Chinese-American film director and producer Wu Hao noted this universal appeal of live entertainment when he shadowed staff in YY, one of the first live streaming platforms in China. “Wow, this is fascinating,” he recalled. “Because [in the] world over, if you want to see the rich and the poor – they don’t get together, they don’t mingle. But online, this community they [form] together, and they actually talk to each other.”
David Li, founder and CEO of YY, echoed the sentiment when he predicted “the live streaming business will be very huge in the future because, as you know, no TV can interact with a single person so that its audience, its viewers can get involved in a program or event. That’s very important.”
Be it the latest podcasts or live streams, we became more dependent than ever on using on-demand audio and visual content to fill the need for social interaction – even if we weren’t talking to people, we wanted to be talked to, and sometimes allowed to talk back.
From Downtown to Downtime
As the world adjusts to the new normal, live streaming and podcasts look like they are here to stay – in the US alone, Stitcher, a leading podcast app, reported that listening patterns saw a drop as people stopped commuting to work in mid-March, but numbers began recovering by mid-April. Listener behaviour suggested people were listening to more news to keep themselves updated on the pandemic, and turning to true crime, comedy, and interest-based podcasts for entertainment.
An overview of binge listening trends by genre on Stitcher (Stitcher Report: Pandemic Update)
Instead of spikes during commutes and working hours on weekdays, platforms like Acast and Megaphone reported that users were listening to podcasts over more sustained periods over the course of the day.
Podcasters are also pivoting to keep listeners interested, with some crossing over into video. With lockdown restricting social interactions, being able to see a friendly face to go with the voice was a draw for listeners.
Platforms too are starting to recognize this. In May, Soundcloud, a purely audio platform partnered Twitch to stream live chat series and music shows.
In the same month, Spotify has also unveiled an exclusive deal with The Joe Rogan Experience, one of the most popular podcasts in the world. The show also has a solid presence on Youtube with 8.6 million subscribers, a strong sign that the company is looking to go beyond just audio content and reach video viewers. The deal will see The Joe Rogan Experience publishing content only on Spotify.
All in all, it looks like the podcast industry is already coming back better and stronger from COVID-19.
In its Q1 2020 financial report, Spotify confirmed that 19% of monthly active users were engaging with podcast content, up from 16% in Q4 2019, and consumption continued to grow at triple digit rates year on year.
Likewise, the International Advertising Bureau has halved its estimates of growth for US-based podcast revenue to 14.7% from its pre-pandemic estimate of 29.8%, and noted that the podcast industry is more resilient than most other media owing to the flexibility for content creators and advertisers to modify their messaging during times of crisis.
Active Consumption: Virtual Gifting, Votes and e-Commerce
While the US market warms up to podcasts for entertainment, podcast platforms could look to the user experience podcast apps in China offer as a roadmap for innovation. “The audio consumer-facing product in China is much more cutting-edge and advanced,” said Renee Wang, founder and CEO of leading podcast app Castbox.
After its first year of rapid updates and iterations, Renee’s team saw the need to innovate – going beyond what their US listeners were used to and enjoying to remain relevant. Taking a leaf from popular Chinese podcast apps, they began weaving in features that facilitate native community interactions, allowing users to discuss podcast episodes on the app itself. This deepened user engagement and extended the time they spent on Castbox.
While this is a favoured and common function on Chinese apps, it was ground-breaking for the US market.
The Castbox team also premiered Live Cast, a feature that would be very familiar to users of live stream platforms like Bigo Live (a YY product). The function made live streaming possible, adding an element of immediacy to the usually one-sided experience of a podcast, and introduced the ability to tip the live streamers with digital items.
The function took off, much to Renee’s surprise. “At the very beginning, we didn’t have high expectations, because we had so many failures during the past two years,” she said, recalling the team’s exhaustive trialling of features since Castbox’s launch. “But now it’s totally beyond our expectations…people say that it is the real thing…or this is the next version of a real social network. People began to follow each other. People began to send you virtual gifts.”
The power of user interactivity is supported by the success of YY’s virtual gifting system, which grew organically from a voting feature YY has created for content creators. Monetization happened quite accidentally: when YY first introduced votes, it made them the target of hackers who wanted to ‘steal’ votes. Users also began hawking their votes for cash.
To counter these, YY began offering votes for sale on their own platform instead. “We had a budget for RMB 4 million in revenue from the sale of the votes”, David said. “But actually we got 40 million.”
According to YY’s Q1 2020 financial results., live streaming made up 94.5% of its net revenue.
Beyond that, live streaming has also become an important feature on e-commerce, with Singapore’s Shopee seeing a total of 300 million live stream viewers across Southeast Asia, and on Lazada 27 million livestream viewers in all markets.
User engagement for video apps and video-hosting platforms have doubled in Southeast Asia between 2016 and 2019. They now rank second among the region’s most popular app categories, while watching videos accounts for at least a fifth of people’s total time spent online.
It remains to be seen if the US and other Western markets will take to live stream e-commerce as the Asian and Chinese markets have. While mainstay QVC, a televized home shopping channel has been around since its founding in 1986, new players have been making inroads into the sector.
In October 2019, Amazon launched Amazon Live, its own livestreaming shopping platform. Facebook and Instagram have also begun developing features for live shopping as well.
However, will these platforms manage to hit on the right blend of entertainment, interactivity and persuasiveness that Chinese and Southeast Asian live streams have achieved? Only time will tell.