What exactly is it about Alibaba that has enabled it to flourish? Here are seven fundamental reasons for its ground-breaking success. One big one: attracting sellers by eliminating listing fees. Plus, a look Alibaba's responsible innovation initiatives.

Xavier Pavie

Xavier Pavie

Alibaba’s success is no secret. From its humble beginnings in Jack Ma’s Hangzhou apartment, the company has evolved and grown into an e-commerce empire known internationally. What exactly is it about Alibaba that has enabled it to flourish? Here are seven fundamental reasons for its ground-breaking success.

Alibaba: a brief history

Alibaba was initially founded in Jack Ma’s apartment in Hangzhou in 1999, before Alibaba.com was launched later that same year. In 2003, as the number of Internet users in China reached 80 million, according to Alibaba’s prospectus, Taobao.com was launched as an online market. Shortly afterwards, both Alipay and Aliwangwang (instant messenger on Taobao) were launched to complete the purchasing process in Taobao.

In 2007, the number of Internet users in China rose to 210 million and Alimama was launched as an advertisement transaction platform. Taobao started to monetize that same year. Tmall was launched in 2008, as Alibaba ran both B2C and C2C

platforms. In 2009, Alibaba Cloud computing was founded, illustrating Alibaba’s commitment to prioritize big data as part of its strategy. In 2010, the following three platforms were launched as part of Alibaba’s increasing focus on mobile payment: Juhuasuan (a platform for C2B); AliExpress (a global consumer marketplace); and Mobile Taobao App.

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Core factor No. 1: Alibaba’s unique business model

Alibaba provides services mainly to small enterprises and individuals. This defines a unique business opportunity which emancipates the productive forces of small enterprises and offers more diversified consumption choices for consumers.

Be it 1688 (a B2B e-commerce platform), Taobao, or YiDaTong (the largest Chinese professional import and export agent), all of Alibaba’s three core businesses focus on providing services to small enterprises, accumulatively creating value that would not have been possible individually. Together, they represent a complete e-commerce ecosystem.

By focusing on small enterprises, a large variety of goods is made available to a large variety of target consumer groups. In 2014, the Alibaba platform handled a total transaction volume worth CNY 2.3 billion (EUR 330 billion, $340 million).

Core factor No. 2: Alibaba’s unconventional profit model

Alibaba charges for services in marketing and technical support, instead of for admission. This contributes to a large and robust market share made up of loyal customers.

Alibaba’s profits mainly come from advertisements and keyword bidding, which represents 57% of total profits. The second most important source of profits (representing 25%) comes from technical services based on big data of consumer behaviors.

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By removing intermediate fees and allowing sellers to register for free, Alibaba was able to cultivate the online transaction habit among Chinese customers. eBay China, on the other hand, charges a fee for its platform transactions. By gathering a large number of sellers, Taobao succeeded in attracting even more customers.

Presently, the Alibaba platform represents more than 500 million registered users, including more than 230 million active buyers and more than 8 million active sellers, and annual orders have exceeded 11 billion, Alibaba says. Alibaba is able to leverage on the large number of customers on the platform, and also make use of advertisement, keyword bidding, and customer’s data for profit.

Core factor No. 3: Reliable credit model

Alibaba’s accurate credit model helps to develop a trustworthy reputation among customers. All sellers on the e-commerce platform are requested to pass an online certification test to verify their identity information. This reduces illegal transactions as sellers are supervised on the platform at all times. Apart from that, all transactions are recorded and can be traced back by both sellers and customers. This protects the legitimacy of each transaction and helps customers choose more reliable sellers.

As an additional layer of protection, payments are first transferred to Alipay and only released to sellers when buyers indicate that they have received their products in good condition. In 2013, the number of users in Alipay approached 300 million, while the number of transactions reached CNY 900 billion (EUR 128 billion, $135 billion). Active users of the mobile terminal reached 100 million, which exceeded the number of users on PayPal.

