SVG Sit-Down: Facebook’s Shaw on the Growth of Facebook Live

With more than 1.65 billion users, Facebook is already heads above its social-media competition, but now Facebook Live is booming and changing the way content creators and distributors use the platform.

Rob Shaw, who heads Global Sports Media Partnerships for Facebook, chatted with SVG about the company’s drive to provide new and outstanding opportunities for sports entities and how Facebook Live is changing the game for video in the digital world.

As someone who works for a media company that describes itself as an open platform, give us a look what your role is? In what ways are you able to offer support for a team or a league that might want to do more with Facebook?
Our goal is kind of twofold. Number one, it’s almost being a consultant to sports-media professionals, to make sure that they do have the tools to be able to make an impact, that they are up-to-date with best practices and best examples, that they are aware of the technology, and even connecting some of the technology. It definitely is important to be able to give them an idea of what is working and what is possible on Facebook.

Rob Shaw, head of Global Sports Media Partnerships, Facebook

Rob Shaw, head of Global Sports Media Partnerships, Facebook

But just as important is taking their feedback, understanding how Facebook drives their business. How can you use marketing to raise awareness, which ultimately leads to tune-in for broadcast? We’re experimenting with monetization right now. [Taking] the information that we get from the sports-media professionals, talking to our business-development team, talking to our product team: these are all very important conversations that we have both internally and externally.

The ultimate goal is to connect the 650 million sports fans with the best content possible. That’s what we ultimately hope to do. But, to do that, we have to drive our sports-media partner’s businesses, and that’s another key focus.

Give us an example of a really strong sports use case of Facebook Live. Is there one particular institution or team or league where you’ve thought to yourself, “All right, they get it. That’s interesting.”
I think there’s been a lot of partners that have gotten it so far.

The NFL Draft is one of the most exciting moments of the year, specifically socially. It’s such a great social event. It’s the one time that 32 fan bases actually have something to be excited about. We were very interested to see how media partners were going to respond and use Facebook Live in a meaningful way.

There were several [examples]. I thought Bleacher Report basically did a week of social shows where it felt like you were watching a live studio broadcast but it happened to be recorded on Facebook. They did use the API, so everything we’re familiar with in the broadcast industry — such as the lower thirds, the transitions, even highlights and B roll of athletes — was incorporated into it.

It was 45 minutes of analysis, but that analysis was responsive to people asking questions live on Facebook. You’d have Chris Simms talking about a different athlete, and then suddenly there’d be dozens of questions coming in in real time. Bleacher’s production [team] quickly put some of those questions up on the screen, and they [were] answered. [It was] a really high-quality broadcast that took advantage of state-of-the-art technology to get that up onto Facebook Live, but the formatting of the content, making it social and interactive, [made] it a very intimate experience for the viewer.

Looking at some of the stuff Silver Chalice is doing, 120 Sports in particular. They played a game of Jenga with the players who were drafted: every time [a player] pulled out a Jenga puzzle piece, [there was] a question on it and they had to answer it. So it was that element of suspense, it was that element of mystery, the unknown, unraveling in front of the viewer’s eyes. [It was a] very creative use of the platform to do some real social storytelling.

Also, Fox Sports had Jay Glazer do a live podcast of the NFL Draft on Facebook. And ESPN [did] a mock Draft from the ESPN account [and] had tens of thousands of live viewers.

So it seems like the industry has picked up on it pretty rapidly. Most important, all these millions of NFL fans were able to have this new experience unfold in front of them during the Draft. That was a moment of pride.

From your perspective, does there need to be a balance? I know you’ll say it’s really whatever the producer wants to do with the program, but the rawness of Facebook Live is part of what makes it very engaging and feel real. Do you think someone could take it too far by putting it on a too high-end production, or is there room on this platform for all kinds of programming?
To be 100% honest, we’re going to find out. We’re still in such early days of experimentation that it’s hard to say what works and what doesn’t yet.

I will say this: the content needs to be inherently social to take advantage of the platform. This is what differentiates Facebook Live from television. To be able to have it interactive is very important. Then there’s also the intimacy. I do think the more barriers you take down from production, the more intimate it may feel, the more personal it might feel, the more authentic it might feel. So it really depends a lot on what the story is and what you’re covering.

In the example of Bleacher, where the goal was professional analysis, it made sense to have that nice production feel and to be able to incorporate [live] graphics, [have] the questions coming from fans, [and also have] an athlete pick up their phone and give their gut reaction to having been drafted or the gut reaction to the breaking news unfolding in front of them.

That’s the case for all public figures, not just athletes. We see it sometimes where [sports journalist] Rachel Nichols will definitely open up a little bit more on Facebook and Instagram than she will on television, and we love that. We love to see another side of people that we consider household names but really only know professionally.

In certain cases, it makes sense to [leave] the heavy lifting to production, but there are definitely moments — let’s say, it’s breaking news — [when] you shouldn’t have to worry about that. You should just take your cellphone out and tell the world your message as quickly as possible.

Facebook Live is about access, and that’s the whole social element. What potential do you see going forward, particularly in sports? Do you expect anything new to be tried over the next six months or so?
Yeah, I think a lot will be. You’ll see experimentation to understand what type of content is going to have the impact to drive a large audience. It’s going to be really interesting to see.

[Sports columnist] Bill Simmons went live throughout the NBA Lottery. I think he shot it from his office; it was off of his cellphone from what I could tell. But the fact that he was able to do that during a live sports event was really cool. Tony Romo went live during the Super Bowl.

