TechThe Psychology of Live Streaming: Why Audiences Are Drawn to Live Content

The Psychology of Live Streaming: Why Audiences Are Drawn to Live Content

The ability to broadcast is now available to anyone who has an internet connection. This form of direct user-to-viewer broadcasting has created new forms of social interaction and has led to a rise in voyeuristic behaviors. These days, one can broadcast their entire life in a new reality TV fashion, and users who are attracted to this form of entertainment can now essentially watch TV of someone’s life. But why is audience-to-broadcaster interaction so engaging? What makes live content more interesting than pre-recorded content? What makes viewers want to watch someone do something live when they could watch a more polished and high-quality pre-recorded version of the same content? This essay will lay out the theoretical and data-driven framework for exactly why people are drawn to live content by testing a series of hypotheses about what draws people to live interactive experiences using as a case.

From video games to events like the FIFA World Cup to people eating lunch, live content involves broadcasting in real-time to an audience over the internet. Streaming as a form of entertainment has grown at an incredible rate, from 3.5 billion weekly hours watched in 2012 to 4.9 billion weekly hours in 2013. In 2013, the live streaming service and Twitch would merge, with Twitch absorbing the technology and staff of, and rebranding the company as Twitch Interactive. This was a very key acquisition for Twitch as in 2013, an average of 12 billion minutes of video were watched in a month. Twitch has evolved into a platform with all types of content, where in February 2014 it was reported that there were 1 million broadcasters and 45 million viewers per month. YouTube has also developed systems for consumers to broadcast and engage in live streaming service. With an integration to popular features like Google Hangouts and easy ways for internet personalities to interact with their audience, there is no doubt that live streaming is a significant form of today’s internet culture. E-sports have also been a key factor in the growth of live streaming; a notable event would be the League of Legends Season 3 World Championships which was broadcasted across 4 continents and 17 different languages, and had a massive 32 million viewers for the final match. This is significantly a change in media environment especially in relation to audience and fan involvement due to advancements in technology and low-cost high-quality streaming options.

Benefits of Live Streaming

Real-Time Engagement

Furthermore, real-time communication utilizes the ‘parasocial interaction’, a psychological term coined by Horton and Wohl in 1956 to describe the connection that viewers form with media personas, particularly relevant for the celebrity culture. The article explains that because the audience is able to talk to the streamer and the interactions are reciprocal, the audience feels that they are one step closer to forming a ‘social relationship’ and often the media persona feels like a ‘real person’ to the viewer. Consequently, strengthening their loyalty to the streamer and their visit, these connections and sense of community.

Not only can streamers and live content creators communicate directly with their audience while live, but the audience feeds off these interactions and may be acknowledged by the streamer. A research article by Soyoung Bae and Nam-Hyun Hur highlights that live content allows the audience to experience ‘perceived closeness’ towards the streamer, as the audience is able to communicate with the streamer in real-time, gaining attention and responses quickly. Audience members are drawn to live content as it allows them to form a social connection to the streamer and other viewers and often, on smaller streams, feel like they are part of a conversation, rather than watching someone else have one.

Authenticity and Transparency

Viewers can also interact with the streamer through live content with real-time questions, feedback, or discussion. This interaction is particularly effective in the instance of online education. Live streamed educational content is effective for students who would like to ask questions in response to material being taught or to get live feedback on an assignment. A similar concept applies to an individual who is looking to learn or master a particular skill from a tutorial. Interaction often gives viewers a sense of participation and involvement during a stream. This will help create a desirable experience and can be a key element for keeping an audience.

Authenticity is important for an audience because it helps to draw an accurate depiction of the person (or game) they are watching. Authenticity is what makes an experience “real” and is a key basis for forming an emotional connection. Viewers want to see and hear the real person they are watching in order to understand who they are and why they should care about them. This involves the streamer just being themselves for the audience. From a marketing perspective, this realness is a useful tool for associating a personality with a product, idea, or brand. This helps to generate likability and trust from an audience to the brand through the personality of the person behind it. Live content on a brand can help allow consumers to ask questions and weigh options with representatives of the company. This ties into transparency with the fact that streamed content is unedited and unrated for a corporate approval process. Transparency is a crucial element to forming trust for both individuals and corporate identities. Any deceitful actions can often go public and in the case of a live stream, a simple mistake or lie can become very hard to take back.

