Why virtual audience engagement is key to content innovation

October 28, 2020 by Andeas Jacobi, General Manager of LTN Command

In the age of social media, instant messaging, and instant gratification, real-time audience engagement has become an essential part of content production. The Covid-19 pandemic saw content creators pivot productions to virtually activate all audiences and deliver viewer experiences that feel like in-person events. But, as time passes, we learn more about how audience engagement will factor into content production longer-term.

Of course, fan engagement strategies that rely on gathering inputs from outside the studio are not new. Sports call-in shows, for example, are a tried and tested format, and fan engagement is central to the content. Without anyone dialing in, you have no show.

But, in 2020, audience engagement has evolved. Virtual audiences are now a fundamental component of most sports and entertainment content creation, with studio audiences and stadium attendees staying home. Acquiring, aggregating, and managing hundreds of live fan feeds is critical to the creation of engaging content and achieving higher audience ratings. To activate audience members across different formats, broadcasters need new fan engagement workflows and pioneering solutions to ingest and manage content on a revolutionary scale.

A new kind of studio audience

Without studio audiences or stadium fans to generate emotional responses, content creators need solutions more authentic and engaging than canned laughter or piped-in crowd noises.

This year, the NFL pivoted to activate fans virtually to deliver an audience experience that felt like the in-person event.

What does a successful fan engagement strategy look like? The Draft is one of the NFL’s most highly anticipated programs, traditionally relying on hyper-engaged event attendees. This year, the NFL pivoted to activate fans virtually to deliver an audience experience that felt like the in-person event.

Nearly 500 fans participated in the NFL Draft, contributing live video into a routing interface where producers could organize fans by the team they support. A live branded mosaic of these streams ran on screens behind NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, displaying 15 fan feeds at a time. Goodell could also interact with these fans via a talk-back function.

2020 was the highest-rated Draft of all time and the most-watched sporting event during the pandemic (at the time), setting a precedent for what virtual fan engagement should look like in the future.

Live feed acquisition, aggregation, and distribution challenges

Incorporating hundreds or even thousands of live feeds into a broadcast is not without its challenges. Aggregation platforms need to be scalable to ingest as many or as few live feeds as necessary without incurring costs on a per-feed basis.

Another challenge is video quality and maintaining it throughout the content workflow. Virtual participants engage with a show from any number of unique locations, and the best contribution method for each environment requires individual support. For example, contributions via a mobile network from an area without wired connectivity need a solution that ensures as much quality as possible reaches the live broadcast.

Consumer-friendly technologies driving change

Widely available (and free) solutions like Zoom and Teams are attractive ways to invite people to contribute to live content, leveraging SDKs and backend services to integrate feeds into broadcasts. However, if producers want to use in-studio multiview displays, access participant metadata, and maintain the highest quality video in their programming, feeds need to be aggregated in a reliable, secure environment with bandwidth redundancy. Producers also need to protect against unwanted users joining a feed or changing the content that’s shown.

Control room

Content owners should also include a landing page for participants in their feed aggregation platform. The participant landing page enables producers to categorize viewers while easily identifying and pulling relevant feeds into a broadcast. For a sports broadcast, you could categorize virtual participants by which team they support. If a segment focuses on the Patriots, you know who the Patriots fans are and can pull them into the broadcast to contribute to the show.

The post-pandemic opportunity

While current restrictions force content creators to think differently about how we enhance the viewer experience, this year’s virtual audience advancements set a precedent for future content production in live sports and entertainment.

In sports, as the NFL Draft use case demonstrates, broadcasters are thinking of ways to integrate fans to create more dynamic programming. As in-person audiences return to live sports, broadcasters and content creators are looking at ways to extend programming through virtual audience engagement before and after the main event.

For example, if a sports channel can extend showtime with a post-show fan engagement segment, it can also create higher-value ad slots. By understanding the viewer personas most likely to engage in this type of programming, advertisers can better target their audience.

The real opportunity for entertainment producers is to integrate in-person and virtual audience experiences, rather than rely on one over the other.

In the entertainment industry, remote audiences have replaced studio audiences, and guests appear more frequently from in-home locations. Quickly adapting to virtual broadcast demands, producers of The 2020 Emmy Awards displayed a multiscreen of nominees — in various off-site locations — behind presenter Jimmy Kimmel. The real opportunity for entertainment producers is to integrate in-person and virtual audience experiences, rather than rely on one over the other.

Audience interaction tools for today and tomorrow

Borne of necessity and rapid evolution during the pandemic, remote production workflows with virtual audience engagement are here to stay. Broadcasters will continue to leverage technology that provides viewers with more rewarding experiences, boosts engagement, and opens access to more relevant audiences for advertisers.

Expanding the depth and quality of live contribution increases audience engagement and enables broadcasters to develop innovative, flexible, and future-proof show formats.