The Huffington Post has been running its new live video platform HuffPost Live, which sees Huffington Post staffers and guests discuss topical issues during 12 hours of daily livestreaming, for more than six months now.
Broadcast from newsroom-based studios in New York and LA, the discussions are livestreamed online where the community is encouraged to actively take part in the discussion, from live chat feeds to actually joining the discussion in the studio via online video link.
President and co-creator Roy Sekoff, who was also founding editor of Huffington Post, spoke to Journalism.co.uk last week for a podcast on the different ways news outlets are approaching live video. In this feature he reflects on the first six months of HuffPost Live, and looks back to the roots of the project.
Growing Huffington Post's video output
Sekoff said that after AOL bought the Huffington Post in 2011, there was a need to allocate the "greater resources" it now had at its disposal. One way in which these resources were put to use, was to launch new Huffington Post sites dedicated to certain geographical areas, starting with the UK and then followed by others such as France and Italy. He added that a Japanese site will also follow in May.
But as well as the launch of the new sites, Sekoff said Huffington Post was keen to look at ways to offer their audience more original video content.
"This was something that we knew our users were wanting more and more of and that advertisers and sponsors were wanting to be associated with more and more."
Sekoff and colleagues then started to consider how a video network which was live streamed could work, using the Huffington Post as a "real-time script".
The US site publishes around "1,600 pieces of content every day", he said, "so there's a lot of things to talk about across a wide range of subject matter and issues".
Standing out with social
As the idea for HuffPost Live continued to develop, the team wanted to set itself apart in the market, and looked to its already engaged community to add power to the concept.
"We realised that a differentiator for us would be the incredible community that the Huffington Post has built.
"A community that's left over 225 million comments since we launched in May of 2005, which is a phenomenal amount of engagement."
He added: "I realised that 70 per cent of those comments were being left in response to another comment, so people were not just leaving comments they were actually having conversations and we thought 'well, what if we took that engagement, that community level of commentary and brought that front and centre?' Once we did that, once we made that decision, it changed everything we did.We just doubled down on engagement and I think in the process we created what I think is one of the most social video experiences anywhereRoy Sekoff, HuffPost Live
"It changed the design, it changed the technology, it changed who we hired in front of and behind the camera and that became our north star. So we just doubled down on engagement and I think in the process we created what I think is one of the most social video experiences anywhere."
The Huffington Post's approach to producing social video goes beyond just making content people want to share on social networks, Sekoff said.
"Everyone's talking about trying to have a social video experience, but when they talk about social video they really mostly mean video that's easily shareable which is a very rudimentary way of looking at it.
"We're looking at something a lot more challenging but a lot more satisfying is how do you bring that social element and make it integral to what you're doing? Not secondary, not 'oh and we also have', but really something that's integral to everything that we do."
Over the course of the first six months of HuffPost Live 6,600 guests have taken part in the discussions live using Skype or Google+.
And it is not just the online US community getting involved. According to Sekoff the HuffPost Live audience has spanned 75 countries.
"That was one of the foundational premises is that location doesn't matter any more.
"You don't have to go into some studio and do an interview. If you have a smartphone or if you have a webcam or if you have a tablet you could be live instantly, so we've had segments where we have someone in India talking to somebody in Indiana and sharing stories and telling their personal tales, which I think is really something that we wanted to do as well, is really lean into the idea of storytelling and narrative."
Building community engagement into the platform
There are a number of ways in which the HuffPost Live platform invites greater interaction on the part of the viewer beyond watching the live video, and maybe commenting within the live chat stream which runs alongside the video player.
One example is the 'resource well', which collects together all the background content which has led to the subject being discussed in the studio and presents it as a bullet-pointed list within each discussion page.
"The premise behind that is once we realised that we wanted to have our community be front and centre in everything that we were doing, we didn't want them to be subservient," Sekoff said.Once we realised that we wanted to have our community be front and centre in everything that we were doing, we didn't want them to be subservientRoy Sekoff, HuffPost Live
"We didn't want them to put their hand up and go 'Mr Expert can I ask you a question?' We wanted them to be on equal footing."
He said that for HuffPost Live the resource well is a way for the news outlet to show its workings, likening this to a student encouraged to do so in a school test.
"This is us showing our work. The resource well contains every element that we're using to build that segment, whether it's videos, or stories or extra research material.
"So basically you could read up on everything that we're reading up on, so when you come on the air you don't say, 'oh I think I have a question', you say 'I read your story, and I disagree with you and here's why'. And I think that's an incredibly empowering and democratising approach."
And this idea continued to grow, including the introduction of a button encouraging those who feel they have a useful contribution to make to the discussion, to "be an on-air guest". Users can apply to join the discussion live, or in advance using the schedule and resource well material to look at what subjects are coming up.
Both here-and-now and on-demand
Live is central to the platform, but that does not mean that once the discussion has been had, that is it. Discussing some of the early lessons with Journalism.co.uk, Sekoff said the platform aims "to do two things at the same time", and that means not only offering the real-time video, but supplementing that with on-demand content for audiences who may have missed the live broadcast.
"I think the internet is all about being able to watch what you want to watch when you want to watch it, so maybe you weren't there when it was live but you can then watch it at another time", he said, adding that both the entire discussion as well as "highlights and clips" are available on-demand after the live broadcast.
"What we do is we take a full segment and then we cut it into the juiciest bits, or really the most interesting moments, whether those are a minute or two minutes or three minutes and then we take those clips and we put those inside stories on the Huffington Post, or on AOL."
He added: "I think we've got more and more adept at having really deep, satisfying, not sound-bitey conversations because we let our segments play on for 20 mins, 25 mins, 30 mins, as long as it's interesting.
"... But we also then want to have those more snackable bits that you may want to digest quickly as you're surfing the web or on your tablet or on your smartphone. Those are not always the same thing but I think we can do both at the same time which I think is the most exciting thing."
More generally he said the team is "very committed to iterating".
"I said to my team from the very beginning, if we look the same three weeks in as we do on the day that we launched then we're failing, and if we look the same three months in as we did three weeks in then we're failing.
"So we're trying not to have massive pendulum swings ... but small iterations. I think we're a very nimble and agile team that is committed to trying things out. That's one of the great things about the platform that we're on. We have 12 hours a day that we're doing, we can try things out. If things work then we lean into that and do more of it, if things don't work we either fix it or don't do that and so we've got, I think, every day smarter and more adept at things that are working."
Considerations for other outlets
For those considering working with live video, Sekoff said technology "has really lowered the bar for entry".
"In the old days if you wanted to be a broadcast network you had to have a massive operation, now not so much."
But he added that when it comes to producing a platform such as HuffPost Live there are other necessary resources to bear in mind.
"It is production, it is live creation of shows as it were, and that's manpower intensive.
"We have a lot of producers and associate producers working on those stories. It's not like anybody can do it tomorrow. For a news operation, certainly individuals have taken to the internet and they've taken to YouTube and they've developed massive followings with very very little outlay of capital.
"... I think what we're doing at a very high quality, we're doing it for a fraction of what a cable network or a broadcast network is doing it for but it's not a one-man-band."
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