Live streaming is a useful tool for engaging an audience in real time, attracting people from different areas of the world. It can be used for many purposes such as education, marketing, gaming, social interaction, and many others. Many people think that just because something is live, it isn’t reason enough to watch. It is important to discover why people are drawn to live streaming in particular and just what keeps them engaged. One reason that viewers are drawn to live streaming is the sense of authenticity and transparency from the streamer. This is fueled by the fact that the streamer is live and unedited, which develops a sense of realism and credibility.

Sense of Community

A study comparing live and recorded video of a university lecture found that while content was the same, students viewing a live broadcast reported a better sense of community in the class, and students in the live lecture had higher perceived learning and enjoyment. It is likely that similar effects could be seen in educational streams.

Studies on parasocial interaction suggest that when audiences are able to interact with a performer, even if only as an audience of one, that interaction can create a meaningful relationship. Live streaming takes this interaction to the next level – viewers are not just interacting with a character, but a real person, and they are not limited to interpreting the streamer’s words or actions through the game alone, as is the case with Let’s Play videos; they can ask questions and receive direct responses. This can make a huge difference in the perceived meaningfulness of an online interaction.

A live stream fosters a specific kind of community, not just between the audience and the streamer, but among audience members as well. Watching content as it’s broadcast allows viewers to feel like they are spending time together and builds a stronger connection than consuming recorded content on its own. Because streamers are able to respond immediately to comments or questions, the relationship between a streamer and the audience can become quite close, with the streamer acting as a kind of moderator for a group conversation.

Psychological Factors Driving Audience Engagement

Internet live streaming has, in the last five years, become a mainstream phenomenon. It is not only changing the way e-sports are consumed, but is having major ripple effects throughout the entire video game industry. With the rise of e-sports and game streaming, what we are witnessing is an industry undergoing a major shift in broadcast format, and the implications of this shift are only starting to become apparent. Streaming is currently the domain of competitive gaming, but given the rapid developments in the streaming platforms themselves and the way in which audiences are now consuming media, it is likely that streaming is going to have a significant impact on the way games are developed and marketed in the near future. A comprehensive study of game live streaming thus requires not only an analysis of the streaming platforms themselves, but an examination of the interplay between the streaming format and the games which are being broadcast. And, given the widespread popularity of gaming, any changes to the gaming industry are likely to have significant implications for broader society.

Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)

Fear of missing out (FOMO) is “a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent” that is characterized by the desire to stay continually connected with what others are doing. Live streaming allows individuals to be part of an ongoing event in real time where the social experience is just as important as the event. This is most apparent on platforms such as Twitch, where the content of streamers is often less important than the community that is built around the channel. Viewers can be constantly connected to this event through their mobile devices which provide notifications of when a stream goes live. Given the asynchronous nature of conventional media, the knowledge that an exciting event is happening now, in which they cannot participate, may prove too stressful, rendering it unenjoyable. FOMO involves a construal of time and an awareness of future events, priming effects, chronic accessibility, unconsidered effects, and motivations and cognitive failures, and can therefore be difficult to investigate. Priming effects may be responsible for FOMO triggered by an awareness of friends and the rewarding experiences one is missing. Chronic accessibility suggests that the more available social information is, the more one is likely to feel they are missing out, which these days could apply to social media and smartphone notifications. Cognitive failures and motivations regarding FOMO may only be assessed by experiments and would not be possible with correlational methods.

Social Proof and Validation

Validation goes hand in hand with social proof and is the mechanism by which the person attempting to adhere to the social influence confirms that they are making the right choice. A viewer driven by social proof will look for validation of the actions they are copying to confirm that it is the right thing to do. An example could be a viewer using an emote in a streamer’s chat that is then positively commented on by the streamer or another member of the community. This will reinforce the choice of emote for the viewer, and they are likely to use it more regularly in the future and in other streams. A lack of validation for the positive action may lead the viewer to think their action was incorrect and therefore won’t be repeated in the future.

