Four ways the Columbia Missourian is using Facebook Live to engage with community

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When Facebook rolled out its live broadcast feature in December 2015, it opened a new channel for engaging audiences and serving content on the platform.

Legacy news organizations moved quickly to master the new format. The New York Times was one of a few outlets paid by Facebook to test the platform. For $3 million a year, the Times was averaging four livestreams per day in its first few months of testing. As of June, NPR has produced more than 1,300 Facebook Live videos, broadcasting from 23 states and 13 countries.

"Going live" was already possible with Periscope and YouTube. The difference this time? The allure of reaching Facebook's vast audience – around 1.7 billion monthly active users – and taking advantage of the platform's preference for video. In fact, in March 2016, Facebook announced it would rank live video more highly in users' news feeds, making it an attractive way to regain attention with page audiences, especially after Facebook announced changes to its algorithm that summer that made many publishers anxious.

For large organizations, the opportunity to expand reach and engagement on a large scale was successful. For smaller news organizations and community newspapers, the question remained: How can we use this new technology?

Going live at the Missourian

The community outreach and visuals teams at the Columbia Missourian tested Facebook Live in a variety of situations from January through April. We found that as is usually the case, the content of the livestream is more important than any other factor.

We saw impressive levels of reach and engagement despite not having the highest quality streams right out of the gate. Our live video had 50 percent higher reach and an engagement rate of about 5 percent, which was on par with our page average for the time period we tested.

We used Facebook Live in four ways:

  • Breaking news: Our reporters went to protests, press conferences and other unfolding events. One of our highest-reach videos was of a pro-life rally at the Missouri capitol.
  • Inside the newsroom: We let viewers participate in the news by suggesting story ideas. As a regular series, our "community pitch" streams collected suggestions and questions from readers and also showcased some of the people behind the scenes at the Missourian.
  • Interactive interviews: We spoke to a state senator and a local dog (OK, technically we interviewed his human). This format lets viewers ask questions.
  • Public meetings: Dozens of government meetings take place with minimal public participation. By streaming meetings of interest, we gave more residents awareness of and access to public meetings.

Best practices and lessons learned

We learned through trial and error. We started small and gradually added complexity and different approaches. Here's what worked best for us:

  • Plan ahead. Secure guests in advance, and write out scripts, questions and talking points before going live. Have a general idea of the flow of the stream and any technical limitations. Wi-Fi is highly recommended.
  • Fully charge your device. If possible, plug it into a power outlet or bring an external battery pack.
  • Dual stream on Periscope. Get another device and stream to Periscope. There's still an audience there. Pro tip: Set up your phone horizontal for Facebook and vertical for Periscope.
  • Get some gear. You'll want tripods and phone mounts, and an iPad or laptop for taking notes and interacting in the comments.
  • Promote the stream ahead of time and prompt users to engage by posting in the comments.
  • Gather a team. As few as two people can make it work – one as a host and one to moderate comments.

Get started

There's no reason not to be experimenting with Facebook Live. Small newsrooms can pick one or more of the formats we used and see what results in the most engagement.

Matt Dulin is the director of community outreach at the Columbia Missourian and an assistant professor at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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