Facebook Live Is the New QVC | Backchannel
It’s not Tracie Reeves’s thick Tennessee twang that hooks viewers into the two-hour-long shows she broadcasts via Facebook Live, six times a week. “I don’t know how they listen to my voice,” Reeves confides. “I’ve tried to watch the videos back. Can’t do it. I’m absolutely one of the most annoying people that I’ve ever heard.”
Yet 25,000 Facebook fans tune in to watch Reeves—a bubbly, relatable young mother of four, with a habit of dropping F-bombs—do what she does surprisingly well: sell oysters over the internet. Specifically, it’s the cultured freshwater pearls, synthetically dyed in a prismatic array of hues; she sells them on her Live show, My Mermaid Treasure. Though Facebook’s live-streaming interface is better known for giving rise to viral one-offs like Chewbacca Mom, for Reeves and a host of other wannabe entrepreneurs, Live has provided a ready template just waiting to be hacked into an ecommerce tool.
Reeves isn’t the only woman on Facebook hosting “pearl parties”—a kind of virtual Avon party for bivalves, with a digital living room that can seat thousands. Like her pearl-shucking and shilling peers, she is a member of a growing group of small business owners who have keenly deputized Facebook Live to reach a broader fan base. Hosts regularly broadcast multiple times a week as they pry open oyster shells to reveal a cheap, colorful pearl inside, keeping viewers hooked with gimmicks including raffles, giveaways, and unyielding amounts of pep.
Scan across the Facebook Live map, and more often than not, someone will be selling you something: impossibly fuzzy blankets; vintage clothing; pearls. Facebook launched Live to all users in 2016, hoping to capitalize on the burgeoning live video trend and court high school and college-age users who were moving away from the platform toward competitors like Snapchat. But for small business owners, Live streaming has taken the passive ecommerce shopping experience and made it active, without ever forcing a shopper outside for human interaction. Sellers aren’t just selling pearls: They’re selling two hours of time—what Reeves calls “hanging in the comments”—chatting about relationships, motherhood, and, from time to time, pearls.
Despite this growing sector, Facebook hasn’t made ecommerce easy. The company hasn’t developed tools for Live users to streamline the commerce process, so Reeves, like many of her competitors, maintains her live, unedited video feed, while filling orders that trickle in via comments during broadcast. Transactions take place outside of Facebook, which often means directing clients to hacked systems of personal websites, Shopify pages, and PayPal invoice systems. Despite their burgeoning empires, sellers like Reeves often find themselves cobbling together the basic information they can squeeze out of Facebook to analyze their customer base and viewer demographics.
Still, drag your mouse over the center of the country on any given weeknight and you’ll find almost as many pearl parties as you do sermons on salvation. Pearl purveyors have found a powerful marketing tool in Facebook Live—more powerful tool than even Facebook seems to realize it has. Yet the biggest impediment to their success may end up being, well, Facebook.
In theory, Facebook Live was supposed solidify Facebook’s place in the future. Rushed to market in two months, it was an attempt to recoup the teenage customers that the platform was hemorrhaging. The streams of dynamic live video content would allow Facebook to compete with Snapchat, particularly with its rival’s popular brand-focused Discover feature. It earned a dedicated space within the mobile app, and all manner of celebrity and user-generated live streams populated its 2016 rollout.
In the months after Live’s launch, Facebook made flashy plans to sign on celebrity influencers, including Kevin Hart and Jennifer Lopez, to tout the benefits of the new Live product. But almost immediately, the platform was besieged by controversy: A Chicago man recorded his own shooting. Philando Castile’s girlfriend livestreamed his slaying at the hands of a police officer the following month. Facebook failed to predict the many ways Live would prove useful. The company didn’t envision that users would hack the tool into a last resort emergency line, or manipulate it to sell pearls on the internet. (After repeated media requests, Facebook declined to participate in this story.)
The discovery process on Facebook Live is essentially nonexistent. It takes me over 30 minutes of searching to unearth the Live Video tab, buried deep below Pokes, Jobs, and Marketplace. Independent sellers such as Reeves and her friend Alesha Smith, who owns her own pearl operation called Daisy’s Pearl, depend entirely on organic shares or curious passersby, because the Live map is so buggy and stilted. Reeves says she’s paid for an ad campaign just once, and saw very few clickthroughs from the ad she purchased. All of her traffic is instead driven by her videos popping up in people’s News Feeds after their friends watch and like her shows.
For prolific sellers, being discovered is only half the battle: The Facebook Live sales process is hardly easier. Trolls often besiege broadcasts, leaving antisemitic comments or violent and sexual imagery in the comments section. Reeves has had her home address spammed onto her page, and received countless dick pictures from unknown men.
Once a customer decides to buy a pearl, she enters a labyrinthine purchase process: Placing orders by Facebook message; checking out via a third-party site. It’s just as complicated for sellers. Reeves, who operates as a one-woman show, spends the hours before her broadcast processing orders. While hosting her show, Reeves also must monitor comments on a separate screen to be able to take new orders. Smith streamlines the process by using external software to manager her streams; she says she relies on the demographics Facebook provides from time to time, but primarily uses data from her Shopify site to analyze her sales. “I feel like I owe Facebook Live money for helping me grow my business,” Reeves tells me. “But I wish they’d utilize a space for business owners.”
In part, that’s because the two forces—Facebook and small business owners—have opposing needs. “Smaller brands will generally dominate live video commerce,” says Brian Pham, former principal at Sherpa Capital. But regardless of how many bivalves someone like Reeves sells, he says, the gross won’t be large enough to influence Facebook’s bottom line.
“Facebook wants to focus on creators and publishers because it’s [trying to become] the equivalent of the TV network,” says Pham. “They need to aggregate large numbers of users with big, high quality content. The return on investment for them to focus on small [business] content creators is just a diminishing returns equation.”
