Six months in: What the BBC has learned using Facebook Live

BBC World News is putting Facebook Live video front and center of its coverage around both the Euro 2016 football tournament and the EU referendum.

The broadcaster has been experimenting with different types of Facebook Live content for the last six months. Spearheading this is veteran BBC presenter and host of BBC OutsideSource Ros Atkins, who is in Paris today, covering the Euro 2016 football tournament on Facebook Live. Some of his earliest Facebook Live videos for BBC World News covered the shooting down of a Russian fighter jet over Turkey last November, which received 250,000 views on Facebook Live, and the regional elections in Germany last month.

The broadcaster will use Facebook Live consistently in the lead-up to and around the EU referendum on June 23. This will include big tentpole events such as a televised debate between politicians from the Remain and Leave camps, which will be broadcast on BBC TV channels and website on June 21 from Wembley Stadium in London. Facebook Live content will run after the debate.

Digiday caught up with Ros Atkins and BBC News social media editor Mark Frankel, to hear what they’ve learned in the six months it’s been experimenting with Facebook Live — and how they plan to develop:

Let the audience lead.
Seasoned BBC presenters like Atkins have TV and radio broadcast journalism down. But presenting on Facebook Live is a whole new ball game. Atkins stressed that mistaking Facebook Live streaming as a chance to replicate TV would be fatal. “Facebook Live is a distinct medium,” he said. “There was a time when digital journalism was seen as something to support TV and radio. That time has disappeared. The content we do now on Facebook has to stand on its own two feet.”

The BBC’s biggest takeaway from what’s been tried so far is to take a freestyle approach and resist a specific editorial plan. “You can’t go into Facebook Live with a detailed plan of how you want the editorial to go. If you do, you’ll lose the audience.” Centering the stream’s narrative solely on the audience’s feedback and questions means they, too, need to stay focused and engaged or their comments can veer off in all directions, he said.

“I go in with a single big idea I’m interested in hearing the audience’s views on. That way, the content is 100 percent led by the issues they raise,” added Atkins.

Don’t be seduced by high view counts.
The BBC, accustomed to mass audiences, isn’t dazzled by the large viewing figures on Facebook Live, which are to be expected given the platform is prioritizing video in the news feed.

“I’m most interested in how we can engage audiences,” said Frankel. “I want the best content to reach people in the right way, and understand how it reaches them.” Currently, that’s tough given that Facebook isn’t yet sharing in-depth analytics other than video views and other more basic metrics.

“The data we get back is limited, so I don’t know exactly how many fans are enjoying it, other than what Facebook currently is surfacing, which is that X thousand people are watching at any one point. It doesn’t tell me whether those watching are coming back or what the drop-offs are. It doesn’t tell me if there are, for example, women of a certain age watching, or whether via a specific location. These are the things we and other publishers have fed back to Facebook as being important, because it will help us create better experiences with audiences if we have that,” said Frankel.

Managing audience engagement is tough.
The whole point of Facebook Live is people watching can become part of the conversation by commenting during the stream. But a big challenge is managing the speed at which BBC presenters can curate and respond to the hundreds of comments that fly in during Facebook Live streams. BBC’s News’ Facebook page has 30 million fans, though that certainly doesn’t guarantee all 30 million are watching. Several of the videos done have ranged from tens of thousands of views to hundreds of thousands. But it’s managing the speed at which the comments come in; that’s the biggest challenge.

“The comments fly in at great pace, and currently there is no proactive moderation other than the basic filters. We have our own moderation team looking at it, but it’s a challenge to stay on top of,” said Frankel.

Next steps: Referendum coverage.
Most of the experimentation has been done by the BBC World News to attract and engage with new international audiences and keep them informed on major topics like the Referendum. But Facebook Live will also be used in the next few weeks for domestic programs like Question Time. Next week Justice Secretary and a leader in the Leave campaign Michael Gove will be quizzed by QT host David Dimbleby on EU referendum-related topics in front of a live audience. The team is still hammering out details of how the Facebook Live show will be incorporated.

Part of Facebook Live’s appeal has been the fact it gives publishers’ video an edgy, unpolished feel, given a lot of it is done on the fly. Some of the videos the BBC has done to date have taken place while on the move — inside a rickshaws, inside the “Battle buses” of each of the U.K. political parties. The broadcaster has also tried to mix up the typical talking-head format and instead curated Facebook-audience questions for well-known guests, such as British stand-up comedian and actor Eddie Izzard and Conservative politician Daniel Hannan.

It’s all about trying to figure out what the best experience is, whether it’s the build-up to a big reveal — a la BuzzFeed’s exploding watermelon or more focused on developing a breaking-news story, according to Frankel. “We’re trying all sorts of different ways,” he said. “The key things we keep in mind are: Is it newsworthy, good journalism, and does it add value to what we’re doing elsewhere?”

Image: Courtesy of the BBC.

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