Live (comes to our) Aid: The Possibilities of Live Experiences

I listen in awe to my family's stories of the live shows that hooked them to the glass screen. My grandparents would sit riveted, waiting for the opening horns of The Ed Sullivan Show. My parents couldn't wait to tune in for Queens' set list at Live Aid. Live seems as coveted today as ever. Podcasts recorded before a live audience are always denoted as such. "Going live" has become a social media must. And, of course, the precious few appointment broadcasts remain: the Super Bowl, the Oscars, or, my personal favorite, the Eurovision Song Contest (which annually celebrates the good, the bad, and the wacky of European pop music.) Advertisers have always salivated for a spot within those broadcasts because, at least then, our eyeballs had no other devices to wander to, and there were few ways to watch the show after the fact. 

Many Eurovisions later, in our world of on-demand, salad-bar-level variety on TV, live seems to hold the same sway over us for the same reasons. That instant connection answers our basic human need of belonging with shared experience, as Ben Cameron expresses in his TED talk. Furthermore, the visual medium of video, so often the portal to live, carves a direct line to the heart. The live experience also offers the unique joys of a story unfolding in the moment, including instant feedback from an audience.

The numbers affirm the ongoing impact of live. Increased advertiser interest in American Idol's reboot, and this year's promising Super Bowl figures (despite the dip in those who tuned in on television) include the all-time-high streaming viewership. The preponderance of mobile reactions to the Big Game indicate young eyes are watching. Increased viewer ratings for the Golden Globes and Emmys also give live shows a clean bill of health. 

So what can live do for us as advertisers? Where has it been and where can we take it next? In the midst of our live show season, I will do my very best to shed some light on the possibilities. 

Live as the Ad

In his prophetic book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan utters his legendary statement: "The medium is the message." Live is no exception, as its unique qualities can be translated to advertising, particularly influencer marketing. According to AdAge, Mondelez, owner of Oreo Cookies, tapped Chinese influencers to launch a double-chocolate Oreo flavour in China. Apparently, the launch rode the wave of video consumption in China. The strategy behind the move was to livestream a showcase of on-demand goofiness on four platforms owned by Alibaba (the campaign backers). The stars sang the new cookie ingredients with crumb-stuffed mouths to the tune of a love song. One of them even ate a wasabi-soaked cookie with fermented bean curd. The show took away 4.5 million unique live views. 

Even more telling, perhaps, was Buzzfeed's use of live whose only wrapping was a rubber band, no celebrities attached. In fact, the viral live video, seen and commented on by more than 800,000 people, simply consisted of two Buzzfeed employees wrapping a watermelon with throngs of rubber bands until it reached its juicy breaking point. This stunt shows that the tension of the unexpected in the live video medium has a power all its own that advertisers can sink their teeth (or rubber bands) into. 

Individuals, wrap the brand message in our own human needs, although good, old-fashioned buzz-worthy  tension seems as a buzz generator as anything. So why not use live to dial up the excitement?

Live as an Experiment

McLuhan may have also agreed that live is not one thing. Each medium carries its own attributes and therefore offers its own spin on the live experience, which gives advertisers larger toolkits to work with. Instagram, as you may have seen, has a feature that allows users to create and run fun polls through their stories and see how their followers respond. Perhaps advertisers can take advantage of the inherent gifts of the medium. 

Creative A/B testing is one example of such a use. A/B testing is a method used in the media world, which simply proposes two versions of one thing to an audience, and tracks which version the audience prefers. One example could be a newspaper that proposes two versions of a headline. Social media can be the instrument of the A/B test. Why not have brands run an Instagram "who said it better?" questionnaire for two Oscars acceptance speeches? Live broadcasts are a great time to conduct such tests because they have entertainment value, so the audience has an incentive, and the plethora of people who tune into such broadcasts creates a demographic wide enough to test a variable against. For example, having a fashion brand ask its Instagram following whether they prefer one belt buckle over another and comparing that response against that of smaller niche demographics.

Live as an immersive Art Form

No account of recent achievements in live would be complete without a visit to Pyeongchang. Of course the cultural centrality and global relevance of the Olympics are big draws for the 27.8 million who watched the 2018 Winter Olympics opening ceremony. Although viewership took a dip compared to 2014, I think the show on February 9th maintains the opening ceremony's status as a staple of live entertainment. I believe the brilliance of Intel's contribution lies in the calculated risk behind the high-profile exposure and the elegantly-timed showcase of its own cutting edge (and, in my opinion, adorable) drones. Although the anticipated dance of 1,218 illuminated drones was never pulled off, the 300 that formed the Olympic rings we all saw in the show I think captured a moment of awe. The use of cameras for security purposes in this year's games could pave the way for more elegant aerial photography or even more elaborate synchronized drone ballet in the future. Intel has certainly been making great strides to this end, as we can determine from their Palm Springs drone show.

The option of virtual reality in 2016's Olympic Games and this year's Winter Olympics kicks the immersive power of live up a notch by drawing us into the action. The NBC Sports VR app offers an appetizer to the feast of the full live experience offered by Oculus, Google Daydream, and so on. The affordability of VR technology opens up the experience to the young audiences that will undoubtedly continue to take advantage of this natural extension of the live experience.  

Live as Collaboration

Other than immersion, live has also been an engagement tool between communities and artists. Deadmau5, the arena-filling DJ and record producer, has used Twitch-the live-streaming platform beloved by gamers-to great effect. He had been using Twitch as a stage for jam sessions with the world, receiving instant feedback and music requests from those tuned in. He even raised $30,000 for a children's charity in one session. So if live is becoming a two-way conversation with the viewer, perhaps brands can win a piece of that action. Perhaps music labels can drop albums or raise money via live shared jam sessions with their own artists, for example. Who knows, perhaps we will all enjoy Live Aid 2025 in our pyjamas. 

Live engages, live unites, live endures, and I hope I have made a small contribution to the conversation around where it is now, and where it could go next. This lasting format has proven its unique gifts that advertisers race to put to strategic and creative use. But the race stops for no one as technology evolves at the speed of broadband. Will we be jamming with the musicians at Eurovision 2028? Will we be making virtual forward passes at Super Bowl 2038?  Let's stay tuned for a word from our sponsors.