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Hovercast's Eli Stonberg Talks Gamified Virtual Events for Causes, Campaigns, and Brands

Hovercast CEO Eli Stonberg discusses how political campaigns and brands use Hovercast's innovative interactive streaming platform and service to bring gamification and engaging, creative lean-forward experiences for fund- and awareness-raising events and more in this interview with Streaming Media Producer Editor Steve Nathans-Kelly.

In this interview I speak with Eli Stonberg, CEO of Hovercast about their platform and service designed to deliver engaging, lean-forward, interactive virtual events. They’ve done innovative work with brands, political campaigns, and public television, providing gamification that elevates virtual event experiences from passive viewing to active and creative audience participation and co-creation. Eli and I talked about what they do and how they approach it, and what Eli and Hovercast see as the future of remote production and how causes and brands will continue to leverage it when the world hopefully opens up a bit more and gamified virtual experiences are no longer the only game in town.

Read the full transcript of this interview:

Steve Nathans-Kelly: It'd be great to start with just a little bit of background about what Hovercast is, what it's all about. I'm going to try not to say hovercraft during the interview.

Eli Stonberg: You wouldn't be the first.

Steve Nathans-Kelly: I'm going to do my best. What is it, how long have you been doing it, and what brought you to it?

Eli Stonberg: Hovercast is a virtual events platform that all about finding meaningful engagement in the two-way conversation between audience and show in a live show. We started as an interactive graphics toolset in 2018 and we would work on Twitch and YouTube and Facebook and make all of those platforms more interactive. We've progressed to kind of an all-in-one virtual events tool as well. And we're really interested in exploring ways that the audience can be a part of a live stream.

Steve Nathans-Kelly: I was reading about your, your involvement with campaign events in 2020. And I think I probably attended some of them. You know, I was reading that you were involved with campaign events in Wisconsin. We used to live there, so that was kind of a big deal to me.

Eli Stonberg: We're really proud of what we did in that state. In Wisconsin, we did Happy Days, Superbad, and a big comedy show with Sarah Silverman and a few other big comedians.

Steve Nathans-Kelly: Let's just take it as an example, the most I saw--and if this was not a typical event, maybe just talk about one that's a little more typical--the one with the Georgia Democrats and the Elf table read. With an event like that, what are they bringing to the table besides the source material and the talent, and then what are they looking for from you? Is it the streaming platform, graphics, so it doesn't just look like Zoom, is it interactivity and gamification, the way of taking donations, or is it all of that?

Eli Stonberg: Yeah, it's all of the above. And in that case, the video production. We don't always do a remote production, but we can. What you get from that show is a custom, white-labeled website that looks just like their branding. So in that case, it was really fun, holiday, Elf-themed website branding. And for that one, we have the live stream is kind of the hero, as well as a custom chat that we provide, and the ActBlue donation buttons, and then the interaction that goes on on the side with the chat and the donations make their way into the interactive graphics that happened in the live stream. So in that example, we had a really fun, candy cane-style donation meter, and when it filled all the way to the top, a narwhal came out, which is what happens in the Elf movie. And we had really interesting tickers that showed donor names. So we took quotes from the movie and put custom donor names inside those quotes, which was pretty neat, and kind of caused people to want to get involved and donate.

What made that show really exciting was just this serendipitous moment where in the movie, there's this climax when Santa needs more Christmas spirit to get his sleigh off the ground and escape Central Park. And so they're doing that read and it's happening and just kind of coincidentally, the audience was really close to their donation goal, and it was just this really magical moment where we have this goal meter and the audience was encouraging each other to get there. And meanwhile, the cast is reading about needing more Christmas spirit and they hit their goal within about two minutes of the show happening. It just kind of came together. And that's this example of an audience that has become part of the live show. I really love that sort of collective, two-way relationship.

Steve Nathans-Kelly: With other projects, is it more common for you to be doing that sort of white-glove approach where you're bringing all of your involvement and creativity to it, or are there more where people are building it within your platform, just using the tools that are there?

Eli Stonberg: It's definitely a mix. Our tool can be used by broadcast teams. It's sort of an Adobe-style tool at the moment. We're in the works on building a more creator-friendly, self-serve toolset that will be extremely easy to use. That is coming soon, but for the time being our tool is sort of a professional or semiprofessional tool. So it takes a little bit of training, but definitely video teams use it all the time. For example, Bernie Sanders is still a client, and the Friends of Bernie Sanders are off doing two shows a week using our tool with no involvement from us. But we also have many clients who come to us, who've say, "I don't know how to live stream at all. Can you help me out?" And we help them out. We also have a lot of live stream partners, streaming professionals who know how to use the tool and we can kind of play matchmaker. So it's kind of an all-of-the-above situation.

My co-founder and I are ex-music video and commercial directors. And so we certainly know about the world of production, and we got into this thinking, "We don't want to touch production at all--it doesn't scale." But there are definitely times where folks need our help, and it's worth it to make the show great.

Steve Nathans-Kelly: It's kind of ironic given even how old Bernie himself is that I would just assume that his campaign and the people that are working with him are actually younger and more tech-savvy and able to do this than most campaign staffs.

Eli Stonberg: Yeah. They're pretty sharp.

Steve Nathans-Kelly: One of the things that we've seen at Streaming Media over the last year, as more remote production has been visible and happening is that--particularly in the live music world, there was this progression from people just sort of doing the little living room concert, where there just wasn't much to it. It was really bare bones. Have you felt like there's been an education process that you've had to do with clients just to say "interactivity, gamification, lean-forward are really important, and critical to what you want to achieve?"