When applied to live streaming, this theory suggests that as an audience begins to feel an affinity with a streamer or their content, they will strive to mirror the actions of the active community around the stream in an attempt to better integrate themselves with the group. If the community is subscribing, the viewer is more likely to follow suit, and similarly, if there is a surge of donations or paid subscriptions, it is probable that the viewer will do the same. An active community that is doing things the viewer deems positive will create a strong influence for the viewer to act in kind.

Social proof and validation build on the concept of psychological shortcuts and decision-making popularized by Robert Cialdini. Social proof (also known as informational social influence) is a psychological phenomenon where people assume the actions of others in an attempt to reflect correct behavior in a given situation. This effect is prominent in ambiguous social situations where people are unable to determine the appropriate mode of behavior and is driven by the assumption that surrounding others possess more knowledge about the current situation.

Emotional Connection

It is from these interactions and emotional experiences that deep emotional connections can develop. Parasocial relationships are one-sided relationships where one person extends emotional energy, interest, and time, and the other party, who is usually unaware of the extent of the other’s interest, is the object of that energy. Viewers who form a parasocial relationship with a streamer may experience real feelings of connection and even loss if they are unable to see the streamer’s content. Parasocial relationships are built over time and are fueled by repeated interactions, with live video being the optimal tool for its development. A person is more likely to feel a parasocial connection to someone they can interact with, and as interactivity is a fundamental feature of live video, it is the optimal environment for the development of parasocial relationships. This can be problematic, however, as these real feelings of connection between viewer and streamer can lead to negative emotions should the relationship be damaged in some way. For example, a game developer creating a patch that a viewer disagrees with may cause feelings of anger or betrayal.

When audience members experience emotion, they are far more likely to engage with live content, and emotional connection to a streamer may be the most powerful driver of engagement. Emotion is a bidirectional amplifier – positive emotion can enhance the relationship between streamer and viewer, and more powerful relationships will increase the strength of emotional experience.

Interactivity and Participation

When content consumers are able to socialize regularly with other fans and the content creator and feel they themselves are having an impact on the content, it may become a part of their social identity and routine to attend the events. This is evidenced by the extensive communities created around individual casters or showings and how missing an event in a seemingly inconsequential way can evoke a sense of mild regret.

As opposed to traditional media, audiences often feel like the experiences derived from live content are more personal and meaningful due to the increased interactivity and potential to have an impact on the content itself. Viewers of Twitch play-throughs have noted that during live play-through, the caster often takes more time to explore game mechanics and story than they would off stream, as they are looking to make use of the viewers’ guidance and contribution to the experience. This creates a desire in the audience to prefer watching live content and not wanting to miss out given their potential influence on the content and desire to be more involved. If they feel the experience was already near maximized, such as the case of The Joy of Painting broadcasts on Twitch, they’ll get a sense that they’ve missed out on an unforgettable experience.

Live streaming takes this a step further with the potential for real-time responses to questions and fan engagement, creating memorable experiences that separate one instance of viewership from another, and strong relationships between fans and performers. One viewer from the YouTube interview with the Dalai Lama expressed his emotions in being able to take part in an interactive discussion with an influential figure. “I can’t believe Dalai Lama is talking with us”.

Over the last decade, interactive media has become a part of daily life, changing the way people communicate with each other. One great appeal of live content is the ability to allow the audience to interact with the performer or content creator. Live content can create a perceived two-way conversation and sense of community. A study on TV show cast tweet alongs and its effect on audiences found evidence of joint consumption increasing parasocial interaction and how they felt about the show and its cast.

Impact on Content Creators and Platforms

Audience interactions in live streaming have also been shown to have a positive effect on the streamer. In a study of German Let’s Play creators, audience feedback was objectively associated with increased positive emotions in the creator. This effect may be related to perceptions of social reward through self-disclosure and emotional expression.

In part, the strength of these relationships is due to the mere “perceived intimacy” found in parasocial interactions: viewers feel as though they are getting to know the streamer personally, even when limited to one-sided communication such as reading the streamer’s comments. The live method also allows for the possibility of direct interaction through Q&A sessions or playing games with viewers which can further strengthen these relationships. This bond between creator and viewer has the potential to significantly increase viewer loyalty. When viewers feel personally connected to a streamer, they are more likely to return to the stream in the future. High audience retention is desirable for content creators and is an important factor for sponsorships and partnership programs with streaming platforms.

