Baidu, China's biggest internet search company and artificial intelligence (AI) champion, said it is investing a further 500 million yuan (US$70.5 million) to boost its live-streaming services, aiming to cultivate 1,000 star content creators amid a surge in online users during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Baidu will promote the live-streaming business more proactively [this year],” said Baidu executive vice-president Shen Dou at the company’s annual 2020 Wanxiang Conference on Wednesday.

Shen said Baidu’s apps and platforms saw an average of 1 billion daily visits during the height of the coronavirus outbreak, giving it a solid edge over competitors. “Data gleaned from our search engine gives us a clearer understanding of the types of live-streaming content users want,” he added.

Baidu's company logo is seen at its headquarters in Beijing on December 17, 2014. (Picture: Reuters)

While live-streaming has been around for years, the coronavirus pandemic has seen a spike in the popularity of such services, with millions of Chinese people turning to live-streaming and ecommerce platforms amid citywide lockdowns across the country.

Over the recent Lunar New Year period at the end of January, users on Douyin – the mainland Chinese version of TikTok – spent an average of 99 minutes on the app each day, compared to 67 minutes during the festive season last year, a QuestMobile report in February showed. Kuaishou, Douyin’s closest competitor, also saw a rise in average daily usage time from 44 minutes to 71 minutes during the same period, the report said.

The size of China’s live-streaming market reached 433.8 billion yuan in 2019 and is expected to be double that in 2020, according to a report by data analysis firm iiMedia Research in February.

And although China’s economy suffered its first contraction in nearly three decades in the first quarter of this year, some live-streamed events over the recent Labor Day holiday recorded sales of as much as 140 million yuan and the volume of sales from live-streams was 4.7 times more than in the holiday period last year, China’s vice-minister for commerce Wang Bingnan said earlier this month.

However, Baidu faces an uphill battle to grab market share from apps like Douyin and Kuaishou, which have been focused on live-streaming for years and are already established in the space, said He Yixuan, an ecommerce analyst from research firm Analysys.

“It would be difficult for Baidu to venture into the live-streaming market at the moment,” He said, adding that it would take time for the company to cultivate its own live-streaming celebrities, or key opinion leaders (KOLs).

Some of the most famous KOLs, such as "Lipstick King" Li Jiaqi, became household names by streaming predominantly on specific platforms. Li, who once sold 15,000 lipsticks in five minutes, got his start on Alibaba Group Holding’s ecommerce platform Taobao and still regularly streams on Taobao Live. (Alibaba is the parent company of the Post.)

To stand out from other players, Baidu said it will use AI and big data to “build a live-streaming platform with a focus on information and knowledge users need.”

Baidu will also help its 3.8 billion content creators promote their content across its diverse platforms including search engine app Baidu, short video app Haokan and collaborative online encyclopaedia Baidu Baike, it said in a press release.

“We will build up our capacity to facilitate communication between content creators and users on all our platforms, letting users not only gain information and services they need but also communicate directly with content creators,” it added.

(Abacus is a unit of the South China Morning Post.)