Just like in the U.S., TikTok in China is full of funny videos, odd challenges, and its own brand of stars. Farmers are some of the most unlikely social media stars here, and they're using their fame to sell their produce.
"It's almost a more modern take on the old TV shopping," said Mark Tanner, the founder of China Skinny, a marketing research agency based in Shanghai.
In one video on TikTok, a farmer who goes by the name Northern Big Sis sits in her greenhouse and takes giant bites of the raw vegetables she grows on her farm. All of her videos are variations on this theme: She chomps her way through onions, garlic, and other vegetables. The videos are strangely addictive. Viewers keep swiping just to find out what vegetables she'll eat next.
A button above the video lets viewers buy the produce she's marketing without even leaving the TikTok app, and in record time, boxes of fruit and vegetables are delivered straight to your doorstep.
Livestreaming is big business in China, and with everyone stuck at home earlier this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, companies large and small had a captive audience. Tanner said there was a 730 percent rise in brand livestreaming in February alone.
"It was already rising quite quickly; all of a sudden, with COVID, it has just gone gangbusters," he said.
He's been surprised at how much of a hit the farmers have been. Millions of viewers tune in to watch them sell their produce.
"So, you're getting a large number of these farmers that have all of a sudden become minicelebrities."
Part of the appeal for Chinese urbanites is a peek into life in the countryside. But the promise of a bargain is also a draw.
"Chinese consumers, like any consumers, they love a deal. So, they're getting this deal, and they're getting entertained at the same time; so, it's been incredibly popular."
Some farmers are getting creative in how they hawk their wares.
One group of young farmers has a captive audience for their farming fashion shows on TikTok and Kuaishou, another livestreaming app. In each video, the Four Country Treasures, as they are known, strut down a red carpet laid out in the middle of a field in rural Guangxi Province, clothed in nothing but the food they sell. Garlic strands, bamboo leaves, handmade noodles, strings of chives, and hot peppers — make for some silly and mouthwatering outfits. Accompanied by a laugh track and sound effects, the videos are fun to watch, and the products they're selling are clickable — one day it's homemade pickled turnips, the next day, fresh mangoes.
This new sales approach has helped a lot of farmers hit hard by the COVID-19 lockdown. That includes Yang Qin Feng who runs the 16-acre Mi Le family farm on the outskirts of Shanghai. His first attempt at livestreaming included a cooking demonstration on a makeshift stove in the middle of a field.
Yang says he wants to teach shoppers about where their food comes from.
"Livestreaming is a little bit like selling at the farmers' market," he said. "Shoppers can communicate with us and see how we harvest, they can ask questions and we can answer. That way, the customers can see for themselves and they're more likely to buy."
Yang's broadcast worked on Rong Wei, a shopper who lives in the center of Shanghai. She was fascinated to learn how Manchurian wild rice, known as jiaobai, actually grows and she wound up buying some — along with eggs and chicken to give to her friends.
"Watching him explain his farming process made us want to eat the crops," she said. "The jiaobai looked delicious. There was a bit of educational value, too."
So, will growers around the world take up livestreaming like Chinese farmers have? Tanner thinks their success can't be easily replicated.
"Chinese people are much more engaged with digital and particularly e-commerce, and they adopt new technologies faster than anyone, and they also have incredibly well-integrated payment systems," he said.
It's unlikely this trend will catch on in the West with quite the same speed. But in China, farmers have already become influencers.