Going Cross-Border and Live Streaming in China with Jack Porteous, Client Services Director at Samarkand Global
After a rather spontaneous decision to study Chinese at University, Jack Porteous developed an expert understanding of the culture that led him to work for UK Trade and Investment (UKTI), The Department of International Trade, the China-Britain Business Council, and now Samarkand Global. Throughout his career, he advised numerous brands on how to bring their products to the Chinese eCommerce market.
We had the opportunity to talk to him about eCommerce differences between China and the UK, how live streaming is revolutionising sales in China, and how international brands can take their first steps to go cross-border.
To start with, tell us about you and your career so far.
I started my understanding of China at University, where I studied Mandarin Chinese. Along the way, I became an exchange student for a year in Chongqing and worked in China for a couple of years after I graduated. When I came back to the UK, I moved into supporting businesses to understand more about the Chinese market and how to access it at UKTI. I helped fashion and consumer brands to internationalise, and then I moved over to the China-Britain Business Council as Head of Retail and eCommerce for 3 1/2 years. I got to do fun things like taking groups of businesses out to China to understand the market and meet potential partners, and I ran lots of events.
From there, I moved to where I am now at Samarkand Global as the Client Services Director. We act as a distributor for about 20 brands, and I look after the team that manages all of those relationships, but I also do a lot of business development, public speaking, and content creation about the Chinese eCommerce market.
Did you have an interest in China and learning Chinese before studying it at university?
No, it was just completely random. I decided that I wanted to do languages at university. I was 18 and I just thought ‘Let’s do something new’ and ended up picking Chinese and found it fascinating. And after spending a year in China, I knew this interest was not going to fade.
Let’s talk about the cultural differences between the Chinese and British eCommerce markets.
One of the big things about eCommerce in China is the notion of trust. At Samarkand Global, we work primarily cross-border, so most of the goods we manage are shipped from outside of China to the consumer. This means that there are lighter regulations around labeling and registration for example. As a result, it’s been really popular for international beauty and health brands to access the Chinese market.
Historically, cross-border commerce in China sort of started because of a big scandal around contaminated baby milk powder. This led to a rush of Chinese people all over the world buying milk formula and sending it back to Chinese consumers. It started off with family and friends, but then people realised there could be financial benefits and started monetising it.
“People’s trust is less placed in brands, and more placed in who is selling. You have to find the people whose trust you can work with.”
People’s trust is less placed in brands, and more placed in who is selling. Obviously, bigger and more established brands don’t suffer from this as much but for a smaller international brand, you have to find the people whose trust you can work with. So, whether it’s an influencer or a live streamer, you want to make sure the people you’re working with have a reputation for selling authentic and high-quality products.
Recommendations and the role of the middlemen go back thousands of years in China. Getting a recommendation from somebody whom people trust is even more valuable in China than it is in the UK.
What advice do you have for businesses that are considering going cross-border in China?
China has changed a lot in the last 10 years and changes more every year than we do every 10 years. And so, understanding whether there's a market in China for your product is really important. It’s not somewhere that is crying out for any international product just for the sake of it. The whole world is selling to China now. It’s not enough to just paste a Union Jacks flag on a product and think that because Chinese people love the British it’ll be enough to sell. I’d say the first thing to consider is whether there is a market for you in China. And more boring piece of advice but think of registering your trademark there too.
One thing to bear in mind overall is that China moves at a different speed than the West, and you can’t apply the same business thinking to China. For example, making a five-year plan won’t be as effective because the market is not predictable in the same way.
A lot of businesses struggle with finding the right representatives for their products, whether it’s influencers or else. How do you go about finding trustworthy people?
We work with different types of influencers. Some of them are not typical social media influencers, but they run an online store instead. It’s similar to having a boutique on the high street and having a vendor give you recommendations, except it’s online. We also love to work with celebrities. They are much more commercial in China, and it’s not unusual for them to do eCommerce. We look for people who have cultivated an image around the lifestyle they live and the type of products they use. Recently we worked with an actress in her 60s who did her first live stream on ‘Xiaohongshu’ - also known as Little Red Book and China’s most trusted social shopping platform – and over her first two live streams, she sold over £68 million of products.
Overall, we do a lot of research into what people have posted about in the past, what their sales records are, and what level of relationship they've got with their audience.
People could mistake live streaming for teleshopping. How would you explain the differences to someone who might not be convinced by live streaming yet?
When I'm talking to brands who don’t have a lot of experience with the Chinese eCommerce market and live streaming, I always compare it to TV shopping at the first stage because it's the closest thing that we've got. The number one difference is the popularity of it. The number of people engaging with live streaming in China is so much higher than anything we could imagine in the UK. When I think of TV shopping, I think of the parcels that my mum gets when she's been on QVC, right? Whereas in China it spans across all generations, including Gen Z. It’s also a lot more interactive, and the hosts build up more of a relationship with the people who are watching them. For example, we work with a live streamer who's based in the UK. She's got about 1.2 million followers on Douyin, which is TikTok in China. On average, there are maybe 1000 to 2000 people watching at any time, but the dwell time is about 5 minutes, and she’s live for 8 hours straight, during which she’ll reply to questions sent by her audience. She can demonstrate the products live rather than having to predict what people are going to want to know about them. And another thing is that the camera is not fixed. This is not like a TV studio, with a table set up and beautiful displays. On live stream, people walk around and bring you with them, they can show you a different location every week, and it makes the whole thing more engaging and real.
Do you think live streaming could become as big in the UK as it is in China?
It's important to keep in mind as well that China is very much a mobile-led digital culture, and that people are not only spending a lot of time on their phones, they do most of their shopping through it, even more so than in the West.
TikTok for example is definitely trying to bring live-stream shopping to the West, but I think one of the main challenges will be to build trust with consumers.
Jack’s conference session at eCommerce Expo 2023
Tell us more about your eCommerce Expo 2023 speaking session
"Leveraging voices of Authority on China’s Booming Social Commerce: Livestreaming Success"
I’m really excited about it. One of our clients, Clare McMullen, the Vice Presidents of international Sales department at TEMPLESPA, will be joining me. Live streaming reached 500 billion U.S. dollars in China in 2022. So quite a bit! Together we’ll share insights into this live-streaming ecosystem and talk about how niche brands from the UK and Europe can access that market through us. We’ll talk about how we’ve managed to create value for Chinese consumers and highlight what worked for the brands we helped. Temple Spa and Samarkand Global have partnered for three years, and they’ve been incredibly open to trying new things and adapting to the fast-paced Chinese market, so there will be a lot of value at the session from all the lessons we learned together and the challenges we faced.
Don’t miss your chance to see Jack Porteous live! Join us at eCommerce Expo 2023!
What is your favourite social media platform?
I don’t like any of them. I think Western social media is a bit boring now, and I’d say the Chinese ones are better, so probably Little Red Book.
What is your favourite medium of advertisement?
What is your favourite British food, and favourite Chinese food?
I eat vegan, so for British I’d say pie and mash, and for Chinese… it’s hard to pick because Chinese food is amazing. But I lived in Chongqing for 3 years, and the specialty there is hot pot, so I think I’ll go for that.
What is your biggest pet peeve as a consumer?
Unclear delivery times. I don’t mind if it will take two weeks, I just want to know when it will be there.
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