Commencement Livestreaming and Business Value

This time of year brings with it a particular discussion that I always see repeated in the various higher ed circles I still follow. That topic is the question of commencement livestreams. Not if universities should be doing them – dear no, that’s long since settled – but rather what should go with it. Should they be encouraging people to take selfies, what’s the hashtag, are they curating content from Instagram to a projector, are you using this tool, that tool, and blah, blah, blah. Some recent reading I was doing also felt poignant to this topic, and so I wanted to challenge my higher ed friends out there in webdev, marketing, advancement, et cetera to a question: Why aren’t you trying to focus on the business value of commencement streaming?

So, what the heck do I mean? First, let me reiterate that this discussion isn’t about if you should livestream. You should, simple as that. If for no other reason than it’s a very important matter of saving face while keeping up with the Joneses. And it does have social value: plenty of overseas families, and parents/families that can’t travel, and even a handful of curious alumni enjoy the experience of watching that stream. That’s good for brand sentiment, and it’s good for showing that celebrating student success is important to the institution. Not to mention, basic livestreaming isn’t really that expensive or hard. Heck, I’d even argue pretty good livestreaming isn’t that expensive or hard anymore.

While doing the thing just to do the thing is a minimum requirement, I think folks are to the point that they can, and should, do better. There are opportunities being missed many times, and they are things you can do that make the experience better for everyone. Basically, congratulations, you’ve mastered the art of the basic, socially-connected commencement livestream, now let’s do something with it.

For your consideration:

#1: Don’t Stop What You’re Doing

In some side conversation that I’ve had, I feel the need to emphasize (which I did above), and re-emphasize (right here), that I’m not saying “don’t livestream,” and I’m not saying “what you’re doing is dumb and you should quit.” I’m most certainly not saying that it isn’t important to celebrate success and make people feel good. That’s very, very important. Many schools have gotten very good at this process, and they should be proud of that. So keep it up, if it’s working for you, and enjoy those warm-fuzzies, because you’ve earned them.

The other side of this point is that the idea of “doing things to make people feel good and accomplished” doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive from “doing things we can measure to improve the institution or tackle some of our strategic goals.” I got the impression that people thought I was saying they shouldn’t try to be engaged with their streaming viewers and participants, which couldn’t be further from the truth. More on this in point #3 below, though.

#2: Do Consider Your CTAs

Your livestream page is a landing page. Landing pages should almost always have some kind of call to action on it, even if it’s passive (e.g. generic clickthroughs as opposed to forms). Texas Tech does this.

Texas Tech's Page CTAs

Texas Tech’s Page CTAs

It’s better than nothing, but it’s also the same set of CTAs that’s on the rest of their site. Assuming the watchers are family members with at least some vested interest in the institution thanks to the graduate, these options might not be the best ones for this particular page. If you can, try to tailor these. For instance, you don’t want to ask your graduates for donations, but this might be the place to encourage their families or alumni to donate. If you break up your commencement for time, you could use this space to highlight the departments who’ll be on stage that evening. You could also upsell here as well – consider if families are the primary viewers, you could link to specialty items from your bookstore. Offer items like diploma frames, or customized items for the graduate in a non-intrusive manner (obviously this doesn’t necessarily make the school money, but it’s an example of an opportunity nonetheless).

The more specific and targeted you can make CTAs on the page, the better chance there is that your audience will do something with them. Just keep it simple, clean, and out of the way from the primary experience (watching the stream).

#3: Don’t Overdo It (unless you just want to)

The most import part is to limit what you’re doing so that you don’t go so crazy that you get in the way of the core experience that the user came there for. Most folks truly vested in social media management get and understand the need to be tuned in all the time, and the work that goes into maintaining engagement in the various channels. They know that extends to weekends and evenings, even when they aren’t on the clock. Most importantly, they care about the experiences they are helping craft for the graduates simply because it’s the right thing to do. You should be praised for your commitment to that labor.

