Chinese automakers are looking for novel ways to reach customers as people in China shy away from going outdoors.

To curb the spread of Covid-19, the new flu-like virus that has rocked the country over the past few weeks, cities across the country have imposed strict rules limiting people’s movement. The epidemic has had a profound impact on China’s auto sector, with numerous manufacturers repeatedly postponing the reopening of their production facilities. Just one-third of Chinese automakers have resumed production, the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers (CAAM) said on Feb. 13.

Beyond production issues, EV makers are struggling to sell their cars. Electric vehicle makers Tesla and its Chinese rival Nio said last week that they expect significant adverse effects on their business as a result of the virus. Cui Dongshu, secretary-general of the China Passenger Car Association, said that only 5% of car dealerships in China had reopened for business last week.

As a result, EV makers in China have moved the battlefield from offline stores to the virtual world in a bid for customers’ attention. What have these companies been doing on Chinese social media and live-streaming platforms to win the favor of potential car buyers? Are these attempts to maintain their presence and boost sales truly effective?

In a step further from traditional auto showrooms and toward contemporary Chinese retail mores, Tesla opened a TMall digital store on April 16. On April 21, Tesla started broadcasting a car-themed EV livestream for an hour a day (one pm to two pm).

From the TechNode archives, we bring you a look at the company’s awkward first steps into livestreaming, during the high lockdown of February. Originally available only as a members’ e-mail newsletter, we’re now making the piece free for all readers. Start your free trial now.

Nio: Embracing live-streaming

Nio, Tesla’s most high-profile rival in China, has joined the attention economy.

As people hunker down at home to limit potential exposure to Covid-19, the EV maker has started live-streaming an eclectic collection of shows 12 hours a day, hoping to capture the minds and wallets of the country’s upper-middle class. A team of influence peddlers host the shows, including stylish employees and influential car owners.

Nio is not the only EV maker to join the live-streaming battle. Established automakers from BMW to China’s Geely are exploiting the format in pursuit of customers. These automakers have taken to the enormously popular short-video platforms Douyin (known internationally as TikTok) and Kuaishou. These two platforms were among the top five Chinese mobile apps with more than 200 million daily active users during this year’s Spring Festival holidays, according to the latest report by market research firm QuestMobile.

Live-streaming appears to be a perfect fit for auto sales at a moment when fears of the epidemic have left shops bereft of customers and trying to prop up sales during a continuing downturn in the auto market.

For Nio, the move aligns with the company’s ongoing efforts to expand its community and Nio House clubhouses online.

In one live-streamed video, Nio employees can be seen taking an ES6 electric crossover out for a drive on a frigid sunny morning, giving viewers a hands-on experience on what it’s like to use the company’s assisted driver system, Nio Pilot. In another video, a host compares a Tesla with one of the company’s own cars, pointing out differences in design and workmanship.

Nio owners, who pride themselves on their loyalty to the EV maker, are participating in the company’s online crusade. TechNode joined in a nighttime livestream hosted by Wang Zhengyang, a longtime Nio owner who lives in northeastern China’s Heilongjiang province. Within the first 30 minutes of the show, Wang fielded more than a dozen questions from livestream viewers, all from within his parked car. Queries ranged from the possible price of Nio’s recently launched EC6 coupe to the range of electric vehicles in colder climates. Wang also presented tutorials on the basics of driving an EV.

As the first ES6 owner in one of the coldest provinces in China, Wang spent three hours addressing problems of other customers all over the country. His shows have continued for more than 10 days, according to the program lists Nio has published within its app.

What really differentiates Nio from other automakers in this online battle for customers’ attention is the variety of their content, essentially moving leisure activities from the offline world to online. Nio has presented dozens of different reality shows in real time this month. From teaching women about how to apply makeup to sharing secrets for brewing coffee, Nio’s sales officers are constantly seeking out topics of interest for their potential customers.

<left> Nio tested its ADAS system on open roads in Shanghai, attracting nearly 1,000 viewers in February, 2020.
<right> A Nio saleswoman from Xiamen shows how to apply eye shadow during a live-stream. (Image credit: Jill Shen/Technode)

The move originated with Nio Houses, the company’s exclusive clubhouses for customers in its flagship stores. Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, Nio owners had organized events and made connections in these spaces, which are equipped with a co-working space, a café, and even a childcare center.

In an online network that is not subject to the restrictions of space, Nio is not only trying to draw the attention of customers with different interests and backgrounds, but also fulfilling an ambitious goal: building connections with its community using a customer-centric strategy. Nio’s customer loyalty is the company’s strength, and it is playing to that strength to solidify its reputation.

