Alibaba’s Singles Day Gala: Revolution of Digital Marketing Strategy


Marketing in the digital age is never simple. It is a multi-dimensional endeavor exercised by marketing agencies or in-house marketing departments in hope to convey effectively their messages to their potential receivers, be they customers or audience, in the form of visual, textual and audio evocation. Selling a product, although it remains the top priority for most of the companies, has been gradually eclipsed by the purpose of establishing a strong bond between brands and customers, the process many have been calling “building of brand image”.

Everything seemed to have changed after the successive gala sponsored by Alibaba, who owns Taobao, T-mall and basically every block of the online shopping ecosystem in China. Compared to those advertisements of more subtlety, which have been popular in China in recent years, Alibaba’s Singles Day promotion this year had found a more down-to-earth and much more effective approach in getting their message across.

It’s not unprecedented, even in China, to sponsor a gala focusing solely on shopping, but it is historic when it attracted almost 30% of the entire market share in China. Jack Ma, hence, staged a grandeur marriage of marketing and entertainment, which will be remembered and discussed for years to come.

Analysis has revealed that T-mall’s traffic that night corresponded closely to the gala’s activities. The brands and products that were mentioned by the singers or stars on stage and the logos which were shown on the screen, saw a instantaneous surge in T-mall traffic, and so did their search count. A lot of related items were being put into the virtual “shopping carts” and “personal favourite collections”, while the shoppers’ eyes were fixed on the show. Thus, as experts claimed shortly after the data was revealed, that a new pattern of consumer behaviour in an online sphere – shopping while watching – has been created.

In old days, such a simple and straightforward method (maybe too straightforward to be called marketing, which deserves to some extent some delicacy) would result in a barrage of criticism from the public. The truth this year has revealed that a new generation of consumers have adapted to such “primitive” ways of marketing. Netizens have made self-deprecating jokes about the gala while enjoying the adrenaline pump when paying for their shopping lists by calling it a “four-hour long advertisement interrupted by some singing, dancing and comedy shows.” Its success exemplifies how marketing in the age of Internet-Plus should look like.


Extensive Coverage, Highlighted by the Gala

You would be wrong to believe that the gala is Alibaba’s only marketing plan this year, despite the fact that Alibaba’s E-commerce department head, Man Tian, said firmly during an interview in September that “Alibaba’s gala is not copying CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala. We don’t have advertisement.” The fact is that, this could be the only gala in China – which produces hundreds of thousands of galas each year – that can be labelled “a revelry of advertisements”, as the hosts would mention “T-mall” in almost every line of their twenty minutes of hosting throughout the show, that is to say that the word “T-mall” popped in your ear every thirty seconds if you watched the show from end to end.

I believe that the gala has at least achieved four milestones for Chinese marketing in this digital age:

  1. New Festival: Singles Day could be seen as an artificial festival crafted out of the anti-romantic sentiments in the nineties when China first witnessed a marriage crisis due to an unbalance in sex ratio. It was Alibaba who turned the festival into a shopping carnival; not many can do this.
  2. New Gala: Gala as a traditional way to gather people and deliver a major festive vibe is for the first time exclusively tailored to suit a commercial purpose, and it is aired live across China.
  3. New Participants: Pop stars, celebrities, and even Kevin Spacey and Daniel Craig of international fame were part of marketing. The scale is unprecedented and it is rare to see all these people on one stage.
  4. New Mode: The gala’s availability on TVs, laptops, tablets and smartphones gives it the most extensive coverage. The possibility of interaction was introduced to the traditional one-way business.


Multi-Screen Interaction Increases User/Viewer Participation

A new mechanism of “Shake It” was resorted to by Alibaba and Hunan Satellite TV, which was the host TV station responsible for the broadcast of the gala. In this year’s CCTV Spring Festival Gala, “Shake It” for “Red Money Bag” had its debut as a way to encourage viewers’ participation. CCTV and WeChat’s managing company Tencent joined forces to distribute five hundred million RMB (approximately fifty million pounds) in order to attract viewers, especially the technology-savvy younger generation. However, it was criticised for the poor experience – “Even if you shake hard enough to break your arm, you can’t have it.” Analysts believe that it was because during the Spring Festival Gala, hosts would signal “shake” and the servers would crash because of the sudden influx of traffic. The mechanism during Spring Festival was designed for users who luckily won a prize to share it with another friend before they could cash the money, which was another reason of massive internet traffic congestion.

Singles Day Gala solved this problem by splitting the “shaking for money bag” process into two. First, after the hosts announced the mechanism, users needed to open T-mall website/app to “bet on” either Team Red or Team Black. Second, when the game was over, only those who bet on the right team could move to next stage. This successfully halved the participants.

Ying Hong, Creative Director of Singles Day Gala, said that Alibaba had racked its brain to come up with a feasible plan to maximise both the experience of watching TV performance and of online shopping and gaming, which I think was exceptionally successfully.


Advertisement Carpet Bombing

Besides all the participating brands, Singles Day Gala is a product by itself and needs promotion. The strategy Alibaba utilised challenged all classical marketing theories, most of which take serious a consideration of an audience’s effective attention. From bus station to TV ads; from Weibo to WeChat, Tmall was like a ubiquitous ghost crouching at every corner of our life. It was almost impossible not to notice it.

Major traditional channels include television, radio, newspapers, magazines and posters. New media include WeChat, Weibo, website banners, videos and apps. With such an ammunition supply, penetration rate can easily have reached near one hundred percent.

Tmall also tried new methods to form an even firmer relationship with customers. For example, Dan Mu, or “on-website comment barrage” as it is commonly known – which first appeared in a Japanese cartoon streaming in which live website comments would be simultaneously shown on the screen as a moving banner from right to left – was put to use for the sales of pyjamas on Tmall. With Dan Mu’s huge popularity among young Chinese Otaku groups, the young would simply be lured to comment to try out the effect rather than having serious purchase needs.

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Inspired by the idea in Harry Potter series in which still pictures are made movable by magical spells, Ali’s new poster of the gala was a moving owl-shaped clock with a timer counting down the days left before the gala. Also, Alibaba cooperates with brands such as New Balance, Levi’s and GAP to launch their poster collections. On one hand, the posters raised the brand awareness by combing two groups of customers, and on the other hand the strategy effectively reduced the cost on single ad.

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The money saved was used in the four-hour gala. The average market price for a large-scale performance is about twenty million RMB. Jack Ma, however, invested as much as fifty million in the gala, which invited as many as thirty first-tier celebrities. Among them were Zhao Wei (赵薇), actress and singer, who with 75.37 million followers has the third most followers on Weibo; Jolin Cai (蔡依林), Qi We (戚薇), Fan Weiqi (范玮琪), Gao Xiaosong (高晓松) and Zhang Liangying (张靓颖), who all have over 30 million Weibo followers, and Guo Caijie (郭采洁), Eason Chen (陈奕迅) and Zhang Yixing (张艺兴), who have more than 10 million followers each. Therefore, simple math can reveal that these thirty celebrities can cover as many as 100 million users. So, although Alibaba’s gala’s costs outruns most of the commercial galas in China, its return is colossal. It is estimated that the cost per every user covered is only 0.5 RMB. If we take into account the turnover produced by “Shake” games, the cost would be further lowered.

An event as big as this cannot be measured in accurate terms. Jack Ma has once again succeeded in reshaping the E-commerce landscape in China. The digital marketing industry has quite a lesson to learn.


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