Live Video: It’s Not About The Content

Everyone’s doing live, few will succeed

Photo by Infrogmation

This post was selected by the editors of Context as one of the best posts about the marketing and advertising published on Medium in 2016.


Just this week, Tumblr and Musical.ly joined the live video fray, launching new products just as details of Facebook’s spending more than $50 million on direct payments to creators primarily in live video emerged. It would not be hyperbole to say that everyone, from Google to Twitter to old-guard media companies, is currently making live video their top priority.

Yet the human animal is ill-prepared for the droning feast of now-ness that live streaming delivers. Live products must do more to contextualize and direct what we are seeing and what creators are making.

Using the current wave of live video products is like trying to make a thirty minute pop song using only a recorder: horribly tedious for creator and consumer alike. The hook is superficially appealing, but the length, repetition, lulls, lack of context, and general paucity of the tools mean even the best creators and media companies won’t stand a chance of making marginally watchable content.

Most of the current thinking on live video is top-down. Like any good consumer tech product, the only way to succeed is thinking from the consumer’s point-of-view, not the advertisers’. Few platforms are doing that, blinded by the (legitimately substantial) profit live video dominance could deliver.

The House sit-in, visible to the world only through live products

Live could change the world …

The current versions of live will quickly burn out consumers and become simple noise. That’s a shame.

Done right, live represents one of the rawest examples of the democratic potential of the internet. With no skill or ability to edit, no special permission or high-cost technology, any of the 3 billion humans in the world with access to a networked camera can show what they are actually experiencing, right now, and anyone else in the world can experience it with them. The sheer joy of Candace Payne is just the first and silliest manifestations of this massive opportunity. The next Arab Spring could not only be broadcast, but organized, through a live product.

I could watch this once a day for the rest of my life

… and drive incredible profits

Social media companies whose primary business — advertising — requires a growing supply of attention, rightly think they’ve found a real gusher of it in live. Live has dual-sided appeal: it compels users who might not otherwise create to create, and it compels users who might not otherwise consume to consume.

You get more consumers, and you get them at moments when they might not even have their phone out: The Cavs are celebrating in a Vegas club right now. Your toddler nephew is taking his first swim in the ocean right now.

You get more creators, who are the great multipliers of attention: Hitting the “go live” button induces a kind of vulnerable excitement, akin to hopping on stage, that is irresistible. If you’re Facebook in particular, that means stopping the precipitous decline in original posts.

This two-sided attention injector is impossible for businesses driven by advertising to resist. But the platforms desperately need to seek out real value beyond a compelling push notification. They must the find the kernel of liveness that is exciting enough to justify the hype, or users will dismiss these potentially world-changing products as gimmicks, before they’ve had a chance to find their footing.

Live is boring

As my business partner Casey Neistat puts it: live has been around for 100 years, and it’s almost always boring. (This, in part, is why Beme has always aimed to feel recent and fresh, but never “live.”)

The fundamental position of all the live platforms seems to be: if we just get more people to stream, if we just get more content, somehow everything will click. This is simply wrong. Given the right tools, the right sized box to fill in, creators would overwhelm with their ability to make incredible content. But that hasn’t happened. The tools for creators we have today are just a minor evolution of those created by Ustream or Livestream years ago, and those weren’t exactly fonts of creative, compelling, consumer-focused content.

Why then is Facebook, one of the world’s great software innovation companies, so focused on content alone? As I write this, Facebook is courting and paying handsomely for a litany of celebrities (Gordon Ramsay) and media companies (Buzzfeed) to create as much “high quality” live content as possible. Meanwhile, the live product itself is little more than a bundle of (miraculous, complex, but obscured from the user) streaming technologies attached to a plain old status update.

Watching Justin Bieber prattle on for 30 minutes in a perfectly lit studio is only 5% more compelling than watching a random stranger do the same from their couch. Neither warrants the immediate attention the “live” label suggests.

Lack of content isn’t the problem in live: the product is. As a creator, the tools should do everything possible to make what you’re streaming compelling. As a consumer, they should focus on letting you enter a stream at any point, immediately understand the context, and start participating.

Twitch understood the importance of product and it has made them the only truly successful product in the space to date. Twitch worked by integrating seamlessly with context-providing games and giving dead simple PIP to creators and complex realtime feedback mechanisms to consumers. Their product is much more than a “go live” button and a stream of comments. And it works, well.

Need inspiration? Turn on morning TV

Providing tools to make live video more compelling is an extraordinary product challenge, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But I do know where to look.

You only need to spend about 10 minutes watching Today or Good Morning America to see what a finely tuned live video product looks like. (Startups love to dismiss existing “legacy” entertainment tactics. A single successful morning show brings a network $500M+ per year, enough to fund an entire news division. These are not just content affairs; morning shows and 24-hour news channels are highly tuned, technical products, with features designed to make watching them instantly compelling. We’d be wise to study them closely.)

Morning shows use a variety of tools to make their product easier to create, and more compelling to watch at any time interval or entry point. How could live products incorporate and automate these well-tested features?

  • Limited formats: Two chairs, one with a celebrity? It’s an interview! Anchor alone at a desk with floating image? News! By providing a small set of easily discernible formats, morning shows make it possible to tune in at any time and understand what’s going on. Could live products give creators templates to structure their broadcasts, lines to color in, instead of a massive blank canvas?
  • Familiar visual setting: The morning show’s main action is always anchored in 3–4 familiar studio scenes: the living room, the anchor desk, maybe an interview area. There is no cognitive load involved in figuring out what the viewer is looking at. How could products visually contextualize and anchor the action in a broadcast?
  • Producers and researchers: Dozens of editors, researchers, and producers work for many hours before a morning show to make sure anchors know who they’re interviewing, what’s going to work well, and even whisper helpful details in their ear even as the broadcast happens. What could platforms provide in readymade content for broadcasters to talk about? How could live products provide producer-like feedback and assistance while a creator is live?
  • Audio cues: Morning shows are designed to be consumed ambiently, on in the background while you get the kids ready or eat breakfast. To help you maintain your bearings as segments change even if your eyes are elsewhere, a subtle but very effective library of sounds and music is used. How could automated and/or creator-driven sound be used to create more engaging, passively watchable streams?
  • Chyron: The text crawling in the lower third of the screen provides immediate context about who is talking, what they’re talking about, and even why it’s interesting/controversial. Why not provided automated or user-controlled text and graphics for context and additional info?
Fact checking via chyron
  • Proxy for the viewer: News anchors are not only a familiar face and voice, they are broader proxy for the viewer. They ask the questions the viewer might ask, they get confused when the viewer might be confused. How might the UI contain better stand-ins for the (potentially confused) viewer?

Perhaps the lack of product development around live is a huge opportunity for outside startups, as Jeremy Liew has pointed out. I hope so. I truly want to see live work; the potential here is remarkable. And maybe a little more time in front of the TV in the morning would help point you in the right direction.


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