As Social Platforms and Brands Turn to Live Video, Will Viewers Keep Tuning In?

Early data is promising for 2017

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A week before Thanksgiving, dozens of sharply dressed young men and women began arriving at Taco Bell's headquarters for the fourth annual Friendsgiving feast, which included rolled turkey tacos and turkey-and-stuffing-filled "Golden Quesalupas." While the event is usually exclusive to social media influencers and celebrities, this year, Taco Bell had one special seat for everyone—and anyone—by broadcasting the dinner on Facebook Live.

"One of the requests we always get from fans is that they always want to experience the event with us," said Jozlynn Rush, Taco Bell's social and digital strategist.

As many as 150,000 people tuned in for the dinner at any given time. The video, which first appeared on Nov. 17, has since reached 1.2 million views—without a single ad. "It was pretty amazing," said Rush, who added that her team plans to serve up a healthy portion of Facebook Live in the coming months.

This holiday season is proving to be a fertile testing ground for the burgeoning space of branded livestreaming. For instance, ahead of Black Friday, Lowe's reached a live audience of 32,000 as it unveiled 10 on-sale products, while another 891,000 people saw promoted posts over the next two days.

Taco Bell's Friendsgiving feast was on Facebook Live this year.

Research firm MarketsandMarkets has forecasted that live video will be a $70 billion industry by 2021. That represents good news for Facebook Inc., which has been aggressively promoting Facebook Live with TV spots. This month, Facebook-owned Instagram also launched its own live feature, which lets users broadcast for an hour before the video disappears.

"Live content is uniquely compelling when it offers rarity," said Topher Burns, group director of product innovation at Deep Focus. "Glimpses of life you'd never usually get, spaces you'd normally be denied access to, things that are happening in one moment that you've just got to see."

A few months ago, Facebook began testing ads that let brands and media companies show live video in newsfeeds. Since May, live broadcasts on Facebook have quadrupled, with users commenting 10 times more than they typically do on regular video, according to Michelle Klein, Facebook director of marketing for North America. "I think this is something we'll see more of," she added.


Brands and analysts suggest that Facebook Live is here to stay, even while its predecessors like Periscope seem to have plateaued or, in the case of Meerkat, went steeply downhill. Periscope, which is owned by Twitter, debuted live video long before Facebook, but according to MIDiA senior analyst Tim Mulligan, it cornered the early adopter market too quickly and lost traction. "Twitter's approach is much more of a kind of 'cool kids,' back-of-the-class," Mulligan remarked. And now that Facebook's massive audience is getting a taste of livestreaming, the format is taking off in a big way. (Twitter also livestreams campaigns, including one on Dec. 2 that highlighted Star Wars content.)

Yet challenges remain for Facebook. One of those, said Mulligan, is that it's tough to discover other quality livestreams. "A map of the world with who's live at any one particular time" might be a solution, he mused, however, "that only works when you have a handful of people live at any given time."

Jessica Liu, an analyst at Forrester, said that while live video isn't going anywhere, it probably won't go totally mainstream. "I think live video will catch on, but it's not necessarily going explode like we might expect," she noted. "It's yet another shiny object like influencer marketing."

Now, even media's old guard is playing with this latest shiny object. Al Roker has started his own livestreaming network called Roker Media. And last week, for Giving Tuesday, science-educator-turned-TV-star Bill Nye hosted his own Facebook Live fundraiser for the nation's parks. "As we used to say, all the kids are doing it," the 61-year-old said.

This story first appeared in the December 5, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.

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@martyswant Marty Swant is a former technology staff writer for Adweek.