audience for shopping livestreams. Across the region, the Covid-19 pandemic led to many countries imposing lockdowns, forcing the closure of many physical stores and services. Seeking out alternatives, forty million people took to the internet for the first time, boosting Southeast Asia’s count of internet users to 70% of the region’s combined population. In 2020, such new users accounted for a third of all e-commerce sales, according to a report by Google, Temasek, and Bain & Company; more importantly, this shift to e-commerce is set to last, with 8 out of 10 new users intent on continuing to buy online.

In this rapidly growing pool of online buyers, social media, videos, and messaging are currently the main channels for discovering new brands or products. Livestreams offer a venue to knit these together into one experience. Viewers get the immersiveness of online video, as well as the social dimension of interacting with both the seller and fellow buyers through real-time chat. 

This immediacy and simultaneity of experience lies at the heart of livestreaming’s potential appeal to Southeast Asian audiences: the digital approximation of offline marketplace interactions. Rather than clicking through algorithm-driven recommendations by themselves, users who tune into a livestream can ask the seller questions, trade opinions with fellow buyers in chat, or even participate in activities to score limited-time deals. All of this fosters a sense of intimacy and community, akin to visiting a bustling market with friends. 

At the same time, the livestreaming format taps into familiar trust-building dynamics. In the Philippines, for example, the suki system abounds: over time, buyers adopt certain sellers as their mainstays, trusting them to give personalised recommendations and exclusive discounts. With the introduction of livestreams, online platforms come closer to approximating this relationship, as sellers are no longer faceless, and viewers can develop trust over multiple direct interactions. 

Likewise, livestreams are accessible to all kinds of sellers, from established brands to one-man side hustles. In fact, everyday app users made up 40% of new LazLive registrations in April 2020. While the biggest channels may involve significant production costs, then, a significant number of streams remain simple, unvarnished affairs. Combined with the format’s inherent resistance to extensive editing, this imbues livestreaming with a sense of authenticity that can also help foster trust. As one Shopee seller notes, “Viewers appreciate genuinity and truly want to know what you have to say about the product and service.”

These resonances with longstanding purchase behaviours and expectations indicate that shopping livestreams can keep pulling in viewers post-pandemic. For brands, the format’s growth presents several opportunities to build stronger connections with potential customers, as well as deliver rich, immersive user experiences that can capture the attention of increasingly information-savvy, sophisticated shoppers.

With the relatively low cost to conduct livestreams, brands can consider running a range of broadcasts aimed at various niches or communities. Livestream hosts, as well as the style and structure of the broadcast, can then be tailored to specific audiences, giving brands more flexibility in how they communicate with different segments. This can be especially promising in countries where strong regional or demographic differences make for a fragmented audience. In the Philippines, for example, brands could consider running separate livestream channels to cater to Tagalog-speaking audiences in the Metro Manila area and Cebuano-speaking audiences in the southern urban centres.

The dynamic, interactive nature of livestreams also offer a space to solicit rapid feedback from consumers. For brands, then, livestreams can also serve as a space to gauge uptake of new products or experiment with promotions before rolling these out on a larger scale.

Brands can also consider stretching the use of livestreams beyond direct selling. As a recent example, the British Museum partnered with Alibaba to showcase various galleries via livestream for 300,000 Chinese viewers. The livestream format lends itself well to more experiential offerings which can help cultivate brand awareness and loyalty. By investing in this potential and crafting creative experiences tailored to specific audiences, brands can stand out in crowded e-commerce spaces.

To make the most of livestreaming’s promise, however, brands must also look into developing an ecosystem that can sustain the engagement sparked by livestreams. Robust fulfilment processes, post-purchase engagement strategies, and insight collection systems can help create a seamless flow from initial conversion to retention. 

All together, livestreaming has both circumstance and context working strongly in its favour in Southeast Asia. The format presents an opportunity to bring dynamic, social aspects of offline shopping experiences to digital spaces. Brands who lean into the format may find it a valuable tool for winning over users by imbuing e-commerce with a vibrant, familiar touch.