When Facebook Live debuted in 2015, social media professionals heralded it as a game-changer. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made Live his pet project as the platform struggled to catch up to Periscope, Snapchat and other purveyors of live video. (To demonstrate the feature’s potential for behind-the-scenes content, Zuckerberg himself hosted a bizarre backyard tribute to smoked meats.) Social media marketers crowned 2016 the year of the live stream, and communications teams scrambled to turn their company headquarters into miniature television production studios.
Like most social media trends, the hype didn’t last.
“RIP Facebook Live,” proclaimed a February 2018 Columbia Journalism Review headline reporting an over 50 percent drop in paid publisher Live videos at the end of 2017. While Facebook had hoped Live would create a new cashflow for the company, publishers did not see the return on investment they needed to justify the costs.
Brands followed suit, putting their ad dollars behind Facebook-owned Instagram posts and Stories rather than promoting or attempting to partner with the platform on Facebook Live videos. Facebook pivoted into becoming a video publisher itself with its Watch offering.
In the wake of COVID-19, however, live video has once again become a staple of providing up-to-date information to journalists and the general public, especially from government entities. Local news outlets have partnered with municipalities to present up-to-date COVID-19 directives across social media platforms, hoping to reach the growing number of cable-free households.
Of course, as the social media sphere has expanded, so have the live streaming services available. Since the advent of live video, brands, government agencies and nonprofits have built cross-channel strategies incorporating Instagram Live, YouTube Live and Twitch into their content mix, among other platforms.
With an increasing number of institutions and storefronts now mandated to shut down operations, communicators have turned to live video as a workaround for serving existing clientele and reaching new ones. Some organizations have tied live streaming directly to their core missions. The Cincinnati Zoo, for instance, is hosting daily live streams to offer an entertaining and educational resource to schoolchildren stuck at home.
Some PR agencies are urging clients to make the pivot into Live. While many companies have developed hyper-targeted social media strategies in recent years, it may be time to take a more global approach to avoid sending mixed messages to different audience segments, argues Tom Garruto, director of operations at The Social Edge.
“This will force businesses to expand their focus to nationwide engagement rather than the geographic specificity of in-person events,” said Garruto. (His agency specializes, among other things, in Broadway theater, a sector that will be feeling the pinch after New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced theaters would be going dark until at least mid-April.)
“Clients [are] considering a virtual experience where they can more easily advertise on organic social instead of paying to target a specific city. And right now, any way to cut expenses is a huge help,” Garruto observed.
Garruto’s team has seen increased engagement as people spend an increasing amount of time on social media while practicing social distancing. “Any company can benefit from boosting their social presence right now while the increased engagement is there,” he offered.
Still, despite live streaming’s current benefits, Garruto urged companies to consult with internal communications leaders before going live. In COVID-19’s rapidly evolving wake, brands should be wary of using humor or embracing meme-inspired social media norms. “Tempers are short, and this hour's joke may seem really inappropriate when viewed after new guidance comes out,” he noted. Garruto’s guidance for live streaming:
- Make sure you're representing your brand in a positive way. Live video shouldn’t take risks that will warrant an apology later.
- Do not give advice your organization does not have the experience or authority to give.
- Avoid parroting the same content as other businesses. Focus on your organization’s key competency area. For example, given its expertise in live events and social media, The Social Edge recently posted a reminder to followers to check the social accounts of all upcoming events for potential cancellations.
- Do a test run. Remember to practice going live internally with a test account; have coworkers watch the stream to work out the kinks and get comfortable with the functionality.
Some marketing leaders, like Danica Kombol, CEO of Atlanta-based Everywhere Agency, are warning communicators to “tread lightly” in terms of live streaming for marketing purposes. “Our nation is in crisis. While it’s tempting to jump on the Instagram and Facebook Live bandwagon, think long and hard about the messaging you want to convey. Ask yourself, do you have something helpful to share, or are you using the pandemic to push out a potentially cringe-worthy marketing message?”
If it’s the latter, advised Kombol, save it for now. This is a time for brands to “show compassion and focus on the health and wellness of our entire community. If you have messaging that helps the vast number of employees work more efficiently from home, share it, but for Pete’s sake, don’t try to sell it,” she urged.
Justin Buchbinder, director of social media at Finn Partners, also advises brand leaders to leverage live streaming to make themselves of service “during a time where people are nervous, cooped up, and looking for human contact.”
Buchbinder suggests the following use cases for live streaming throughout the COVID-19 outbreak:
- B2B thought leaders, where appropriate, can launch topical webinars using LinkedIn Live. (Businesses can submit a LinkedIn Live application here.)
- Conduct an interview series using Instagram Live, answering questions with Instagram Live’s new “question” sticker feature. (Instagram Live is Buchbinder’s recommendation for maximum viewers.)
- Save Instagram Live videos to your Instagram stories for 24 hours following the event so that viewers that are otherwise engaged don’t miss out.
- Boost morale within your organization by setting up a Zoom room for a virtual happy hour or other communal event.
Like Kombol, Buchbinder prizes substance over streaming for streaming’s sake. “Ensure that you have a structure. Don’t just dive in without a plan,” he advised.
Whatever happens in the coming weeks and months, “social media and video streaming will quickly prove themselves a necessary and beneficial utility,” Buchbinder added.
Follow Sophie: @SophieMaerowitz
Follow Danica: @DanicaKombol