Singles Day: the world’s largest online shopping phenomenon

Happy Singles Day!

Black Friday isn’t here for another couple of weeks yet, but did you know today is actually the largest online shopping day in the world?  And by quite some distance.

It is hard to overstate the scale of the Singles Day phenomenon in China.  Between 2009 and 2013, sales rose by 5,740%.

Last year, Singles Day sales totalled $14.3bn (£9.4bn), making it bigger than Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined.

Early sales figures suggest that 2016 sales are likely to dwarf even those previous records, with sales of $5bn in the first hour of trading alone.

As is seemingly the case with most world-changing business ideas these days, the concept of Singles’ Day was developed by a group of smart young students on a university campus.

In 1993, students at China’s Nanjing university created Singles Day as a way to celebrate their singledom, by organising events and buying presents for themselves. The 11th November was chosen because the date 11/11 represents four single people, or ‘bare branches’ as they are also referred to in China.

The event soon caught on with other university campuses around the country, but Singles Day really took off in 2009, when online retail giant Alibaba began marketing ‘Double 11’ deals to mark the occasion.  Huge price markdowns and low shipping rates created a massive sales surge, and the event has grown in scale and popularity every year since.

Singles Day isn’t just a retail phenomenon, it’s a multi-sensory, participatory, all-singing all-dancing entertainment extravaganza.  The highlight of Singles Day 2015 was a 4-hour TV variety show, during which viewers were periodically prompted to shake their phone to win sale vouchers that were redeemable via a mobile shopping app, and play along with online games offering real life prizes.

And it wasn’t just any old TV variety show.  Alongside a number of Chinese celebrities some worldwide superstars appeared, including Adam Lambert performing his new single, Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood, and Daniel Craig as James Bond.

(Not that Daniel Craig looked entirely happy to be there, in truth.  As John Oliver commented on Last Week Tonight, “I’ve never seen James Bond look so awkward and sad.  And most of his girlfriends have died in front of him”.

The fans absolutely loved it though.  Seats in the studio audience were changing hands for up to $785, and competitions such as the opportunity to buy a Cadillac for 15 cents kept TV viewers glued to their seats until midnight, when the starter’s pistol fired on the largest shopping spree ever seen.  It took just 8 minutes to register $1bn in sales.

This year’s extravaganza is equally star-studded, with appearances from the likes of David Beckham and Kobe Bryant entertaining the crowds.

The amazing success of Singles Day can be attributed to a combination of factors, including:

the rapid growth in China’s middle class, with its increased spending power and attendant rise in consumerism;

– China’s gender imbalance (driven by the One Child Policy leading many families to favour male children), creating a large group of single young men with high disposable income;

– An increase in online shopping due to greater internet access and device ownership.

Mobile shopping is a major feature of Singles Day.  According to Alibaba, which holds the majority share of China’s online shopping market, 72% of total ‘Double 11’ transactions in 2015 were from mobile devices, up from 43% in 2014.

Initial reports indicate that over 80% of this year’s sales will come from mobile devices.

The high proportion of mobile sales is no great surprise when you consider the youthful audience of China’s single population, combined with the immediacy of the timed offers Alibaba has made such a feature of its ‘Double 11’ marketing programme.

Singles Day may currently be the biggest online shopping day nobody’s ever heard of, but that’s surely going to change as Alibaba becomes better known around the world and the sales figures involved generate increasing global interest.

As Tmall’s then-CEO Wang Yulei said in 2014, “future Singles Days will definitely not just be for consumers in a particular region, Singles Day will be for the whole world.”

That prediction hasn’t proved true just yet, but being young, single and comfortable shopping online are not uniquely Chinese traits, so the concept will undoubtedly spread as retailers across the world look to replicate Alibaba’s success.



Why I value randomness over relevance on Twitter

Twitter went into meltdown recently over rumours it is looking to replace the current chronological timeline with an algorithmically driven content feed.

(If you didn’t see this news, you obviously weren’t logging into your Twitter account at the right time…)

These rumours were driven by Twitter’s CFO Anthony Noto stating publicly that the current method of organising the newsfeed “isn’t the most relevant experience for a user”.

I worry that Mr Noto understands the technology, but doesn’t understand his users.

I love Twitter precisely because it doesn’t give me ‘the most relevant experience’.  I love the random waterfall of tweets tumbling through my timeline in completely unstructured fashion; the juxtaposition of serious political arguments with silly jokes, news with opinion.

I make a point of following people I don’t necessarily agree with, just to get an alternative perspective on things (much like a fiercely liberal ex-colleague who would religiously read the Daily Mail every day, because it’s important to “know your enemy”).

I would hate to lose that.

This article in Medium does a great job of articulating the concerns of Twitter users.

