How TikTok turned an e-commerce juggernaut in China

TikTok regarded to storm onto the e-commerce scene this 12 months, and its ambitions have been extensively telegraphed. A “game changer,” one investor called it — pure to consider, since, as Douyin in China, it had achieved large success in mixing the experiences of buying and video. Quick-forward to July, and TikTok’s troubled U.K. expansion had run aground, stalling the e-commerce rollout within the U.S. and Europe. 

With that in thoughts, it’s price asking: What precisely is Douyin making an attempt to export, and the way did it obtain such beautiful ends in China within the first place?


Douyin determined to give attention to e-commerce in 2020, and its means to interweave that with its content material platform is paying off. A kind of strategies is dwell buying occasions, or livestreaming. It’s a battleground that Douyin has come to dominate — regardless of being the final to enter the sector, a 12 months after competitor Kuaishou and a number of other years after e-commerce big Alibaba. Douyin has targeted on manufacturers and smaller sellers to nice outcomes, and prevented the reputational dangers of relying closely on celebrity sellers, who can promote billions of dollars’ worth of goods, however whose reputation can tank in a moment

It’s not that Douyin’s livestreaming performance is all that completely different from that of its rivals. Livestreams are interspersed via the consumer’s feed; after all, you may at all times faucet into the operate as effectively, and browse among the many classes. An actual-time leaderboard reveals you the highest streamers, ranked by metrics like gross sales and viewership. 

So how does Douyin really earn a living from livestreaming e-commerce? For those who guessed “by commission,” you’d solely be half-correct, because the platform really fees little or no — sometimes 1%–5% of gross sales worth, relying on the class of products being offered. The take fee is low, partly due to the stiffly aggressive surroundings, and partly as a result of this helps enhance turnover as extra sellers are inspired to make use of the platform. However with the intention to succeed, most of these sellers must pay Douyin in different methods, by way of completely different types of promoting.


Sound acquainted? That’s proper — very similar to how Amazon sellers pay to point out up in high search outcomes, Douyin permits you to promote your livestream in customers’ feeds. TikTok has only one choice for creators to have paid posts (straightforwardly known as “Promote”). However Douyin has at the very least two extra, focused in the direction of boosting the livestreams of enterprise accounts. Collectively, these are believed to be a major income stream for Douyin, and presumably, nonetheless a part of the playbook TikTok hopes to carry abroad.

Since Douyin requires livestream e-commerce transactions to be accomplished on the platform as a substitute of being redirected elsewhere, this all varieties a “closed loop,” the place the consumer by no means strays from the app. It’s the perfect flywheel, and the envy of platform corporations all over the place. 


Douyin has a 3rd merchandise in its e-commerce armory: Douyin Companions. They’ve emulated Alibaba by having verified third events who deal with all of your finicky operations as a vendor. Companions will run your entire account for you — from making your brief movies to working your storefront, partnering with livestreamers, arising with an promoting technique, delivering customer support, and even dealing with warehousing and logistics. It will be attention-grabbing if TikTok tried to copy this, at the very least in some worldwide markets. It hasn’t tried but, even in Southeast Asia the place livestream buying is rolling ahead

Only a few years in the past, it was early pioneer Kuaishou that was successful in China’s booming short-video scene. That has since tipped the opposite approach. Douyin is growing fast, with 880 million month-to-month energetic customers — up by greater than 22% in comparison with 2021 — and pulling away from the competitors via its relentless give attention to algorithmic suggestions. Kuaishou, alternatively, is hovering at 607 million users, a decline of 1% on the earlier 12 months. I wouldn’t say that’s stagnation, but it surely’s one thing near it — maybe to be anticipated in a saturating, extremely aggressive market.


In contrast to Kuaishou, Douyin has leaned into the 2 codecs of dwell buying that aren’t linked to influencers — these run by manufacturers (who’re promoting their very own merchandise) or shops (promoting varied traces). That’s been particularly sensible for Douyin and the retailers’ backside traces, as far as analysts can tell. Shops have found out that they need possession over their prospects, and wish to keep away from paying influencers their 20% or extra minimize of gross sales. In the meantime, large, personality-based streaming sellers have proven that they’re weak to scandal. Their share of Douyin’s Prime 1000 livestreaming accounts has sunk to 49% as of  March 2022, from over 70% in July 2021.

What would have occurred if Douyin had gone the opposite approach? Kuaishou remains to be synonymous with fan-based livestream e-commerce, the place the highest “family” of influencers, led by livestreamer Xinba, reached over 40% of the app’s complete month-to-month common customers in 2020. It’s not a foul technique, however with scandal after scandal, and the fixed concern that they’ll abandon one platform for one more, celeb livestreamers include rather more uncertainty than manufacturers.

(A fast, cautionary metric to be careful for: time spent on both apps per day, which is hitting over 100 minutes in China and, consequently, working the danger of getting into critical dependancy territory and scrutiny from the federal government. However neither TikTok nor Kuaishou have that fear abroad, at the very least in the intervening time.)

Livestreaming might not be the reply all over the place. However, regardless of its hazards, there are many issues TikTok can nonetheless do to change into a drive in e-commerce internationally. Southeast Asia appears the closest shot for now, when it comes to similarity to China in retail buying conduct. 

Douyin was an e-commerce underdog in China simply two years in the past; now, via a mix of constructing promoting straightforward and leaning into its aggressive benefits, it’s drawn forward. With a method that’s extra pleasant to manufacturers and retailers, it could win once more, I feel.

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