Social media is saturated with advertisement, but consumers have gotten smarter. They’re not as enticed by the expertly shot images depicting products, aware that these products are sometimes pulled taut with hidden clips to create a better fit on models, or edited so heavily that their advertised colours differ from the real product by five shades.

Verbose captions with generic buzzwords don’t do it anymore either. Consumers want to see how the product performs in real time, in real life, for the real user. As for engagement, the audience wants more from a brand than a like and a generic, emoji-laden reply on their comments.

So what better way is there than for brands to demonstrate their products while conversing with customers live?

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A Chinese influencer uses a smartphone to engage in livestreaming. Photo: China Daily

With almost every global-reaching social media platform boasting a livestreaming feature, brands have been catching on to its utility in “authentic” marketing and public relations.

From fashion and beauty to technology and financial consultancy, companies from every industry are hopping onto streaming services like Instagram Live, Facebook Live, and YouTube Live (they’re not very creative with the names, are they?) to push their products and services on a whole new level of interactivity. Asian livestreaming apps with large IPOs and an increasing number of users, including South East Asia’s BIGO LIVE, are also taking the region by storm.

Why are brands going live?

I. The authenticity of products

As e-commerce takes over the world, one of the most pertinent problems that have arisen is that of false advertising. In an era where photo manipulation is ubiquitous, customers need to be cautious when purchasing items they have neither seen nor felt in real life.

In fact, even if they have inspected a product in a physical store before making their order off an e-commerce site, there is sometimes no guarantee that the online retailer is selling them a genuine good. After all, all it takes is two seconds to rip an image off of Google.

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Photo: via Twitter

Enter livestreaming a free and increasingly widespread platform for e-tailers to establish their transparency.

Especially prevalent in China, where e-commerce is infamous for the sale of knock-offs and sub-par quality products, many e-tailers are cashing in on livestreaming apps as a means of gaining customer trust. Goods and their various features are showcased in host-led web broadcasts, with the floor open to product queries from viewers.

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According to the Chinese influencer marketing analytics company PARKLU, just between August 2016 and September 2017, almost 35 million people viewed live streams on Taobao, the world’s biggest e-commerce site. The effectiveness of Taobao Live is attested to by its conversion rate of 32 per cent, meaning 320,000 items were added to cart for every one million views.

Hustling on Taobao Live.
A live stream on Taobao Live by an e-commerce shop owner. Photo: via TechinAsia

II. The authenticity of people

Another major selling point of livestreaming is the seeming spontaneity, and therefore sincerity, that is afforded to any sort of promotion being done by brands. They enable brands to create a synchronous dialogue between their representatives and their customers, in a conversation that is akin to you chatting with your friends face-to-face.

In that sense, there is a kind of realness, or rather, humanness to the way that such brands are engaging in marketing online. Live streams aren’t just about product advertisement, but are also about public relations.

For instance, Benefit Cosmetics frequently streams live on Facebook to demonstrate the use of their make-up products and answer questions, on a segment titled Tipsy Tricks. The bubbly and personable Stephanie Szalanski has become a familiar face to those who watch Tipsy. Szalanski typically hosts the segment with a guest to teach viewers about products, while chatting about non-cosmetics related topics, from their families to their favourite TV shows.

Customers are not afraid to ask her questions in the comments, and they listen to her like she’s just another gal pal giving beauty tips. Because she sure seems like one! Claudia Allwood, senior director of digital marketing for Benefit Cosmetics US, has emphasised that these live streams do not strive to drive sales, but to educate customers and generate brand awareness.

Photo: Benefit Cosmetics via Facebook

In an effort to take advantage of the likability that generally comes with celebrity, other companies further collaborate with popular influencers to showcase and promote special events through live streams. When Make-A-Wish Nederland partnered up with gaming vlogger Yarasky for a 24-hour YouTube Live stream, in which the vlogger participated in a telethon with a beneficiary, they reached up to 6 million viewers and raised more than 10,000 in donations.

Hiring him for the job did three crucial things for the brand: draw in a strong gaming fan base (a massive audience), show them exactly what the organisation does, and finally, reap immediate profit.

