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Virtual Events Guide

Virtual Events in Politics are Boring (But They Don’t Have to Be)

Eli Stonberg
Sep 9 · 15 min read

How to engage your crowd, gamify collective action, and raise a ton of money along the way.

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The Sanders campaign transformed a concert with the Strokes into a national grassroots fundraiser using gamification widgets such as donation meters, leaderboards, featured chat, and a ticker showing recent donors. The event had 500,000+ views and brought in $75,000+ from 4,000+ donors.

Virtual events have become a central way political campaigns raise money, organize volunteers, and even accept nominations. So why do most of them still look and feel like a corporate conference call?

It’s not just Zoom fatigue — it’s that political organizations have not yet tapped into the available tools and technology that can turn virtual events into two-way, participatory experiences.

We’ve seen that successful interactive live streams can transform viewers into participants who actively play a role in the event. And when this happens, your audience will feel a stake in the outcome and a desire to become part of the movement.

Our Path into Politics

But who the hell are we? Our company Hovercast has recently helped power virtual events for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, Andrew Yang, and more. But we didn’t start in politics. Far from it. We were born out of an elaborate viral stunt for Old Spice, where an online audience of millions controlled a man in the woods and forced him to fight costumed bears and drink red pepper flakes.

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The Old Spice Nature Adventure was a “live action video game” that allowed the Twitch chat to type in commands to collectively control a man in the woods for three straight days.

Surprisingly, the lessons from that gamified experience still inform our political work today. We learned it can be incredibly rewarding for audience members to play along with the show, provided their engagement can have a significant impact on the content in real time.

Since then we’ve been obsessed with building tools to help professional broadcasters make their live videos interactive. Hovercast CTO Jeff Greco previously worked as the engineering manager at the Obama Foundation, and suggested that the tools that we originally built for brands could be helpful in political live streaming, particularly by linking on-screen graphics to ActBlue donations, signups, or Tweets.

So last September we got to work, starting with the Tom Steyer campaign, then Andrew Yang and eventually the Bernie Sanders live streams. Throughout these campaigns we’ve learned that the future of political live streaming looks more like Peloton than C-SPAN.

That is to say, to take full advantage of live video, political organizations should merge their own best practices with some proven lessons from video games and emerging media: design shared goals with real deadlines, invite the audience to impact your show, celebrate progress on screen, amplify social conversation, make videos accessible across multiple platforms, operate with high production value, and above all create content that’s fun to watch.

Here’s how we approach it in 4 easy steps:

  1. Decide the goal 🥅
  2. Make sure it looks good 📹
  3. Engage the audience 🤩
  4. Choose your venue(s) 🏟
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Our 4 steps to creating game changing virtual events in politics

Decide The Goal

Go in with a mission

Campaign digital staffers live and die by calls to action. So why are they conspicuously absent in so many political live streams?

It’s important to set a goal and build it into the broadcast — whether it’s to raise money, boost volunteer shift sign ups, promote text banking or simply inform and entertain. Creatively, it helps to work backwards from your desired result: simply pick the metric you want to accomplish, identify it clearly in the live stream, and then reward the audience in a meaningful way for completing that action.

Let’s say your goal is to raise money during your event. One technique that’s worked for us is to integrate ActBlue data into the show to track progress and validate audience participation, which we do through our interactive graphics toolset. Meters help to convey and track your objective in real time. Another way to establish the goal is through a simple call-to-action graphic saying what to do and where to go.

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The cast of Parks and Recreation reunited in support of LA City Council candidate Nithya Raman. The campaign used goal meters and a donation ticker and had Nick Offerman read donor names in real time.

The talent should also motivate the audience to donate or sign up for a volunteer shift rather than have those goals live only in the overlay. Think of an email that makes no mention of fundraising but includes a donate button at the bottom; it’s more effective when everything pulls in the same direction.

What does this look like? When We All Vote’s Couch Party 2.0 in April set out to train viewers to register their friends to vote via the relational tools in Outvote. A litany of celebrities and public figures from Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson to Michelle Obama hammered home the importance of civic engagement, and the bottom graphics told viewers where to go to take action.

More recently, the DNC’s virtual convention used its multitude of speakers to pitch alternating calls to action of donating money and looking up voting information. If you watched the whole thing, the words “Text VOTE to 30330” may be incurably etched into your brain. And that’s a good thing!

