Culture

Inside a Chinese social media influencer factory

Feb 19, 2019

Tucked away in the basement of an unremarkable commercial center in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou is a factory that churns out online celebrities.

Hifan Multi-Channel Network is only a few years old but already one of the top five multimedia companies in the city. With just 40 people on staff, it has created a stable of about 100 celebrities whose main job is to stream themselves online to an audience of thousands.

Yoyo Jiang, a live-streamer at Hifan, chats with her fans at the company’s studio in Guangzhou.
Yoyo Jiang, a live-streamer at Hifan, chats with her fans at the company’s studio in Guangzhou. / Photo: Nora Tam/SCMP

These live-streamers can potentially go on to sell products and become major influencers for retailers.

In China, many live-streaming platforms double as online stores, and sales revenue from this market is growing. Hifan’s chief executive, Tiger Ai, says his company pulled in 30 million yuan ($4 million) in sales in 2017 by using its influencers to sell products, mostly in fashion and cosmetics.

The Guangzhou factory has a hectic production schedule. Influencers normally do an eight-hour shift, clocking in either at 4pm or 9pm—when online shoppers are most active— and broadcasting until late into the night. There are 12 studios, all with different themes and each decked out with ring lights and a webcam.

A live-streamer heads to her studio at Hifan’s offices in Guangzhou.
A live-streamer heads to her studio at Hifan’s offices in Guangzhou. / Photo: Nora Tam/SCMP

Influencers will talk about a whole range of topics, sometimes sharing intimate aspects of their lives to the world.

“Despite the glamor, this is a very brutal business that drains every bit of energy out of you,” says Ai. “It’s demanding and unforgiving, to say the least. The best years of an influencer’s career are in their early 20s. Their careers last only a few years, and after that, they’re out.”

The rest area for influencers and staff at Hifan in Guangzhou.
The rest area for influencers and staff at Hifan in Guangzhou. / Photo: Nora Tam/SCMP

Ai says most influencers don’t have the skills to become professional actors or singers, so they are trying to raise their profiles in order to switch to another sector.

They are also trying to gain the trust of Chinese consumers, who are increasingly demanding transparency and authenticity in their online shopping experience.

“The success of an influencer is based on their personality,” says Ai, “and how they come across depends on their power to pull in the audience and create a loyal following.”

That means grabbing attention, no matter what it takes.

Yoyo Jiang, a 27-year-old former teacher, sings, dances, and chats with fans to gain their following. She hopes to someday get enough social capital to sell her own brand of fashion online.

Million Zhu, a live-streamer at Hifan, dances for her fans at the company’s studio in Guangzhou.
Million Zhu, a live-streamer at Hifan, dances for her fans at the company’s studio in Guangzhou. / Photo: Nora Tam/SCMP

For 20-year-old Million Zhu, becoming an internet sensation was always her ambition. She believes it can help her make good money and set her up for future career possibilities.

How influencers make money

There are two types of live-streamers: those who focus on sales and others dedicated to entertainment.

Those who sell products earn commission, taking a 20 to 30 percent cut on each item bought by their viewers.

Those who focus on entertainment make their money through virtual gifts from adoring fans, which can then be exchanged for cash.

Most influencers take in 20,000 to 40,000 yuan ($3,000 to $6,000) a month. The best can make 90,000 to 100,000 yuan a month. Such is the case with Cici He, 22, who hosts a regular show at an outdoor wholesale fashion market that targets mainly young people.

Sucola Lin, a live-streamer at Hifan, sells cosmetics to his fans at the company’s studio in Guangzhou.
Sucola Lin, a live-streamer at Hifan, sells cosmetics to his fans at the company’s studio in Guangzhou. / Photo: Nora Tam/SCMP

Another popular influencer, Sucola Lin, can earn 60,000 yuan in a good month selling cosmetics to young men and women. The 20-year-old dancer known for his boyish image had extensive training, including dance and voice lessons, from Hifan.

Ai, the chief executive, regards himself as a life coach. Most of the influencers who are working for him are new to the role. For many of them, it’s their first job.

Hifan chief executive Tiger Ai regards himself as a life coach for the company’s influencers.
Hifan chief executive Tiger Ai regards himself as a life coach for the company’s influencers. / Photo: Nora Tam/SCMP

And as the market grows for live-streaming and e-commerce in China, Ai feels even more responsibility to teach them the trade without losing touch with their values.

“They might seem like they’re having fun at work, chatting with fans and singing karaoke with viewers,” he says, “but it is a tough and competitive business.”

Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.

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