Virtual Viewers are People Too: Livestream Etiquette

Keith Hannon (@KeithHannon) is the assistant director for social media at Cornell University.

Just a few years ago, the idea of alumni around the world attending the same on-campus event in real-time was a pipe dream. Actually, it probably wasn’t even a dream because such a notion would have seemed ludicrous at the time. Now, we find ourselves smack in the middle of a technological great awakening that has advancement professionals stirring like prospectors during the gold rush.

As prospectors of this new frontier, we’re frequently tempted to try anything and everything in hopes of engaging our thousands of alumni who have staked their own claim in social media. However, as we sift through the waters of technology looking for a great discovery, we have to guard against selfish acts that threaten to sour our audience during the early stages of experimentation.

Moving beyond the unintentionally lengthy gold rush analogy, I turn your focus to livestreaming. At Cornell, we have streamed around 40 events in the past year and a half. We continue to learn something new about the process with each broadcast.  Recently, it dawned on us that we’re not always considerate of the virtual audience. As I’m sure many of you know, it’s not uncommon for an event to start late because the speakers and audience members are in the lobby enjoying snacks and spirits, while reconnecting with old classmates. Events slated for 7 .pm., frequently kick off around 7:10 or 7:15 p.m. For those people who are physically present, this is of no consequence, but for the virtual audience, it’s kryptonite. While the in-person guest enjoys the splendors of food and conversation, the virtual viewers sit alone in their house or office, anxiously awaiting the start of your program. These people are busy professionals with families, rich with the responsibilities that didn’t exist during their undergrad years. What they do NOT have is an abundance of time. If you make them wait, there are plenty of other things online vying for their attention.

Cornell recently livestreamed an event that started 15 minutes late, and during that delay, we saw roughly a quarter of our viewers drop-off before the event started. The lesson here is clear: Treat the virtual audience like it doesn’t matter, and audience members will make sure YOU don’t matter the next time you promote a livestream event. We can’t SAY we want an engaged online audience then treat them as if they need us more than we need them…they don’t.

If you’re going to embark on the journey of streaming LIVE events, make sure you have a production plan that provides the virtual audience with the same high-quality experience you would expect to give the in-person attendees. If there’s a chance the event might not start on time, have filler material ready that you can roll out to keep them from logging off.

The evolution of technology is fun and exciting, but regardless of how revolutionary the tools are, a poor user experience will render them irrelevant. Technology is only as good as the content, and the content is only as good as its accessibility. After all, the virtual audience isn’t interested in the event JUST for the open bar…

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