China’s digital platforms are acing social commerce in ways Western social media can only dream of. Whilst platforms popular with Western consumers have never managed to get social shopping off the ground, a number of China’s domestic sites have a thriving social commerce culture.
There are several stand-out platforms in Chinese social eCommerce. WeChat’s universally popular messaging app makes it easy to shop with JD.com or elsewhere using integrated e-wallets. Chinese housewives are addicted to cheap deals on homewares on the explosively popular Pinduoduo app, a kind of online bargain hunting tool for group buyers.
At the more aspirational end of the market, Xiaohongshu offers luxury fashion and top-end beauty products to a wealthy audience looking to treat themselves.
Translating as ‘Little Red Book’ this luxury app connects wealthy Chinese audiences to overseas brands and each other. Like Pinduoduo it connects browsers to people with their own interests, but the goods featured here are highly exclusive.
To understand the success of Xiaohongshu you have to understand its origins. Originally the app was conceived with the simple ambition of connecting Chinese citizens with buying agents who could source goods for them overseas on buying trips. This commission-based service known as Daigou used to be the main way Chinese people would source foreign branded goods.
In the few years since ‘Red’ was established, buyers have become much more likely to make the trips themselves or to buy locally. Brands, particularly luxury brands, are much more established in China now compared to even 2013 when the app was launched, and people are much more likely to go overseas and do their own shopping.
With Chinese consumers highly suspicious of being tricked by online vendors, Xiaohongshu’s success partly lies in giving them confidence in what and where they buy. Reviews are well-integrated with the site and users can use video and pictures to show off their purchases.
Social media tools help users spread the word about where they bought an item so other users can find and confidently buy the same thing from the same place. But no external links are permitted, which helps boost confidence in sources.
In a highly collectivist society, Xiaohongshu also offers social reassurance that users are favouring the right kind of brand and the right kind of product.
Fitting in is important in China, and consumers that haven’t been wealthy for very long are anxious to be seen to make the correct consumer choices. Xiaohongshu supports this by showing what their peers approve of and helping direct aspirations.
Chinese society is racing to catch up with the pace of economic improvement. Consumer sophistication is evolving rapidly, which leads to discussions about the merits of various goods. This includes discussion of the effectiveness of various beauty products and treatments, the virtues of particular consumer electronics or which is the most desirable pram, handbag or holiday.
Consumers are connected to a network of conversations about brands and products, and they’re often highly committed to product discovery and assessing different providers or vendors.
The Red Book identified this high level of commitment early on. A sizeable proportion of consumers were opening the app up to seven times a day. The founders quickly adapted to this demand for products and product knowledge by offering users the chance to buy from them directly. What started as an app merely to recommend products became an eCommerce platform for buying them.
Role of influencers
It’s important not to underestimate the importance of influencers in China. These celebrities play an important role in driving consumer confidence and drawing their attention to new products and behaviours.
Xiaohongshu incorporates influencers in a way that gives them huge influence on this platform. If your brand is in beauty or fashion, it’s pretty essential to get the support of influencers and Xiaohongshu is certainly the place where this influence can be most effective.
The highly popular actress Fan BingBing, currently in trouble with the authorities, is the Delia Smith of Xiaohongshu; products she recommends can sell out immediately.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking Xiaohongshu is just a shopping app. It’s far more focused on discussing products than on forcing them on consumers, and it focuses much more on trends and matching to the right product than on price and making a quick sale.
Nevertheless, conversion rates on the platform are extremely high and the support of a key influencer can really affect the fortunes of a product or beauty habit.
Little Red Book has a user base that’s generally young, female and relatively wealthy. The community tends to be highly engaged and there’s a high level of confidence in the recommendations made via the platform – which translates into high conversion rates.
It’s succeeded by giving users what they want: confidence in the community and in the products featured there. That seems to be the essence of the platform’s success. Not only has it been willing to evolve to suit changing times, but it’s also always managed to give users exactly what they want.