Several years ago Facebook, Twitter and YouTube made a huge effort to push tools to create live video streams at video creators and marketers. For a while it seemed like the future of social media was live video – we even invested in a live video division of Southpoint Films, called Southpoint Live, in anticipation of the demand we were expecting to get from our customers. The reality was that very few businesses took interest in live video, and we only wheeled out our live kit on a handful of occasions during the height of Silicon Valley’s live video push. (Funnily enough, we’ve actually used it in more offline live environments than we have for online video streaming.)
Unfortunately, the writing should have been on the wall. Traditional broadcasters have been moving from live content to on-demand for well over a decade now. BBC iPlayer, Netflix, Amazon Prime. People want content when it suits them, not when some network executive thinks it’ll get the most viewers.
The biggest problem with live video is that you can’t be spontaneous – despite how “social live video” encourages you to be. Live video needs promoting in advance because viewers need make an effort to clear the time in their diaries so that they can watch it. You’re effectively keeping your audience captive while you’re broadcasting. Therefore, live content needs to be incredibly well planned in addition to being well executed.
For example, you need to set people’s exceptions the whole way through and meet those expectations. Don’t be late when starting your broadcast, don’t start rambling to fill dead air, and make sure you stick to a schedule so that viewers know how long you’re going to keep them occupied for. They have other things going on their lives that you’re taking them away from.
It’s far easier to disappoint people with live content
As for the content itself, if there’s no drama, no tension, or no excitement in your live stream, your viewers aren’t going to stick around for long and they’re certainly not going to make the time to watch it. There’s a reason why Netflix became incredibly popular with it’s unscheduled, non-linear viewing options for TV content vs the traditional model of broadcasting content live on TV channels, because it let people watch television content within their own schedule.
Live streaming is most suitable for content that people would already be making time for, such as events. In particular, it’s good for events where there’s some buzz and excitement about taking part in it as it happens. It’s ideal for water cooler moments like the Super Bowl, or Apple Keynotes, if you’re a nerd like me.
Live streaming is also a great technique for engaging people who can’t attend an event in person. For example, a conference with a global audience, where attendees may be put off by expensive travel and accommodation costs.
From a more personal perspective, live streaming is very powerful for events like graduations, weddings and funerals. Streaming the event live allows people who can’t attend on the day to take part without being there, or without the cost and hassle of organising travel and accommodation. This is where, specifically, Facebook’s live platform excels.
But as I said, with all of these, the most important thing is promoting the live stream in advance to make sure people can take the time to watch it. The chances that your audience will be available for a spontaneous live stream are slim. Many people are at work during office hours, and then they’re with their families or doing hobbies after hours. People don’t go home and stare at a brick wall waiting for something to happen. Even if Facebook, Instagram and Twitter send out push notifications when you go live, most people are often busy doing things.
If a live stream happens and nobody watches, did it even happen at all?
The question to ask is whether people are going to take the time out of their schedule to tune into content before you make the investment in streaming it live. Or, would they rather watch it at their own convenience, perhaps as a short highlights reel instead.
My view is that, unless you spend a lot of time promoting your live stream in advance, or it becomes a routine event (like the 6 o’clock news), you’re going to have a hard time drawing in a crowd. You’ll be better off putting your time, effort and resources into a standard non-live video that can be watched at any time.
Update – A note about Twitch: As has quite rightly been pointed out to me, Twitch is doing incredibly well with building an audience for live content. However, I personally think that Twitch falls into a different category to the live content that Facebook, Instagram and YouTube is pushing.
For those who don’t know, Twitch is primarily a service for streaming video games – usually with commentary from the people playing the game. While all of the content is user-generated (you or I could create a Twitch stream), I would argue that – at the entry level of Twitch streaming – the hard part of planning interesting content has been handled by the developers of the game that’s being streamed. They’ve already written a story / designed mechanics within the game that will hold a viewer’s attention.
That’s not to undermine the very talented and dedicated Twitch streamers who put a lot of time and effort into creating engaging, original live content on the platform (I’m looking at you, Minecraft streamers) but I would argue that it’s easier to produce something worth watching on Twitch by nature of the fact it’s streaming existing, planned content. Hence why I didn’t really consider it for my original piece. It’s quite different to starting a live stream on Instagram or Facebook, although many of the same principles apply. (I would struggle to see the appeal in watching a poorly planned Twitch stream where the presenter rambles a lot or simply gives no commentary at all.)
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