Tesla: A latecomer in online engagement

Nio is not alone in its online crusade. Tesla has also taken to short videos and live-streaming in China, but unlike its competitor, the American EV maker has suffered from poor planning and unprofessional hosts.

On Feb. 8, just one day after Nio launched its revitalized online marketing campaign, two Tesla stores in the Pudong area of Shanghai opened accounts on Douyin. Tesla stores in other Chinese cities have also set up Douyin accounts.

In comparison to Nio, Tesla’s official Douyin account consistently posts swanky, yet less focused, content that ranges from videos of the Cybertruck and Roadstar 2 to goofy skits. The company’s default policy has been to let its local stores determine what content they post. Tesla has yet to designate a person to develop a central content strategy, two Tesla salespeople said when contacted by TechNode last week.

In one of these livestreams, a young Tesla employee used the last 15 minutes of the show to make small talk with his dozen viewers. These conversations included urging a customer to take out a loan on a new car, adding that a RMB 40,000 (about $5,700) down payment on a car was “quite cheap.” The host went on to make fun of his own hair, saying that he was unhappy with the wavy hairstyle and complaining that salons have remained closed because of the outbreak.

In another livestream, a salesperson wearing a facemask walked around a Model X in a Tesla store, providing detailed information about the car. A female assistant took the camera and occasionally asked questions sent by viewers. The sales supervisor was knowledgeable about EVs and careful in the choice of his words. Faced with a hardball question about the car’s wind noise, he acknowledged that the Model X’s fastback roof and frameless doors make wind noise reduction more challenging than for other cars. However, the distracting spectacle of several employees goofing off nearby spoiled the professionalism of the video. During the 20 minutes that TechNode viewed this livestream, fewer than 10 viewers were watching the show.

One possible explanation for Tesla’s less-focused content is less need—sales have been good since the company began accepting orders for its Chinese-made Model 3. Meanwhile, Nio has warned that it expects deliveries to drop off in February.

<left> Customers pile into Tesla stores after China-made Model 3 price reductions, according to a short video posted by a Tesla shop in Shanghai in January, 2020.
<right> A Nio store earlier this year posted tips for customers to get 100 kWh battery upgrades. (Image credit: Jill Shen/Technode)

Unclear results

EV makers in China have always taken an internet-first approach to their businesses. But the recent virus outbreak has made this modus operandi a matter of necessity rather than just convenience.

As the government has encouraged—and constrained—people to stay indoors, the entire process of buying a car has moved online. Many EV companies are providing “online showrooms” via live-streaming, where potential buyers ask questions and interact with the host just as they would in a physical space.

Interested individuals can book a door-to-door test drive, in which the company brings the car to them and takes them back home after the drive. And if they decide to buy that electric vehicle, they can order and pay online, and have the car delivered directly to them.

A Tesla salesperson in Shanghai told TechNode that if the deposit for a China-made Model 3 is paid now, a test drive can be arranged for March. If the customer feels the vehicle isn’t up to standard, the deposit will be returned.

However, the process relies on piquing the interest of customers, and so far, live-streaming has had mixed results for EV makers.

According to TechNode’s investigation, vehicle-related live-streams do well in audience terms, often drawing more than 100 viewers per show. One Nio video detailing the company’s self-driving capabilities attracted more than 1,000 viewers. However, the company’s lifestyle livestreams typically get many fewer views.

“Everyone cares more about hardcore content,” an EV fan in Xiamen told TechNode, referring to videos about actual cars rather than other topics.

The diverse types of content are directed at different audiences: those who are interested in buying cars and those who are already part of the EV community. Nio in particular is clearly attempting to expand its Nio House concept to the online space by providing non-vehicle-related services and content.

Nevertheless, numerous viewers appear to be less than impressed with some of the livestreams, describing the live shows as “boring” and lacking in informative content. Given that these livestreams have yet to garner many viewers, it’s unclear how successful the format may be in converting viewers to buyers.

If EV live-streaming gains a widespread following, it could potentially allow companies to scale back their presence in brick-and-mortar stores, dramatically reducing overhead.

For now, however, this avenue of sales is all that EV companies really have, as many city governments have enforced temporary closures of nonessential stores to stop the spread of the virus.

“Offline channels are basically blocked,” said a user on microblogging platform Weibo. “Now only those online can be used.”

Jill Shen

Jill Shen is Shanghai-based technology reporter. She covers Chinese mobility, autonomous vehicles, and electric cars. Connect with her via e-mail: jill.shen@technode.com or Twitter: @yushan_shen

Chris Udemans

Christopher Udemans is a Shanghai-based data and graphics reporter. He covers Chinese artificial intelligence, mobility, and cybersecurity. You can contact him at chrisudemans [at] technode [dot] com.