That means that sellers like Reeves, who have set up shop on Live despite its limitations, are doing so in spite of Facebook. For now, live commerce remains a homespun operation, which may be running on borrowed time.
“If you give me five minutes, I can get ya hooked.” It’s one of the first thing Reeves tells me when I ask her if she can explain why her pearl parties have found an audience numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Her wares are hardly worth more than a few dollars (and more often than not, the jewelry that they come with can only kindly be referred to as “crap”).
But pearl parties are addictive. The novelty of guessing what color will come up next is what gets you first—all sorts of iridescent shades of the rainbow. Then it’s waiting for the holy grail of pearl parties: two pearls in a shell, or twins. (Most hosts dye their own freshwater pearls, before inserting them into fancier saltwater akoya shells; twins, in this case, are little more than dollar-store IVF.) The rhythmic flow of shucking and ooh-ing over the pearl within easily soaks up hours in a single sitting.
For a seller that does Reeves’ volume, that revenue can be significant. In an average show, Reeves sells anywhere from 150 to 200 pearls. Single pearls sell at $15 a pearl; four go for $55. Wholesale, cultured pearls go for as low as $2 a pearl—which means an average show can fetch upwards of $1,500. At six shows per week, 12 hours of broadcasting can garner Reeves a tidy profit.
Reeves’s own inaugural video last September garnered 19,000 views, all driven by viral Facebook shares. Her business has grown since then. In an average show, she can clear thousands in sales, placing her in the upper echelon of pearl peddlers. The burgeoning micro-industry has other success stories, with direct sales consultants from major players such as multi-tier marketing giant Vantel Pearls and the franchise company Open an Oyster seeing massive growth in its consultant workforce over the last year, with demonstrable sales to match. Nearly all attribute their success to Facebook Live.
Reeves’s competitors don’t just sell pearls. Facebook Live has opened up a window for all kinds of direct sales from the comfort of a seller’s own living room. Most market to a decidedly female demographic, selling fuzzy fleece blankets, second-hand clothing, and a wide-ranging assortment of beauty, wellness, and sex products. But pearl parties still garner exponentially more views, partially due to novelty and showmanship.
But after you see your twentieth or thirtieth pearl opened by the same cookie cutter young housewife sporting an American Apparel V-neck and a French manicure, it can all start to blend together. “How many times can you say, ‘It’s so pretty?’” Reeves tells me.
That’s why Reeves developed her series into interactive shows. Only a portion is dedicated to opening oysters; her family has become part of a rotating cast of characters. There’s Troy, the handsome, young jeweler she works with; Jason, her husband; her four adorable, tow-headed children; and her zany artist father, “DadT,” known for his abstract oil paintings and a penchant for stuffing four and five pearls into the toy plastic oyster shells he auctions off during some broadcasts.
She attributes her success to these relatable mundanities: “I can give you the, ‘I’m raising four kids too; I have a dog who peed on the floor; I am just like you guys.”
But any Reeves regular can tell you that it’s her second show, “Pearls After Dark,” that’s helped her carve out her niche. In a two-hour broadcast, Reeves sells pearls while holding frank discussions on motherhood, sexuality, and social issues, covering everything from anal douching to LGBTQ rights. She sells sex toys from time to time; she hands out sex advice freely. There are even feuds: Seller fanbases are fiercely loyal, and Reeves has tangled with competitors before, who have accused her of everything from poaching clients to misleading customers about the value of the pearls she sells.
It should come as no surprise that Reeves’s shows are keenly similar to programs that run on home shopping networks, like the direct sales behemoth QVC. Both cater to the home shoppers demographic. (Reeves’s clientele, like that of other pearl sellers, is mostly females in the 25-45 range, or 65 plus.) Most pearl party hosts broadcast from a dining room table. That isn’t just a function of limited technological capabilities; it evokes the same home-like atmosphere that QVC tries to capture via its living room-style sets.
But Facebook Live offers sellers and buyers even more constant contact. For many, tuning in has little to do with buying, or even playing the nightly raffles and games to win free prizes. Though the majority of viewers tend to be drivebys who stumble upon the video via a Facebook friend, a few hundred tune in on a regular basis, just to hang out.
Even though fans are just hanging out in the comments, the best pearl sellers—like QVC hosts—realize that personality drives sales, and Reeves is no exception. Her unfiltered take on life hooks viewers, but Reeves hustles to keep them there. Though her production value is purposefully simple—the XMas Jammies family, they are not—Reeves is very clear that fans are getting more than a sales party. They’re getting a show, from a masterful showman. (Indeed, when I first tuned into a Reeves broadcast, she was waving anal beads through the air like a wand.)
“Your kids are in bed and you gotta do something,” explains Reeves. “We don’t act like this during the day, but there are millions of moms out there who are looking for a place to pop off, act raunchy…And if there’s an outlet of revenue for me, fantastic.”
It remains to be seen just how long this breezy sojourn can last, especially as Facebook pivots away from user generated streaming. A little over a year after launching Live, Facebook has created “Watch,” a home for premium original content intends to compete with Netflix and Amazon Prime. In contrast, Live has seen few updates at all; a recent upgrade to allow screen-sharing took over a year and a half to implement.
So sellers like Reeves will continue to cobble together a shopping experience that offers an alternative to the impersonal, if not efficient, digital future that awaits us. They’ve found a way to monetize a trinket by imbuing it with the best bits of human experience. They’ve done what Facebook itself was always supposed to do. And, against all odds, they’ve done it without the help of Facebook.
“That’s why this thrives,” Reeves tells me. “[Fans] don’t need Hulu; they don’t need Netflix; they don’t even need cable—because they now I’m going to be live three times a week, and they’re going to laugh their butts off.”
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