For me the key element is this:

“An algorithm can perhaps surface guaranteed content, but it cannot surface unexpected, diverse and sometimes weird content exactly because of how algorithms work: they know what they already know.”

Algorithms already have enormous influence on all aspects of our lives.

If you’re in any doubt as to the importance of ‘big data’ in monitoring and predicting human behaviour, take a few minutes to watch this fascinating Ted talk by Christopher Steiner, author of Automate This: How Algorithms Came to Rule Our World:

Never mind that the bots control the financial markets and know more about our personalities than we do though, they already control the Top 40 goddamit!

In 2011 scientists (I would call them boffins if I worked for one of the red-tops) claim to have found the ‘Hit Potential Equation’ that can determine if a song will reach the top of the charts.

And it was an algorithm that identified the hit making potential of Maroon 5 and Norah Jones, by analysing the musical structure and patterns of their albums.

But as Christopher Steiner puts it in his Ted talk, “would the algorithms find Nirvana?  Would they find the Beatles?”

Please Twitter, let me control my own feed.

I’ll happily wade through the crap in the hope of unearthing the next Nirvana or Beatles.

I’ve already got Facebook if I want a sea of mediocrity soundtracked by Maroon 5 and Norah Jones.

The future starts today

In my first post I talked about the influences that persuaded me to start this blog.

The biggest hurdle was to stop thinking about creating a blog and actually begin writing one.

On reflection there was another guiding thought that also strongly influenced me – the idea that it’s not too late to get started. 

Part of my reticence to start a blog was my perception that I’d missed the boat.  There are dozens, if not hundreds, of blogs about advertising, media and communication, most of which have now been going for years. 

Many of these are written by intimidatingly bright, very senior, highly influential industry figures offering their treatise on every communication model, every new campaign, every possible way of reaching and influencing people.

Has it all been said?  Is there anything new to say?  Will I just end up looking silly in comparison with the supersmart advertising bloggerati?

The answers, I think, are No, Yes, and Quite Possibly.  But I’m going to do it anyway.

Because I’m now convinced we’re still at the beginning of the internet revolution, not at the end of it.  And in my own small way I want to be part of that, not just a bystander.

Two recent articles I read made me think differently about the internet; the opportunities it affords us and its influence on our lives.

The first is The Internet’s Original Sin by Ethan Zuckerman.

Now a director at MIT Media Lab, Zuckerman was one of the original pioneers of online advertising. 

In this article he explains how, and why, advertising became the primary funding model for the web, and specifically why ever-increasing amounts of audience targeting are the only way online businesses are these days able to secure funding and generate revenue.

The Internet’s Original Sin is a fascinating read for a number of reasons – not least Zuckerman’s mea culpa for being the guy responsible for creating the pop up ad format!

The main thrust of his argument is that the ad-funded web is ‘bad, broken, and corrosive’. Which is pretty impactful in itself given who’s saying it, where he came from, and the questions it raises.

But the bit that struck me most when reading the article was this:

“The web is celebrating a 25th anniversary, but that celebrates the invention of the HTTP protocol by Tim Berners Lee. In practical terms, the web as we know it is less than 20 years old. Many of the services we rely on, like Twitter, are less than 10 years old.”

It’s incredible to think just how much the internet has completely transformed virtually every aspect of our lives in the space of just 20 years.

In a single generation it has gone from nothing to being absolutely central to our society.  Zuckerman’s argument is that the scale, influence and sheer ubiquity of the internet mean we no longer question how the internet works. It just is. 

We assume its structure is fixed and unchangeable.  But really we’re still at the beginning.  There is every opportunity to change and improve things.

This liberating and uplifting view is shared by another internet veteran, Kevin Kelly – one of the co-founders of Wired

A couple of weeks ago Kelly wrote a great piece for Medium entitled You Are Not Late, in which he argues that “nothing has happened yet. The internet is still at the beginning of its beginning.”

Fast-forwarding to 2044 he imagines looking back on the present day from a position 30 years in the future, reflecting wistfully on how easy it would have been to be an internet entrepreneur in 2014 when there were “more opportunities, more openings, lower barriers, higher benefit/risk ratios, better returns, greater upside”.

He asserts that all we’ve done so far is “created a marvellous starting point, a solid platform to build truly great things. However the coolest stuff has not been invented yet”.

It’s easy to imagine that we live in the most technologically advanced age.  That nothing new could possibly be invented to improve upon it.

But every generation in history has thought that.  And so far they’ve all been wrong.

The Coming Century

I don’t know about you, but I’m not banking on us being the first group to buck the trend.

In creating this blog I’m not seeking to change the world or revolutionise the internet.  I’m just looking for an outlet for my opinions, which hopefully some other people will find interesting.

Ultimately what I write may not be any good, and people may not want to read it. But I know one thing for certain.

I am not late.