Establish Deadlines

In political campaigns, urgency is a currency. Email writers will use anything resembling a deadline, real or imagined, as an excuse to ask for money. And it works. Deadlines move people to action who would otherwise remain bystanders. But while deadlines in email occur in writing and whenever the recipient reads them, deadlines in live video happen as a shared experience in real time.

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Like so many virtual field events right now, Beto O’Rourke’s Powered by People events gather volunteers onto a Zoom call for a group phone bank. After O’Rourke opens the calls by grounding participants in the mission, a staffer walks new users through a training on the auto-dialer. The expectation is that users will make calls during the event, on camera (and on mute, of course.) The deadline is now.

Celebrate Progress

This is where it gets fun. Once you set a goal and a deadline, the next step is to reward participation. Creating special rewards for goals met also can help; the reward can be as basic as an onscreen animated GIF, a giveaway, or as elaborate as dying your hair when a goal is met.

Recognize the audience’s actions in as many ways as possible, whether through graphics, a shout-out from the host, or even changing aspects of the broadcast. Graphically, some ways to reward the audience are through tickers, which list recent participants, or leaderboards, which list top participants.

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Get creative with the rewards, and make them conditional on meeting goals. Imagine if Bruce Springsteen played a three-song set for a virtual fundraiser, but he agreed to play two bonus songs if the audience donated an extra $10,000. Meeting a goal could prompt the talent (whether it’s the candidate, a celebrity endorser, or an organization’s executive director) to show her high-school yearbook photo, share a family recipe, dance, or deliver a personalized message. Make your own version of Cameo, in real time, for a massive audience. Get weird and go nuts.

Celebrating progress can be tricky if you’re throwing a high-dollar fundraiser where most of the guests have already donated, and that’s okay. For some events, it’s more important to create a memorable, VIP experience through high production value, audience engagement, and of course, FOMO.

Make Sure It Looks Good

Production Value Matters

The bare minimum bar to clear for any virtual event is that it should run smoothly with no major technical difficulties. This guide won’t list all of our production tips, but suffice to say that you should aim to elevate your broadcast by paying attention to audio and video quality.

Here are a few quick guidelines for remote guests to get you started:

  • Create a run of show document to plan the order of events in the stream.
  • If possible, send professional kits to remote guests to help with quality.
  • Use cell phones or iPads over laptops, which often have worse cameras
  • Find a space with the least amount of activity in the background as possible. No spinning fans, busy doorways, playful pets, or rooms with social activity.
  • Test your internet connection, and use an ethernet cable when possible.
  • Meet with your remote guests before the show to review what will happen.
  • Don’t be afraid to mix pre-taped content into your show. Giving guest speakers the option to pre-tape their segments alleviates many scheduling concerns and mitigates a lot of the risk of going live.
  • Plan, practice, test, rehearse. Then do it again.

Interactive Graphics

All live TV has professional graphics. All Twitch streamers do, too. Now it’s your turn. There’s a lot of competition for people’s attention, and broadcasts need a professional look to stand out from a sea of live-streamed Zoom calls.

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Incorporate your calls to action, y’all

Fullscreen graphics can display a countdown to introduce the show, an away message to tell your fans that you’ll be right back, or an end screen with info and credits. For the main program, use lower thirds to introduce guests, logo bugs to shout out partners, and tickers to cycle through information — including your calls to action.

Finally, consider accessibility. Add captions to your event either natively through the platform or baked into the graphics and styled to fit your show. A live ASL interpreter also opens your event to more people.

Engage The Audience

“Barack Obama was the first American President to embrace social media as a communication tool — so much so that he’s been called the “first social-media president.” The 2016 election saw the Donald Trump campaign embrace targeting, including its now infamous alignment with Cambridge Analytica. In light of the recent Coronavirus pandemic, it’s clear that human and natural disasters can completely disrupt in-person events, casting digital engagement as more than just secondary strategy.” — Jesse Damiani, Forbes

Add Play To Your Event

Most of our advice comes back to the same basic principle — audience first. Interactive live streaming gives you the ability to loop audience engagement directly into the show. But to take full advantage of this new format, you should invite your audience to participate in the show in an intentional way. Here are a few techniques to consider:

Trivia

Adding interactive trivia to your show can be an awesome way to mix in some fun to your event. Trivia is a great way to keep your audience engaged during the pre-show countdown or it could be a full-fledged segment in your show.