But, remember my web strategy manta: Do less better. The core expectation is to come to the page and watch commencement. You don’t want to drown that out or surround it with noise to try and promote tons of social channels and things of that nature. Likewise with point #2, a ton of CTAs will work against you. Keep it concise and usable. It’s a balancing act that you might have to fine-tune over time. Luckily, there’s a way that you can do this that’s extremely strategic and is an easy process…

#4: Do Set Goals

This is a big crux of my argument. “Making people feel accomplished” is noble, and a good thing to do, but it is not a goal. Goals need to be measurable. Goals do not have to be monetary in nature, though, either. For instance, you could have a goal to “Generate X Amount of Twitter Discussion” or “Get X Level of Facebook Post Engagement.” Likewise, a goal could be more strategic, like “Get X% of Commencement Viewers to Read More About Our Programs” or “Get X% of Viewers to Purchase an Item for a Graduate.” Goal setting isn’t about trying to turn your students or your viewers into a statistic, it’s just about ensuring you’re accomplishing what you’ve set out to accomplish, and to help you get better at it if you don’t. It helps you understand when assumptions you have are wrong, and helps you improve with each iteration. Without goals, you’re just guessing. Some guesses are easy: “A visitor to the commencement livestream page wants to watch the livestream.” Some guesses are much harder and less clear: “A visitor to the livestream page also wants information on the physical logistics of attending commencement.” In the latter case, you’re likely to discover that the stream page itself isn’t the optimal place for that information (assuming you aren’t trying to do an all-inclusive one-pager) and as such you can devote that space to something more valuable (or just making the player bigger).

Likewise, you should plan secondary and maybe even tertiary goals to move to in the event that you meet your primary goals unexpectedly early. Those secondary goals might extend on the primary one, or, they may give you a new challenge to go after. How particular the goals you make are is entirely up to you, and depends on what’s most important at this point in time. Ideally, over time, you would make your goals focus closer on the “page value” piece of the puzzle once you’re sure the “social value” piece is where you want it.

#5: Don’t Ignore the Data

As Avinash Kaushik is wont to say, real-time analytics isn’t especially useful if you can’t respond in real time. But given the nature of streaming a live event, it actually presents a situation where the data real-time analytics can give you on your site can be especially valuable thanks to the number of people coming onsite during that time period. You can make sure people are going where it appears they need to. You can customize areas on the fly if a particular geographical region is biasing towards a part of the site (e.g. if you offer tuition assistance to particular areas, and there’s a surge in visits there). But even after the fact, consider creating a custom report or segments specific to your livestream landing page so that you can do a post-mortem on the experience. For instance, time-on-page can be a really important tool in this case, depending on if they are sitting around watching, or just jumping on when their student is about to cross the stage.

Consider that last implication. Let’s say you want to make a valuable tool for families. Imagine your data is telling you people are just checking the page briefly to see if you’re near their name. You might, as a result, consider creating a tool that could send a text alert when they are about 5-10 minutes away from their student so they don’t miss them. You might also use information like bounce and exit rates on the page to inform you how useful off-page CTAs will be. If you’re seeing exit rates on the page in the 90th percentile, then trying to offer additional interactions that require other pages might not be a good time investment. The data is your treasure map, and each school will be different in these regards.

Some data doesn’t need to come from analytics either. You could, for instance, consider a space on the page for viewers to provide feedback on the watching experience they had. This could provide valuable insights into stream quality, viewing platforms, frustrations, etc. In the end, at least take some time to review what that page did, you might find new opportunities, or find problems you didn’t otherwise expect if you just ignore the information generated by that page.

#6: Do Factor In Client Lifecycle

This one is hard, I know, because it presumes that you have CRM infrastructure in place that can handle this, and that you’re willing to play the long game (hint: most schools simply are prepared for this). But, we’ve all heard (and some of us actively experienced) this story: “I just graduated and I’m already getting asked for money from my school, what the hell?” Nevermind the fact that asking new (anyone who hasn’t been gone more than five years, in my opinion) graduates to donate is useless and frustrating for them, and damages all that social capital you’re trying to build with your fancy commencement stream in the first place. But, what you can do is identify people that might be more susceptible to donation asks down the road. If you’re watching Twitter, Vine, Facebook, etc, you can identify individuals that seem super excited and proud of their accomplishment, and now you have a tree to watch that could be more likely to bear fruit down the road. Go into your CRM, and bump the priority on their record up a notch with a note as to why. After a few years, you can hit them with an ask that could even try to appeal to their nostalgia. Regardless, the more specific and smart your advancement office can make their donation asks, the more likely they’ll have improved success. It’s a lot of work, but it’s something worth building towards and at the very least talking about.