In addition, the system is built such that online feedback is highly encouraged. Customers are rewarded for the reviews they contribute with discount coupons – more reviews, more discount coupons.These buyer reviews help other customers in their overall purchasing experience and decision making process, which reduces post-purchase regrets.

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Subsidiary factor No. 1: Support Services for Customer Satisfaction

Alibaba’s service offerings provide a comfortable purchasing environment and positive online customer experience, leading to high user engagements. Alibaba offers a suite of support services to ensure optimal customer satisfaction by helping sellers to maintain positive interaction with buyers. Some of these support services include the offering of online business training for sellers, introduction of a special coding system to manage the large number of stores on the platform, development of its own instant communication tool for better seller-buyer communication exchange, and the reimbursement of any product with refunds completed within seven days. These support services help to generate more transactions.

Subsidiary factor No. 2: Sensitivity to business opportunity

Alibaba excels at identifying and seizing unique business opportunities, thereby positioning itself as a leader in developing customer loyalty. The ‘Double 11’ festival falls on Nov. 11, between Chinese National Day and Christmas. Most customers typically avoid shopping during that period but Taobao has successfully turned that day into an actual shopping festival.

In 2014, ‘Double 11’ generated over CNY 1bn in total trading volume for Tmall within the first three opening minutes. In a single day, Taobao generated a revenue of CNY 1.5 billion and a net profit of more than CNY 500 million (approximately EUR 71 million, $75 million), Alibaba has reported. During the event, Tmall sellers’ needs for advertisement and software services increased largely. Alibaba thus gains enormous profits from Double 11.

Subsidiary factor No. 3: New Transaction Patterns

Alibaba actively challenges traditional transaction patterns and explores new ways to create more value for customers according to their needs.

Consumer-to-Business (C2B) transaction model: Alibaba deploys the C2B transaction model to reduce costs in the traditional supply chain and shorten the time required for product turnover, thereby increasing customer satisfaction. Alibaba gathers scattered customers with similar needs to form a powerful purchasing group that can buy single products at a wholesale price. Furthermore, Alibaba also takes advantage of its massive online customer behavior data to develop products suited to particular customer habits.

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Online-to-Offline (O2O) strategy: In Alibaba’s system, customers can purchase a product by scanning a two-dimensional code and they can also indicate receipt of a product with another code. Customers can also take part in various brand-run initiatives by scanning the corresponding codes to receive targeted advertisements. To accelerate the growth of the O2O service, Alibaba is actively employing the use of mobile terminal domains through “Alipay Wallet” and partnering with banks to provide code scanning and cash transfer services for payment.

Subsidiary factor No. 4: Integrated Ecosystem

Rather than position itself simply as an e-commerce company, Alibaba strives for excellent service quality by introducing easier ways of doing business for sellers, and by developing a positive purchasing experience for the buyers.

In order to achieve its goal in terms of positioning, Alibaba is expanding its core business to many different domains, such as advertising services, logistic network, financial services, and mobile terminal services.

  • Alimama

Essentially an advertising platform on Alibaba’s B2B operations, users can list available advertisement positions on Alimama for advertisers to purchase.

  • Use of Big Data

Alibaba integrates comprehensive data resources that cover almost every aspect of customers’ daily lives through the acquisition of software companies in other domains (e.g. map, weather, taxi, music, and travel). The data helps advertisers to select the most appropriate website advertising channels and to reach customers effectively.

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  • Taobao Ke

Made up of a group of people dedicated to assisting merchants in the promotion of their products, Taobao Ke follows the ‘cost per sale’ billing model—members receive a commission upon successfully identifying customers and convincing them to complete a purchase.

  • Video and Mobile Terminal Integration

In April 2014, Taobao bought 16.5% shares of China’s largest video site, leveraging on the strength of videos on the desktop computer and mobile devices, to enable consumer interaction with advertisements. When consumers watch video advertisements, Taobao sends related information to their mobiles in various forms, including games and coupons to entice clicks from the audience.

