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August 8, 2016

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Online meets offline as Internet firms seek wider consumer base

CARTOON figurines based on the Ming Dynasty’s Hongwu Emperor (1368-1398), table football games set in ancient Chinese elements, houses for cats and hand-made notebooks. Some of the exhibits at a recent three-day event staged by Taobao, China’s largest online marketplace, were something to behold.

The Shanghai World Expo Exhibition and Convention Center hosted the Taobao Maker Festival, with 72 independent Taobao vendors displaying their wares. No merchandise was sold on site. Interested buyers were instructed to use the Taobao app on their smartphones to scan the QR codes of objects they wanted to buy from online shops.

I went to the exhibition hall on a day of 38-degree Celsius scorching heat. Nice as it was to get into air-conditioned surroundings, I feared I might not blend in well with all the high school students who were in attendance, enjoying their summer holidays. I was surprised that time went so quickly as I wandered around, impressed by how online vendors use their imagination to conjure up their virtual marketplaces in the real world.

I’ve read about some of the fun stuff I saw and seen pictures online. But seeing products close up and being able to handle merchandise was a whole different realm. Online meets offline as the tentacles of the Internet spread wider.

One of the biggest attractions was an interactive area staged by the Palace Museum.

He Jingping, a member of the creative team at the museum's official Taobao online store, said it's the first time that the Palace Museum has participated in such an offline event outside its base.

Her team and Taobao staff used the event to promote ancient Chinese culture and enlighten a younger generation of consumers about the past through modern Internet language and cartoon images.

Some of the cartoon figurines based on the Hongwu Emperor’s images were shown to the public for the first time. Staff handed out cartoon stickers as souvenirs to visitors at the exhibition.

The museum’s official Taobao store sells an average 40,000 products a month, ranging from luggage tags and masking tape to imperial-design T-shirts and stationery. Almost every item harks back to bygone eras.

Emotional ties

Elsewhere at the event, there were a glasshouse full of plants and mosses from an online plant vendor and do-it-yourself models themed on the steam age in a factory-like setting.

The consumer experience on Taobao has been constantly evolving. It’s no longer just a platform for buying cheap merchandise. People are looking for quality products that define and differentiate themselves.

Staying close to the creative, enthusiastic younger generation has been Taobao's core mission, according to Chris Tung, Alibaba Group chief marketing officer.

Hao Zhiwei, a Shanghai-based independent market watcher, said it was inevitable that Taobao would seek to beyond just hawking products and focus more on building emotional relationships with buyers.

“It’s the spiritual soul of consumers that online vendors like Taobao will be going after from now on,” he said.

Offline events like the Taobao Maker Festival and Bilibili’s Macro Link annual show late last month, which took place in tandem with Taobao, are staged to attract more mainstream audiences. Consumers get the opportunity to experience things they might not have thought about before. It’s also a way for vendors to tap into the merchandise and the entertainment formats that are so popular with the young.

Internet companies are not short of imagination in this regard. Events like the Single's Day shopping festival on November 11 draw huge crowds online. Meanwhile, online video streaming sites such as Youku Tudou and Bilibili are also actively engaged with consumers through offline channels.

Bilibili Macro Link, launched by one of the earliest subculture online communities, is entering its fourth year this summer. Its five-hour live performance featured groups of Japanese and domestic artists, with independent video bloggers serve as part-time master ceremonies from time to time, as well as a 15-year-old Chinese female virtual idol Luo Tianyi, voiced by an electronic synthesizer. The event was also streamed online with a viewership estimated at half a million.

Shanghai resident Fiona Jiang, who is in her early 30s, said she enjoyed the show even though most of the audience around her were younger.

“It’s exciting that I could hear live performances of songs from animation works instead of just watching them online,” she said, “though it’s the first time I have ever attended such an event.”

The annual Tudou Festival, sponsored by online video site Youku Tudou, started in 2008, with mini-film festivals screening independent movies — usually small productions distributed only through Internet. Independent video bloggers were given awards to raise their awareness among mainstream audiences.

Industry analysts said they expect this trend to continue as Internet companies use online and offline experiences to showcase creativity and innovative ideas. What is experimental today may well become the standard of tomorrow.


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