I’ve been thinking a lot about digital rural economies, especially with the rise of remote work.
Recently, I read a tweet from Web Smith on rural e-commerce platforms & infrastructure, comparing the United States and China:
And it’s true.
How digital e-commerce works in China:
In China, Alibaba has created Taobao Villages in rural areas – residents are connected with the right digital payments and e-commerce logistics infrastructure to sell their goods/services to other bigger urban markets. (see: Why the Future of Chinese E-Commerce is In It’s Rural Areas and How Rural E-Commerce is Transforming Rural China)
This got me thinking heavily about Douyin’s (the Chinese version of TikTok) presence in China and Taobao’s live-streaming infrastructure, and how video was providing rural residents, and blue-collar Taobao owners a platform to market their strengths to the world.
Why rural e-commerce?
This topic is pretty relevant for me.
I’ll be 30 next year, and living in high cost of living urban locales like San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, or New York City – where much of America’s economic opportunities lie – is becoming increasingly prohibitive. Strained public infrastructure & increased commute times really affect quality of life.
Yet, much of the populism and politics that are coming out of the world is due to the increasing urban-rural divide. How practical is it to relocate to a rural area (unless your business or employer allows remote work)?
This is where rural video e-commerce can shine.
Rural folks have some of the best unique stories to share. They have not caught the status or money bug that you see in bigger cities. (see: Why Elites Love Authentic Lowbrow Culture: Overcoming High-Status Denigration with Outsider Art)
Video can provide a very unique outlet there rural residents can tell their stories, build their audience, and differentiate themselves, just for, being themselves.
What do we need for rural e-commerce to work?
In the United States, TikTok has the potential to be a very powerful video e-commerce platform for different types of rural retail, hospitality, dining, or media related businesses.
This is slowly beginning to happen with TikTok in the US (see: TikTok tests social commerce):
However, in order for this to be successful, you need the right paid channels and infrastructure to ensure creators can make a living from their businesses.
And this is the difference between the US and Chinese Internet cultures – in China, there are much more paid media channels for creators to make a living out of their podcast, video, or writings, than the US.
One of my good friends, Stewart Alsop, who runs Crazy Wisdom Podcast and interviews tech startup leaders in emerging markets, made an astute point about the podcast market.
Seeing that tweet, I responded enthusiastically that podcasts in China are integrated with other products like books, fashion, dining/hospitality – and podcasts serve as a great customer acquisition channel for larger products / services.
I believe one of the biggest product opportunities & challenges in the Anglo-sphere (and the West) is creating digital infrastructure and services that powers the next generation of rural e-commerce businesses.
Right now, the momentum in Silicon Valley is still very slow. Part of the challenge is Silicon Valley is very used to serving customers (both consumer / enterprise) that have high disposable income, making it hard to venture into a “Shopify” model of rural e-commerce.
Thus, this momentum is sorely needed – from the lens of economic development – to build economic resilience for the next several decades to come.
My personal motivations for rural e-commerce:
I want to end by sharing my personal motivations for talking about rural e-commerce.
Some of my favorite travel destinations (Santa Fe, New Mexico; Guanajuato, Leon, Mexico; Jeju Island, South Korea) happen to be in very rural areas that I always had this nostalgia for every time I left.
Don’t get me wrong, I love big cities. But, it’s really hard for me to focus. There’s so much noise, and it dilutes a lot of focus.
Rural areas get a lot of flack too. They don’t have “good nightlife”. You get bored easily.
What if what we need to do is re-frame how rural areas are framed in movies, music, television? Right now, there aren’t enough movies or TV shows that exist that show what life is like for rural folk- the same way Sex in the City made New York City popular for young 20 something year olds.
For me, why visual storytelling mediums like illustration and animation compel me go beyond: “let’s use animation as a customer acquisition channel for a larger brand/retailer” (although, this is a completely legitimate monetization channel).
Rather, the goal is to help alternative narratives on how people live, work, and play outside of existing established norms. Media helps inform and shape the value systems that the next generation of youth will adopt, and thus can be a powerful force on how people choose to invest their time and money.
And what if illustration and animation can help reshape how we perceive rural life?
More on this topic on a future blog post! Stay tuned.