Will fitness livestreaming become a long-term trend in China after making millions stranded at home sweat?
Sector still struggling to monetize traffic
Published: Apr 25, 2022 06:32 PM
Screenshot of Liu's Weibo

Screenshot of Liu's Weibo

Logging into a livestream fitness session each day led by "personal trainer" Liu Genghong, or Will Liu, has been a daily routine of millions of people stranded at home under COVID-19 in China.

Liu, a little-known singer and actor born on the island of Taiwan, took the internet by storm and became the hottest fitness broadcaster on Chinese social media in only a short amount of time, amassing more than 45.7 million followers on Douyin as of Monday, with his videos attracting over 230 million views in total.

Not since Li Jiaqi, China's "livestreaming king" known by his eye-popping e-commerce sales tactics, has someone in livestreaming industry enjoyed such a meteoric rise. Liu has managed to gain more than 35 million followers within 10 days during April. 

As a popular comment on Twitter-like Sina Weibo summed up, "Li Jiaqi emptied out our wallets, while Liu Genghong emptied our bodies."

Top fitness influencer

The "Liu Genghong phenomenon" has seized attention across the internet, with netizens, bloggers and celebrities uploading videos of themselves following Liu's routines.

For some bloggers in Shanghai who have been at home for over a month, posting videos of themselves exercising along with Liu, has been one of the only ways to keep followers engaged.

One of Liu's most-viewed fitness video is a routine accompanied by Jay Chou's song "Herbalist Manual," which made many netizens say that their leg would lift whenever they heard the music of "Herbalist Manual."

Liu, who enjoyed a close relationship with Chou prior to becoming a top fitness influencer, has chosen the megastar's songs as the background music for his fitness routines.

The new normal?

Analysts voiced varied opinions on whether the new trend of fitness livestreaming would last.

The new trend has driven people to exercise while they have little else to do, but in the long term, it is relatively difficult to form a new sector within live broadcasting, Wang Peng, an assistant professor at the Gaoling School of Artificial Intelligence at the Renmin University of China, told the Global Times on Monday.

"As time goes on, for example, if the epidemic is brought under control and life returns to normal, the enthusiasm for fitness may decrease," said Wang.

According to Wang, Liu has seized the moment, but whether his fame can endure is another question.

"There is now more need to do fitness training - for health and also for entertainment, especially when people are stranded at home due to the epidemic," said Wang.

But Huang Haidong, an expert from Chinese online fitness platform Keep, was quoted by as saying that the fitness wave in China is destined to be a firm, long-term trend, whether the "Liu Genghong phenomenon" is part of the sector or not.

"Many online platforms have tried to expand fitness content in recent years, which shows the value of fitness is being recognized," said Huang.

China has a huge fitness market. By 2021, the country was home to 300 million fitness enthusiasts, ranking first in the world, according to a report by China Insights Consultancy. However, the average annual expenditure of fitness enthusiasts in China was only 2,596 yuan ($393) in 2021, far lower than $2,183 in the US.

As of December 2021, there were more than 60,000 fitness internet celebrities with more than 10,000 followers, according to a report by Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok. 

In 2021, the number of fitness videos had increased by 134 percent year-on-year, and the number of followers of such content had increased by 208 percent from 2020 levels.

Cashing in

Whether the new trend has true staying power will depend on how the fitness livestreaming sector can be monetized, an industry insider surnamed Li told the Global Times.

Li is an employee at a health management app, which provides online fitness courses, diet recipes, and low-calorie food products.

"For us, livestreaming is just a method to attract users. The core competitiveness should be our products," said Li.

Huang echoed Li's sentiments by saying that online products and services must truly focus on user needs to tap into market demand.

Yuan Shuai, an analyst focusing on the digital economy at the China Culture Administration Association, said that driven by capital, some video platforms aim for a profit model - "internet traffic is revenue."

"In the past two years, the reasons why the chaos of livestreaming industry has not slowed down is the low barrier to entry, fast monetization from internet traffic, and high cost of regulation," Yuan said.

According to Yuan, the internet celebrity economy relies on targeted marketing to a huge fan base, so as to convert fans into purchasing power. Currently, the internet celebrity economy mainly has three sources of profit which include fans offering cash donations or "gifts" on livestreaming platforms, brand advertising, and selling products through e-commerce platforms.

For Liu, he earns about 240,000 yuan a day from livestreaming, with fans showering him with virtual gifts that can be exchanged for cash, media reported.

"In general, e-commerce livestreaming, livestreaming platforms and multi-channel networks have not found a sustainable way to monetize traffic and have not realized long-term and stable 'mass production,'" Wang said.