For streamers, the interactive nature of live content provides a unique opportunity to build a loyal audience. Viewers are able to give real-time feedback, participate in discussions, and become emotionally invested in the content. These interactions can be highly rewarding and validating for content creators. As one streamer reported, “Being able to interact with viewers and make them laugh or be there for them when they’re feeling down… it’s a very good feeling knowing that I’ve made another human being’s life even a little bit better.”

Building Trust and Loyalty

Though a seemingly simple question, the streamer has accomplished a list of things in order for the viewer to say “Yes” to this question. First and foremost, entertainment is a key factor. The viewer must enjoy the content in order to continue watching and must feel that the content has some unique value that differentiates it from other channels he may have visited. This might also serve as an identifying factor for the viewer and pull him into the community surrounding the content. The relation of community to content can be a powerful draw for many viewers. Whether deeply involved or just a casual observer, being able to have a social experience and discuss content with others brings value to the viewer and provides incentive to return. This can be both a literal discussion of the content at hand or it could be the social experience of feeling a personal connection to the content creator. This ultimately is the idea of parasocial interaction put into practice, and it’s quite an important concept. A viewer who feels a personal connection to a content creator is likely to return simply to see more of that person. He might be a big fan of the content, but the person behind the content is what really seals the deal for return viewership. This is exactly what the content creator should be aiming for, and the previously mentioned first impression is the starting point. A viewer who feels that the content and community surrounding it provides value to him is a prime candidate for conversion into a loyal fan.

Since live streaming is often the first time the audience encounters a streamer’s content, first impressions carry a considerable amount of weight. Content creators have a relatively short amount of time to pique the interest of a viewer before they move on. Therefore, the impact and retention of a new viewer is a significant event. A series of questionnaires aimed at understanding the experience of parasocial interaction helped to identify some strategies that content creators use to influence loyalty and return viewers. One viewer who regularly watches live streams gave this insight when asked why he watched live content.

Monetization Opportunities

A significant psychological aspect of monetization is that in comparison to recorded content, the money can be received instantly during or after an event, where in the past VOD revenue has taken months to be allocated.

Revenue from pay-per-event methods can be shared between JTV and the content provider, dependent on the arrangement they have. These shared revenue opportunities can also be said for advertising and sponsorship from off-site companies, where in the past this advertising traffic would have been directed toward recorded or on-demand content. Many companies that have large advertising budgets are looking to move them toward live audiences due to higher user interest. This provides yet another opportunity for direct ad sales, where a company representative may sell an ad package to the channel of their choice.

An example from a focus group showed that a host promoting an event in his profile noticed a high level of interest, but minimal money made due to users being unable to decide to impulse purchase. PPV and PPM revenue methods may be more effective for event-based channels, as they can choose to market toward a higher-paying audience and give them a more exclusive experience. The tip jar method is more effective for personality-based channels, where the viewer supports the content creator themselves.

Broadcasting live can create opportunities, most notably for additional revenue through Tip Jar and Pay Per View or Pay Per Minute. Both of these methods of revenue generation are dependent on the content creator to market their event. It has been found from focus groups with content creators that PPV events are typically more lucrative to the content creator than a Tip Jar. However, the effectiveness of Pay Per View can be blunted by piracy, as some users will stream the content throughout a channel or through a homemade rebroadcast. Using Pay Per Minute can be effective as the audience is only paying for the time they have watched, but there are numerous issues regarding payment and platform support.

Challenges and Considerations

Unpredictable income One of the first and most important considerations for live streaming content creators is that of potential income. Due to the uncertainty of the success of each individual stream, potential monthly income can fluctuate wildly, and this makes securing a regular budget very difficult. Additionally, the risk of income being enough for this to be a full-time job is very risky. Maintaining interest and retention of viewers can also prove to be very difficult. As mentioned previously, viewers have a low tolerance for boredom and a high demand for new and exciting content. This is made even more difficult due to the difficulty of promoting a live stream. A single stream can only appeal to potential viewers on one occasion, and no method of promotion can effectively recreate the experience of a live stream to interest new viewers.

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