CEO of Shop LIT Live, Toby Zhang, joins Carl to discuss how to broadcast and engage through interactive livestreams.
Carl Lewis: Welcome to The Connected Enterprise podcast. I’m Carl Lewis, your host from Vision33, and my guest is Toby Zhang, CEO of Shop LIT Live. Welcome, Toby. Please tell us about yourself, your background, and your company.
Toby Zhang: Thank you, Carl. I'm Toby, founder and CEO of Shop LIT Live. We’re a startup based in San Francisco. Our primary goal is to help brands find a more interactive live format to tell their stories and generate more awareness and sales.
Toby Zhang: My formal education is in engineering, and I’ve led product teams at Microsoft and a San Francisco venture capital firm. Over the last few years, I launched into the startup world. It’s been a blast.
Carl Lewis: Thanks, Toby. What’s live selling, and where did it come from?
Toby Zhang: It's a real-time interaction that allows customers to engage brands directly. Brands can tell their stories in an easier-to-consume format, and customers can ask questions and learn more about products in real-time before purchasing.
Toby Zhang: Live selling has been in Asia—particularly China—since 2015. It’s expanded to quite a presence there. Brands use advanced technologies to deliver live content, allow real-time questions, and interact with audiences to build fans, not just customers.
Carl Lewis: I'm doing a little research. This shopping is new-ish to North America, but it's growing. Who are the followers? What are they shopping for?
Toby Zhang: Live shopping is definitely new in North America. Brands partner with us in multiple forms—some pair live shopping with special sales events, holiday events, new product releases, etc. The audience can be from the brand's existing channels or new channels.
Toby Zhang: Shop LIT Live’s technology allows the brands to monetize their existing channels by sharing easy-to-use links. The audience just has to click to get to a live shopping show where they can make purchases.
Toby Zhang: We also have a mobile app and web experience that encompasses this and gives the audience a channel to discover brands and products. Many brands are becoming familiar with this new format through special sales events or releases, holiday events, etc. They’re early adapters.
Carl Lewis: Which industries/market segments use this technology most? And are there other industries saying, "Maybe we should do that"?
Toby Zhang: We partner with many brands and retailers in the premium home essentials category—beauty, fashion, skincare, home decor, accessories, etc.—where the audience is mostly women. We work with small creator brands or large international brands, and it’s easy to demo most of the products and demonstrate their value.
Toby Zhang: But more brand partners are coming from other industries, such as medical device companies interested in demoing a B2B scenario. Pet companies wanting to interact with their audience, particularly during COVID when customers couldn’t visit them.
Toby Zhang: It's adorable to see the animals on camera while the breeders or shops talk about their pets or pet-related products. Sports companies are interacting with fans more closely in real-time. So yes, we’re seeing expansion, with more brands from more industries contacting us about this new form of selling.
Carl Lewis: The premium is on the personal side, right? Sellers are more identifiable to purchasers, and the story is much more like their story would be. And this influence is the connection that happens. What makes a creator successful?
Toby Zhang: When we partner with brands, especially with such a new concept, we provide our proprietary network of creators to stream on behalf of the brands to tell their stories. Brands can use our creators to tell their stories, or they can do it themselves.
Toby Zhang: Creators make it very personal. They’ve used the product, and they’re sharing their story—why they like the product, what they think it can do better, etc.
Toby Zhang: Brands value that, and so do customers. Customers care about the authenticity of how messages are delivered. We select our creators from industries where they’re subject matter experts.
Toby Zhang: For example, we've had knowledgeable creators who’ve worked with hundreds of brands and products in beauty and skincare. They know many aspects of the products, like the ingredients, how they’re formulated, the shelf lives, application frequency, etc. They've done their research and have worked in the industry long enough to deliver their expert opinions.
Toby Zhang: We work with these creators to represent these brands. Essentially, brands ship samples to the creators and give them time to experiment. Then the creators deliver this live shopping experience on behalf of the brands.
Carl Lewis: It's interesting because you mentioned they’re subject matter experts. That's not the vibe you get from them. It's very much, "I tried this product for 30 days, and here's my experience." But they don't seem like celebrities—it’s more intimate.
Toby Zhang: Yes.
Carl Lewis: Typically, what you see is like a Home Shopping Network, right? They hold it up and say, "This is the product." But there's something different about this selling from that presentation style. What's the magic that makes this different?
Toby Zhang: There are two parts. One is that the creators aren’t necessarily influencers. Influencers have massive followers and fans, but they may not be great presenters or spokespeople for every product. They’re typically not as deep in their knowledge about the brands and products. And the word influencer is overused.