  • Ali Micro Finance

Ali Micro Finance provides micro deposits and loans to small structures that typically experience difficulty in obtaining a loan from traditional banks. It translates the online customer behavior data collected from the Ali platform into businesses and categorizes small enterprises’ individual credit ratings according to their eligibility to apply for small loans from Ali Micro Finance.

  • China Smart Network (CSN) Project

CSN project was launched by Alibaba in collaboration with the four most influential logistics companies in China, with the goal of bringing products to buyers within 24 hours of the purchase. Logistic networks belonging to different logistic companies were integrated to form the single most effective network in terms of parcel turnover for customer delivery.

Based on data analysis, Alibaba selects the most suitable logistics company for different segments of the network. Customers can also choose from a list of delivery preferences (e.g. fastest, cheapest, safest or best service), and CSN will deploy the ‘right’ logistic company with the corresponding strengths accordingly.

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Alibaba turns toward a responsible innovation

With the success Alibaba has encountered over the last decade, it has focused more on responsible innovation.

Indeed, Alibaba provides now online promotion and branding for agricultural products in poor areas after helping them select competitive products based on big data. Alibaba improves local growing standards, product quality and logistics efficiency by integrating agricultural technologies. They don’t hesitate to use the live streaming platform to help poor areas sell their quality produce.

Alibaba develops many programs to reduce inequalities

The main objectives of Alibaba innovation is allowing disadvantaged cities and persons to create, implement and develop business through the Alibaba platform. Especially the western China which is still undeveloped compared to the west.

Alibaba has built a Taobao education information platform to share online the best teachers and explore solutions to the uneven distribution of teachers in urban and rural areas. Some programs are specifically dedicated to support women’s employment and entrepreneurship. Some achievement include:

  • At Magic Bean Mama, 18,200 women in distress were trained in ecommerce skills and entrepreneurship.
  • Ant Financial’s Ant Good Insurance provides insurance for 167,67 women living in poverty.
  • Women entrepreneurs on the Alibaba platform account for 49.25% of the total with the main age group being 23-33 years old.

Promoting global green development 

Alipay’s online and mobile payment platform is used by more than a billion people to pay for everything from groceries, to bike rentals, to wealth management products.

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In August 2016, the Chinese company turned the power of its digital technology to promote climate action. The Alipay Ant Forest project, launched on the company’s mobile app, rewards its users with “green energy points” each time they take a step to reduce their emissions, such as by biking to work, going paperless and buying sustainable products. These green energy points grow into a virtual tree on the user’s app, which Alipay matches by planting a real tree or protecting a conservation area, in partnership with local NGOs.

Since its launch, Alipay Ant Forest has attracted over 500 million users, planted 100 million real trees in Northwest China covering a total area of 112,000 hectares, and protected a total area of 12,000 hectares of conservation land. Alipay Ant Forest has also helped create around 400,000 job opportunities and RMB 60 million ($8.4 million) in income by working with farmers to plant trees, develop organic agricultural products, and connect them with e-commerce platforms.

Alibaba is also engaged in improving its total carbon footprint by promoting the green upgrade of the logistics industry through specific measures e.g. green packaging, green warehouse distribution, green intelligence and green recycling.

Xavier Pavie is professor at ESSEC Business School, Academic Director Master in Management (Grande Ecole) Asia Pacific, Director of the iMagination Center, Director of Management of Responsible Innovation advanced program for executive and Research Associate at the IREPH (Research Institute in Philosophy) Paris-Nanterre University. He holds a Master in Management and Master in Philosophy, a Ph.D. in Philosophy and a Habilitation à la direction de recherches (Highest university-granted and higher education-sanctioned degree obtained post PhD). He graduated from the International Teachers Programme (HEC Paris).

Yixuan Luo, a graduate  student at ESSEC Business School, contributed to this article.

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