It started as an alternative to Valentine’s Day among students at Nanjing University back in the early 1990s. Celebrated each year on 11 November, Singles Day was a rather mundane affair—until Alibaba latched onto it in 2009. Looking for a way to promote Tmall, its newly launched online retail site, the company turned the holiday into an excuse to shop. The move paid off—big time.

Singles Day is now the largest e-commerce day in the world, with gross merchandise volume that exceeds Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined. Alibaba, which reaches 700 million consumers, raked in more than US$30.8 billion in Singles Day sales last year. Rebranded as 11.11 Global Shopping Festival in 2015, the event represents a dramatic shift in how the world hunts for bargains—with a click, tap or swipe.

“Think of it as the Super Bowl for brands,” says Bo Liu, general manager of marketing at Alibaba’s e-commerce offshoots Tmall and Taobao. “They bring the best resources, products and services, and Alibaba provides an unparalleled platform.” As Alibaba gears up for the 11th year of the holiday, Liu reveals the secrets of Singles Day success.

How did Singles Day gain traction?To get consumers excited [in 2009], we offered discounts of at least 50 percent and free nationwide shipping. Although only 27 brands participated, the response from consumers was tremendous. That’s when we knew we were onto something.

What was the biggest challenge early on?The rapid growth of the festival tested our infrastructure. In 2011, Alibaba experienced a huge spike in traffic, orders and payments. In response, our engineers worked around the clock. That experience led the company to strengthen its cloud computing and logistics systems to handle fast-growing sales volumes.

How has the holiday evolved?11.11 has blurred the lines between shopping and entertainment, with brands pulling out all the stops to wow consumers. The festival has grown to be an unrivaled opportunity to engage with consumers, launch new products, build up brand loyalty and gain consumer insights. For the past three years, we kicked off 11.11 with a “See Now, Buy Now” fashion show, allowing consumers to buy the fashions coming down the runway in real time. Last year, the four-hour show featured the latest collection from more than 60 international and Chinese brands and more than 1,000 new products.

How do you keep pace with shoppers’ expectations to experience something new?In 2016, we invented an augmented reality game called Catch the Cat and partnered with brands like Starbucks and KFC and shopping malls to drive gamers into their stores for special 11.11 promotions. In 2017 and 2018, we brought the sale offline and introduced what we call “new retail” experiences by leveraging the entire Alibaba ecosystem—from travel to entertainment to local services. We never stop dreaming.