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Gaming vlogger Yarasky (middle) streamed live for 24 hours for a Make-A-Wish Nederland event. Photo: Yarasky via YouTube

III. The authenticity of performance

Live showcases of a product or service in action give more genuine impressions to audiences because it looks and feels unrehearsed and unaltered.

That means that if someone finishes a marathon under two hours in Nike’s newly launched trainers without a hitch, and you can watch it happening live on Facebook and Twitter, you’re more likely to trust those trainers to serve you well in an actual marathon. Nike’s #Breaking2 campaign aimed for exactly that and more with their 2017 live stream of Eliud Kipchoge attempting to break a record in the Zoom Superfly Elite shoes.

The stream did more than simply saying “these shoes are good for running in”. It told a slow-brewing, tension-filled, and true story in which those shoes were ultimately the star of the show, because they enabled an athlete to push himself to the limit.

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Eliud Kipchoge at the finish line of the Nike #Breaking2 campaign. Photo: via The Drum

But does synchronicity = authenticity?

For all the spontaneity that real-time interactions appear to possess, we need to recognise that much deliberation and preparation goes behind creating that image of authenticity, to a point where it is doubtful that we can call content “authentic” simply by virtue of the synchronicity of their production with our consumption.

Consumers should understand that everything we see from a brand is, fundamentally, carefully curated content. When brands invite celebrity figures to events, present them to the public essentially as brand ambassadors, and allow them to interact “unfiltered” with their bill-paying customers, consumers should remember that a rigorous selection process has taken place beforehand.

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Photo: rawpixel via Pixabay

Nowadays, exclusive digital marketing teams are formed within companies, if external agencies are not specially consulted, to source for the most suitable social media influencers to promote their goods and services.

Brands are fully aware of the effect that eloquent and well-liked celebrities have on the image of the company. So you can trust that they also understand how celebrities with a poor public image, little experience in live presentation, and a history of cussing on their social networking platforms (though some brands might appreciate the “humanness” of this) can tarnish their brand image.

While there is nothing wrong with brands making calculated moves, it is important for consumers to keep in mind that both the brand and their live stream hosts, whether they are marketing staff, an influencer, or a professional athlete, work together to establish an image appropriate for their campaign. Scripts can be prepared and certain restrictions can be imposed on hosts before events go live. Sometimes, what a brand wants from their spokesperson is his face, but not necessarily his voice.

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Photo: Minerva Studio via Adobe Stock

Livestreaming has its advantages, but perhaps increased authenticity isn’t one of them.

There is a difference between perceived authenticity and what is truly genuine. It would be erroneous for us to take all live content as spontaneous content. However, brands can definitely still benefit from the proliferation of livestreaming apps.

Live interactions allow brands and influencers to generate higher engagement through a more sophisticated and synchronous response channel. Such an opportunity to develop customer relations should be fully taken advantage of if a company is to elevate its online presence.

Livestreaming also creates a sense of inadvertent exclusivity that can generate hype around brands. While videos of streams can be kept up years after the event, there is something more exciting about having been a part of the event, not simply as a member of the audience but as a recognised “co-host” of sorts. After all, viewer comments direct the conversation.

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Instagram Live. Photo: TNW

Furthermore, a feeling of closeness to the brand is likely to form when viewers are able to “attend” certain events, sometimes behind-the-scenes, as well as interact with celebrity figures. Customers can take the perspective of the brand manager and or their hired influencer to better understand the workings of their favourite brand and their products, in a manner much more enjoyable than simply reading about it on a corporate site. In fact, Chinese e-commerce livestreaming, entertainment value is as important as, if not more than, advertisement.

Maybelline sold 10,000 lipsticks in China within the two hours that top influencers, including Hong Kong actress and model Angelababy, streamed live on Meipai. Photo: Luxion

The idea of authenticity is something we need to consider more carefully where any kind of marketing is concerned. As countless brands have demonstrated, live content is incredibly beneficial in ways that involve both the company and the consumer.

However, consumers must remember they are ultimately being offered mere pieces of a much larger, and probably messier, picture. As for brands, they must recognise the limitations of live content that at the end of the day, it is content.

If authenticity is important to their values, more must be done to raise company transparency and encourage honest criticism from the public. Conversations between brands and their customers must be open always, not just when a camera’s on you.