Those two instances I would equate to the second screen, because it’s definitely shoulder programming that you’re getting and you get to choose what voice you want to have narrate the big events unfolding in front of you. Tony Romo was providing this layer of analysis as a star quarterback that would have been pretty hard for you to get, but making it interactive by answering fans’ questions is just incredible.

In terms of live sports events, we’re in an area where we’re trying to experiment and understand what’s happening. A really interesting experience occurred [with] a Syracuse lacrosse game: they had to [change] fields and didn’t have the production on the new field. So someone from Silver Chalice literally shot the game on a cellphone. If you read the comments, people were thrilled; they were so thankful to be able to see something that they otherwise would not have been able to see.

In another example, [former soccer player] Alex Morgan broadcast a women’s professional soccer league event live. That one was actually well produced; it was a broadcast stream except it wasn’t broadcast. The only way [fans] were able to see it was through Facebook Live. And again, thousands of people responded very positively to that.

We don’t know whether there’s an appetite to watch a three-hour sports event on Facebook. We’re going to find out as people continue to experiment. But we have seen an enormous amount of traction when it comes to using Facebook as the second screen, as well as using it to break news and have media professionals, athletes, and coaches speak directly to the fans.

What are you guys anticipating, specifically in sports, in terms of rights? Are you helping partners navigate that? Do you expect a day when a media company is going to want the rights to do Facebook Live broadcasts? Do you see Facebook Live and live social video someday becoming a part of media-rights deals in sports?
I think that’s more up to the leagues. We announced in March that we’re testing different ways to support partners as they begin experimenting. We are investing a bit in live video just to make it a great fit for our platform. But as for what it looks like and breaking down whether it is a rights fee, it’s too early. We’re trying to figure out monetization in a way that allows media partners and leagues and athletes to be able to put their content on the platform and walk away with a return. That definitely is in our interest, but it’s too early to dictate whether this is something that’s going to be conceived as rights or a different form of monetization.

Do you have any insights on some of the ideas that you might be cooking up as far as monetization is concerned?
It’s still early. I will say, these decisions are being made internally [and] also involve talking to our partners to make sure that we’re hearing their feedback.

Are you at all worried about there being too much? Some really early Facebook Live content was getting tens of thousands of views. It might have been because it was new and interesting. Are you at all worried that, once this becomes more commonly accepted, someone’s feed notification will just be filled with 15 live broadcasts going on at once?
No, I think it’s not a concern, just because of the data that we’ve seen so far. We’ve so far seen that people have really engaged with this content. In fact, the average person watches a video more than three times longer when it’s live compared to when it’s not live; we’re seeing [many more] comments when it’s live compared to when it’s not live. So we’re very optimistic, and I think that all signals are showing that the demand is there.

That said, we do think that it’s not a bad idea to crank out and experiment. This reminds me a little bit of when Facebook came out with Pages and we used to educate all of our media partners about a new way to connect with your audience and your fans, an area worth investing in and building up. I would echo those sentiments around Live right now.

By the way, our product road map is out there. We have a way to go; we have a lot of things that we’re excited about, ranging from bringing a video tab onto your home screen of the Facebook app in the weeks and months ahead to all sorts of other [Live-related] products that we’re rolling out. We haven’t stopped investing, and I don’t think our media partners will anytime soon.

It seems like, since video became a part of social platforms, everyone’s been cramming short, snackable, bite-size content. Those rules are out the window when it comes to live. Do you see kind of a resurgence of long-form content?
Yeah, I do. I think this is definitely a different platform to some extent. The news feed with the highlights would be very snackable, and you’d quickly want to consume it, versus what we’ve started to see from some of our partners [that] is more programmatic.

Look at Fox Sports and At the Buzzer in particular. Every [Monday through Friday], they go live from their At the Buzzer page at 5 p.m. ET, and they do a 25- to 30-minute show. That show is inundated with comments; it’s incredibly social. I’m pretty certain, when they produce the show, it’s a pretty loose script, because they don’t even know what direction they’re going to go. So I do think there is definitely a big change with live compared to the video-on-demand format.

As for a show having legs, it’s all about shares. That’s why it’s been really interesting watching a lot of these programs. You’ll see their views go up and up and they don’t crash, and the reason they don’t is, it’s still circulating through news feeds because people are sharing them and liking them and commenting on them, which is bringing it in front of a new audience.

What advice do you have for a sports entity that maybe hasn’t dabbled in Facebook Live yet — there’s a fear of pressing that live button. What’s a good way for them to start?
I would just say it’s a good time to experiment. Being able to have your voice in this new platform and new mix on Facebook is a great opportunity. We have data that shows it is catching on, that it does result in great engagement. So, if you’re looking to reach your fan base, there’s no better way than to go live on Facebook right now and keep your voice. Understand that this is something that’s very intimate. There’s definitely a level of authenticity that you’re able to have when you go live.

The key reason it does as well as it does: immediacy. Literally, it’s happening right there in front of you. Your friends, families, celebrities are interacting live on the broadcast. There’s a real sense of community that you get to see when it unfolds. And then [there is] the excitement: anything could happen.

I think that all those different areas are what make Facebook Live so exciting. This isn’t something we’re walking away from, This is going to be around for a while, and we’re eager to see experimentations that we can understand what the best practices will be.