#7: Don’t Disregard the Value of a Handshake

Much has been said about this premise since Charlene Li first coined the basic version of it about five years ago (at least, I believe she originated it, feel free to correct me in the comments if I’m wrong). And it’s true, it’s very hard to quantify the value of social interactions in general. Hard, but not impossible. As I’ve already mentioned, and emphasized, and re-emphasized, it’s okay to go for the relationship building over pushing the hard sell on genuine measurable conversions. It’s all about the Benjamins, except when it isn’t.

I bring this up though because while it can be hard to measure the short-term value of a “handshake” in a quantifiable manner, one thing you do have control over is the quality of that handshake, and the confidence that comes along with a good, firm, purposeful handshake. In this case, that’s crafting a simple, straightforward commencement stream experience that adds value for the viewer, and gives you a way to say “these are our things, we are proud of them, go look at them when you’re done here and let us know what else we can do for you afterwards.” Accomplishing that might mean a simple page with a huge video player and a good quality feed – with nothing else. It could also mean smartly incorporating your data, analytics, and goals with the process so that the viewer feels like you’ve taken the time to give them an “experience.” It’s possible to do that by basically shooting from the hip, but it feels a lot better when you can do these things with purpose and structure, and that will come through in the overall UX.

That firm handshake then turns into a recommendation, or another child attending, or event ticket sales, because they trust that a college with a firm handshake must know how to Do Business.

#8: Do Consider the Value Proposition of Well-Timed Content Sharing

Preface: I checked this recently, but not during an actual livestream event/commencement, so my apologies to Harvard in advance if this is a bit unfair. That said, this is the sort of question you should consider regardless. In this case, here’s what’s right below Harvard’s video player.

Give me ALL the newses

Give me ALL the newses

So, the question is: do you think your average commencement viewer wants to get “daily emails with the [latest news]” from your school? Is that a value added conversion opportunity for your university? Probably not. And it’s a shame, because most universities have tons of articles put out by their PR department over the year that covers a whole array of programs, departments, and student achievements. Instead, consider how the structure of your commencement ceremony could enable you to cross promote the work and programs in those departments by sharing links in a “live feed” type format below the video, or on Twitter, Facebook, etc. You could mention scholarships that support the programs, and provide links to learn about them (and possibly donate). One pageview for the commencement page is good, if you can keep those viewers on the site looking at more about it, that’s way better. And all of that can be part of goal building, and all of that can be measured.

It just takes a little timing and orchestration, but a lot of folks have news systems prepped with plenty of metadata at the ready to make finding those highlight pieces to share relatively easy. If you want to celebrate success, then really celebrate it, and think about how that can elevate the discussion and turn into long term engagements with those viewers.

#9: Don’t Use Flash

Tulane's Flash Player

Tulane’s Flash Player

I can’t believe I even need to list this one. But I do, because there are schools still beholden to the old Adobe Flash Media Server or similarly archaic infrastructure. This isn’t okay. At the end of the day, the most important thing is to meet the primary need of your audience, and that need is to simply watch commencement. As long as you meet that need, you’ve fulfilled basic visitor expectations. Flash is incapable of meeting that need. Not to mention, it’s usually ugly. There are more than enough tools and platforms out there that can give you solid, cross-platform streaming that you have no excuse to be using a Flash based player.

Getting yourself off of Flash is Priority One if you’re using it, because it will devalue any other effort you make for your streaming needs in the meantime. If you really care about your viewers experience, and celebrating their achievements, this is the first way to shoot yourself in the foot in proving that.

(Bonus) #10: Do a Post-Mortem

Get public relations, marketing, advancement, alumni, and web in a room afterwards, and talk about what did and didn’t work. Go over your analytics and your goals. Talk about what you can do next time to be better. Review viewer feedback. Talk about social engagement. Think a little more long term than last time. Learn, adjust, and improve.

Final Thoughts

Re-re-(re?)emphasizing, it’s okay to be human. It’s okay to celebrate the warm-fuzzies. Do the thing because it’s the right thing that needs to be done. It’s not all about money and turning people into statistics. It’s just that if you’ve crafted a good user experience for livestreaming your commencement, there’s no harm in seeing if you can milk valuable data and/or conversions from that, whatever form that takes, as long as you don’t compromise that primary UX. It’s just about evolution, becoming better, and becoming strategic.

(Photo Credit: CC by-nc 2.0 pennstatenews)