February 2, 2017
Why Instagram Live Could Be the QVC of Social Media
Can Instagram Live revive flash sales and become this decade's QVC?
By Amanda Bell, Accounts Manager

How do you buy a Kylie Jenner Lip Kit? You religiously follow her social media, wait for a tweet, and then it’s go time.

Kylie Cosmetics are often sold out within minutes after she tweets about them. Flash sales are nothing new, but social media has given the marketing tactic new life and, with the introduction of Instagram’s live video feature, the waning trend of flash sales may turn around.

Instagram announced live video in November and has been rolling it out over the past few months. Unlike Facebook Live, Instagram’s live videos don’t live forever; they disappear after they air, giving them an even shorter shelf life than Snapchat Stories, which stick around for 24 hours.

In a media landscape where Facebook, Twitter and YouTube already host live video (Facebook Live, Periscope and YouTube Live) and Snapchat has locked down the ephemeral content sector, we ask what purpose Instagram Live could serve. One idea in the marketing world: To revive flash sales and become the QVC of the 2010s.

Marketers’ live video conundrum

Brands have been trying to figure out what to do with live video for the past year or so. Some have experimented on Facebook Live, Periscope and other places by conducting question-and-answer sessions, offering sneak peeks into upcoming events and, in Starbucks’ case, filming a coffee tasting.

So far, however, the biggest breakthrough live videos have been BuzzFeed’s exploding watermelon stunt, which drew 800,000 live viewers, and Chewbacca Mom, which drew 162 million views. The latter, however, was mostly watched after the fact, not live.

Given its short shelf life, Instagram’s live video isn’t designed to be a launch pad for viral videos. Instead, Instagram’s heavy focus on fashion, retail and celebrity makes it a natural platform for the revival of flash sales.

In particular, Instagram Live might be good for what’s known in the fashion industry as “the drop.” As The New York Times recently explained, in a drop, the seller “controls the release of exclusive new items outside the traditional fashion cycle, cleverly marketing the impending arrival of the product to build demand.”

Kylie Jenner has mastered this technique, first developed by the Japanese streetwear scene, and many others are trying to follow suit. Nike’s Air Jordans and Adidas’ Kanye West Yeezy line have also employed the drop in an attempt to build hype and sell out their exclusive products.

There are a few reasons why this approach works well. One is that it plays into the idea of shopping as entertainment by combining the two. Second, it offers influencers additional exclusivity and the social currency they crave. Due to consumption by an audience of vocal social media participants, this technique also acts as a quality-control mechanism to ensure that the products are high-quality. If not, the word will get around quickly.

For some, the drop sounds like a euphemism for flash sales, and it is. Flash sales were hot in the early part of the decade, but they petered out. That wasn’t because consumers didn’t like flash sales. Rather, retailers abused the format by offering items that weren’t all that exclusive. The same could happen with Instagram’s live video, but right now, it’s a blank canvas.

The new QVC?

Started in 1986, QVC combined the idea of live limited-edition sales with the then-new medium of cable TV. As documented in 2015 movie Joy (loosely based on Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano), QVC made millionaires out of everyday inventors and entrepreneurs who recognized a new opportunity.

The same could be true of Instagram’s live video. Although the medium definitely rewards celebrities with big followings, we could also see a repeat of the early 2010s, when new brands took advantage of social media’s immediacy with flash sales. Instagram Live represents another such opportunity.

Amanda Bell is an accounts manager at social video distribution platform GlassView.

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