Toby Zhang: But we think of it differently. We select creators to partner with us based on their experience and what they do in their personal lives with products. We ask, “Have they represented brands in this category before? What’s their expertise in this industry that can help us deliver a knowledgeable opinion?”
Toby Zhang: It’s different from the HSN and QVC presentation formats. First, it's bidirectional interactive, which means the creator isn’t just presenting to an audience—the audience can like the presentation, leave comments in real-time, and interact with the creator. They can even get invited to the show in real-time.
Toby Zhang: Say you’re an audience member on my show, Carl, and I'm presenting a new product. You have a burning question, but it’s difficult to ask in a comment, so you can request to be part of the show. As the creator, I can accept that request and livestream you into the show. We can have a fireside chat about what I'm presenting. It helps audience members get more familiar with products, which is different from QVC, where the audience is presented to and given a phone number to call.
Carl Lewis: If they want a teenager to speak to their teenage audience, many brands will hire a 30-year-old actor who looks like a teenager. And that becomes their spokesperson. But they were actual teenagers in the live selling I saw, right?
Toby Zhang: Right.
Carl Lewis: Is the realism what makes the product claims resonate more with the audience?
Toby Zhang: Yes. Having the right demographic to represent a brand is important. It’s part of the reason our creator network is so diverse. We have multiple genders, ethnic backgrounds, age groups, languages, etc. They’re all in our network and can work with different brands.
Toby Zhang: And when brands work with creators, they look for those attributes in addition to expertise. As the platform provider, we recommend which of our creators suits the brands’ needs.
Carl Lewis: That's interesting. When I did my testing, I did it on my PC in a web browser. But I’m guessing the creators and buyers are using mobile devices. Some may be more sophisticated and have a studio and whatnot, but it seems like the mobile device is critical to this. Am I on base?
Toby Zhang: Mostly, yes. Mobile has the unique advantage of being carried with people. Everyone has their phones on their desks, next to their food, near them when they sleep, etc. So, the mobile experience is omnipresent in the live shopping space. We embrace it by offering great iOS and Android mobile apps that offer reminders for shows, creators, and brands.
Toby Zhang: But we also want folks who haven't downloaded the app to have the experience. When someone shares a piece of content from the Shop LIT Live app, anyone can click on it and go immediately to the experience. Taking them to the app to download takes too much time. So instead, they click the content and get to see the livestream immediately, make a purchase, and have fun.
Toby Zhang: If they like the experience, an icon in the corner asks them to download the app. If they do, they get a welcome reward. So, we see mobile as a core scenario in social live shopping and an essential part of our platform.
Carl Lewis: It's a lot easier for us to indulge ourselves today. Because if you can shop as quickly as you can get your phone, that's easy. It seems like it aligns with a younger audience. And maybe more of a female audience. Do you see that changing? Ten years ago, not everybody had a mobile phone. Now everyone does. It's much easier to step into these experiences, especially with apps. Do you think someday even guys like me will do this?
Toby Zhang: At Shop LIT Live, most of our categories are premium home essentials. Our audience is roughly a 70/30 split between women and men. 60% of our audience is between 18-44—the early Gen Z to late millennial age group.
Toby Zhang: But as we see more brand categories exploring live shopping, including some of the iconic brands that have been around for years and serve different demographics, locations, etc., we’ll see the audience change. Our platform is prepared for that.
Toby Zhang: We allow brands and merchants to host livestream shopping shows on their own. They can use a player, like a mobile web or desktop web player, and share the link with their audiences. They can natively embed the experience into their website. No matter where their audience is or which demographic, we provide tools for brands to embrace this experience and help them engage their audience, teach viewers more about their brands and ethos, and improve conversion.
Carl Lewis: So even though the demographic for a brand and its products might not be big users of this technology, they can still use it to put another way of messaging to their audience. That's interesting. Toby, tell us how to get to Shop LIT Live.
Toby Zhang: We encourage brands to check us out at our website, www.shoplitlive.com, where we share how we work with them and how our technology enables them to reach a bigger audience, build more engagement, and convert viewers into purchasing customers.
Toby Zhang: Customers or people interested in discovering more brands and products and testing this new interactive, fun way of shopping are encouraged to check us out at the app stores. Just search for live shopping or Shop LIT Live.
Carl Lewis: Sounds great. Toby, thanks for being with us and talking about this new cultural phenomenon. I appreciate it.
Toby Zhang: Thank you for having me, Carl. It's been a pleasure.
Carl Lewis: You’re welcome. And for everyone out there, stay connected until we meet again.