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The Ohio Democratic Party’s Virtual Convention featured an interactive trivia game called “Conventional Wisdom” that the audience could play along with

Polls

Polls are fantastic drivers of audience engagement. Add a poll to let the audience weigh in on the topic at hand or allow the audience’s vote to change the show. A poll can hang out in the corner of the screen and simply add to engagement, or it can be front and center as a full segment. Audiences are more likely to participate if their engagement will lead to an on-screen event. What if the audience was polled on what theme music should introduce the next guest? Or what about letting them choose what location the next camera should cut to? Choose some variables that you would be comfortable with the audience manipulating and allow your crowd to co-create the show.

Games

Video game streaming is by far the most popular way to live stream today. If politicians want to make a splash, why not play a game while talking about the issues?

Like the time AOC dropped in on a Donkey Kong charity stream. Or the time Mayor Pete’s staff played a Mario Kart tournament. Participating in gaming is a way to show fluency with one of the biggest formats of live video. If your org or candidate has the chops, gaming can be a chance to forge authentic connections.

Feature the Chat — Listen, Respond, and Build Community

On a recent Powered by People event, Beto asked everyone to take themselves off mute to sing Happy Birthday to a staff member. When a participant chimed in that it was her birthday, too, Beto amended his request and asked the audience to sing to both of them. It was a nice, charming moment, and the kind of connection that’s only possible when you listen.

Listening can take many forms. One way to involve the audience is through interactive Q&A’s. One of the reasons that Reddit AMA’s are so successful is that the format seamlessly blends deep insights with internet humor. Livestream video AMA’s can do the same. Many political figures like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jon Ossoff hold virtual town halls where they respond to user questions in real time.

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AOC’s Coffee and Conversation series is a chat powered interactive live stream AMA

In these instances it helps to have a staff member moderate the chat. Chat curation is an important piece of this equation. Live chat moves quickly with a large broadcast, and you’ll need the right tools to sift through them, find the gems, and display them on screen. Featuring positive chat can help set the tone for your community and tell trolls that toxic behavior will be ignored.

Choose Your Venue(s)

Once you know what you want your show to accomplish, how it will look, and how you’d like the audience to engage, it’s time to decide on where to host it. In broad strokes, you’ll need to figure out if you want the event open or closed.

Many fundraising events default to closed to foster a sense of access and exclusivity. Similarly, organizations may want a virtual phone bank to be closed to anyone who hasn’t been vetted. For both examples, the event may take place on a Zoom or a private events platform.

However, with an open event, you lift the ceiling on the number of attendees. These events stream to a platform like Facebook or YouTube, so you can meet your audience where they are and benefit from social engagement.

The Platforms

Here’s a primer on where you could host your virtual event, arranged in order from frictionless to heavy friction:

Zoom — The default. Zoom comes with a degree of ease of use and networking. It’s comfortable. Zoom events can be open or closed, but they have limited capacity. A major down side is that Zoom doesn’t feel special by itself anymore. One pro tip to upgrade your Zoom production value is to pin a host and broadcast a professional stream with graphics within Zoom.

Twitch — Twitch may not seem like a natural fit for political campaigns and organizations, but it has seen enormous growth in its non-gaming video category, remains by far the largest platform for live video streaming, and has an audience trained to expect interactivity. It probably does not make sense for a local campaign right now, but high-profile national organizations should lead in this space.

YouTube — The second most popular live streaming platform with 17% of the market, streaming to YouTube is typically a no brainer.

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Essentially, your video will simultaneously broadcast to multiple Facebook pages.

Facebook — Facebook’s “cross-posting” feature is currently one of the biggest growth hacks in the live video space. Cross posting enables broadcasters to publish their video to multiple Facebook pages. If you have any guests in your virtual event with big followings, asking them to set up a cross-posting relationship can lead to huge viewership. The more cross-posting, the higher the reach, and bigger viral effects. Thank us later.

Twitter (via Periscope) — Twitter is a smart play for campaigns because of the amount of political discourse on the platform and the power of a good hashtag. Live streams appear on the top left of your followers’ screen when they open the app, which offers great visibility and discoverability especially if your Twitter account has lots of followers.

Instagram — While Instagram enables easy live streaming from your device, it has limitations. Instagram does not offer RTMP streaming (i.e. managing the stream from any device other than the user’s phone.) For political staffers with less tech-savvy bosses, beware. We find IG useful for casual streaming but find it hard to recommend for larger virtual events.

DIY Events Platforms — Since Covid a ton of virtual events platforms have emerged. They usually include a private app or landing page and come with networking features like 1:1 video chatting or private messaging. These events typically look like a Zoom + PowerPoint presentation. Virtual events platforms offer the convenience of an all-in-one solution, but they come with a pretty big catch: you still have to do all of the work. The risk of avoiding technical hiccups, awkward transitions, etc. will be all on you.

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The Sanders campaign streamed across platforms but pointed the audience to donate at live.berniesanders.com which featured an ActBlue embed form

Your Own Website — Hosting a stream on your own site has big advantages, particularly around your call to action. Websites can let you add event ticketing, custom interactivity, digital expo halls, breakout room links, networking features, as well as own the look and feel so your venue stays true to your brand.

Virtual Reality — Spatial computing is the next frontier in virtual events. VR offers immersive experiences and has incredible potential for new forms of presentation, collaboration, and interaction. Sadly, it’s still not mainstream. Until it is, there will be huge friction in getting attendees to join your event.

Our Recommendation — Stream Everywhere!

If your goal is viewership or grassroots donations, then you should stream cross platform. It’s possible to go live with the same video simultaneously on your own website, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Twitch. And if you don’t already have a following on one of those platforms, it’s never too late to start.

We believe that a great solution for most campaigns is to stream on your custom branded website as well as across other platforms. The website can have expanded features (like an ActBlue embed form), while the other platforms can help to build an audience and drive awareness of your goals. It’s also worth considering pairing a small private event with a large public event, like a VIP zoom and a more broad scale cross-platform event.

Customize Your Ideal Scenario

You don’t have to go with a one-size-fits-all format. Interactive live-streaming is the ultimate mashup of formats, because it fuses video games, social media, and live TV. You have the ability to choose which elements work for your event and make something entirely fresh. Want it private, ticketed, with trivia games and networking? Right on. Want a public event that’s cross platform with donation meters and Q&A? Love it. No two events are the same, so find the perfect solution for you.

Benefits of Virtual Events vs. In-Person Events

  1. Cost — All of the hard costs of locations and chicken dinners can now go to virtual production companies, tools, and marketing.
  2. Expanded Reach — Stream your event to multiple platforms, websites, and reach national audiences that your original location could never have accommodated. Plus, virtual events reduce travel for attendees and cut down on environmental waste.
  3. Better Talent — High-profile speakers may have been out of reach before, but the barrier for entry drops when it comes to pre-recording a message or hopping on a video chat.
  4. Interactivity & Engagement — Viewers of virtual events can be more than just viewers; they can be co-creators.

The Future of Political Virtual Events

We’re just scratching the surface of what’s possible with interactive live-streaming in the political space. We’re able to design live video around real-life campaign objectives and use the interactive tools at our disposal to focus on collective action. The best part is that so much of this approach requires only a shift in mindset around conceptualizing events.

Once you figure out what your desired goal is, simply prompt that type of engagement in a way that actually rewards your viewers for their participation. This model creates a positive feedback loop between your audience and the show.

Eventually, we will go back to in-person gatherings. But with Covid’s drastic acceleration of online participation, the shift in user behavior is here to stay, and the potential gains from adding virtual event engagement as a companion to live events is too great to ignore. Savvy campaigns will create hybrid live-streamed events from here on out. Will you?

Contact us, if you’d like help creating virtual events.

Written By Eli Stonberg and Jordan Newman of Hovercast

Hovercast is the leading toolset for creating virtual events on any platform with real time chat curation, audience engagement tools, and dynamic graphic overlays.

Thanks to Patrick Frank, Jessie Cohen, Jeff Greco, Judy Leeds, and Devon Dolan.

Hovercast

The best tool for creating virtual events

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