Eli Stonberg: Absolutely. I've been doing it for years, especially more recently. I think when COVID started, the bar was pretty low. It was basically like turn on a Zoom, and quickly folks started thinking, how can I go beyond this and elevate the broadcast? There are a number of ways to do that, one of which is--Twitch has really been a showcase of this for years--to involve the chat, involve the community, so they can be part of the show. That's an educational process that I'm always talking to folks about: How can you leverage the audience to actually make your show better, and not just be sort of on the sidelines?

Steve Nathans-Kelly: I'd think that with the degree of interactivity that you're going for and that your projects would tend to have, latency is a big deal. I was looking at a video of the Antiques Roadshow game. It just seems like higher latency would just kill that experience. So is that something you've focused on in your platform? What have you found to be kind of the sweet spot for acceptable latency?

Eli Stonberg: It depends on what widget we're talking about, and when you're just featuring chat or even donations, there's built-in latency. When an ActBlue donation occurs, we actually have to wait two minutes for it to hit us--the web hook. So there are certain ones where it's an issue, but for sure when you're talking about polling or meters, or trivia, if you want it to trigger an event, it's really important to have low latency. And so, definitely for those types of features you want as low latency as possible. There are creative solves for it. That Antiques Roadshow is a good example where we were live on three platforms. We were live on Twitch, YouTube, and Facebook. On Twitch you have between 2- and 5-second latency, YouTube is maybe about 10-second latency, and Facebook is 40-second latency. And so for that one, we are doing trivia and we had to organize the show so that the trivia questions would be on the screen for about two minutes, because you're waiting 40 seconds for the viewers on Facebook even to see the question, let alone vote for it. So we solved for it by having long trivia questions. If you want to do something like HQ trivia, you're going to have to have a low-latency platform. One that I'm really keen on is Amazon IVS. They've taken kind of the pipes from Twitch and have their own low-latency white-label service. That's been really nice. Latency is important when it comes to gamification. I think that's another educational thing. Our customers don't always connect to that yet, and don't know why they should care about latency, but it definitely affects the creative.

Steve Nathans-Kelly: They don't know why they should care about it until it becomes a problem.

Eli Stonberg: Until you're like, "Let's wait 40 seconds to ask the next question."

Steve Nathans-Kelly: another thing I was reading about in your blog that I thought was really interesting was your work with WGBH, and the "choose your own adventure" show with Arthur. Arthur was a big part of my life about 13 years ago, so that was really interesting to read about that. How did that one come about and, what was the collaborative creative process with that?

Eli Stonberg: That was a really exciting project. It was called Chat Plays GBH. Basically, GBH has this awesome new media emerging platforms team, which is like a skunkworks team assembled at GBH to investigate new platforms, and see how they can take a legacy media company into the future. And so they connected with me about interactive live streaming. They were really interested in the space. We are too. At first we were like, "Let's write a blog together," kind of similar to what you ended up seeing. And then we decided, "Let's actually make a showcase, a variety show, showing what's possible in interactive live streaming, and let's use this amazing intellectual property that they have access to." So we made five different shows that ramped up the interactive levels as they went, and were intended to show, "Here's what you could do when you make a show with the audience."

We started really simple with a Q & A show with some scientists. And then there was a cooking competition where the chefs were controlled by different platforms. Facebook controlled one chef, and YouTube controlled another. There was the Arthur "Choose Your Own Arthventure" that you referred to. And there was a show that was called Chatsterpiece, which was basically the audience creating their own Masterpiece Theater episode. Lastly, there was an Antiques Roadshow gamified, prediction-based game. Super fun. The Arthur one was really interesting. Basically, the way that we did that was, we had access to all of the archives for every Arthur show. And we made an interactive story tree with them, mapping out all of the different parallel narratives that could happen when the audience chose different choices.

And the idea was this is going to be a live stream event where the audience makes choices as they go together, collectively. It's called "crowdplay." They're all playing as one player, choosing their own adventure. What makes the format really exciting to me is that it's not like Bandersnatch where you can kind of go back and try it again, or know that there was another choice. You're just dictating the choice together live. And there's a kind of FOMO, you-had-to-be-there appeal to that. So that was really fun. We mapped out a bunch of different choices and the audience played through it and I think they got a real kick out of it.

Steve Nathams-Kelly: I imagine that, being Arthur, it didn't go as dark as Bandersnatch either.

Eli Stonberg: No. And actually one of the mandates from the show is it had to end with a sincere, sentimental ending. And we kind of made a joke about that, where all of the choices would go to different directions, but the last choice, no matter what was, "How should it end?", and the options were "sincerely, earnestly, or..." They're all basically the same, and it went to the same path of this sweet, sentimental ending, which was really cute. But no, it couldn't go dark. That was one of the things that the producers of Arthur made sure didn't happen, but it got weird. There were definitely a bunch of squids and aliens, and the audience made some bizarre choices, but it still sort of made sense. It was kind of cool.

Steve Nathans-Kelly: The last question I had, circling back to the virtual events ... We've done three Streaming Media virtual conferences since last April, and at each one of them, there's been at least one awkward moment where somebody from the streaming world on a panel has said what a great year it's been, and then they backtrack and they say, "Well, we know it's been really difficult in a lot of ways for a lot of people." But it has been a big year for streaming, and particularly for remote production and virtual events. And I think it's been a great year for discovering the possibilities of what you can do with virtual events, and the cost savings and so forth with not having to be on location. What do you see as the role of virtual events, whether in political campaigns or elsewhere, going forward, as the world hopefully opens up a little more?

Eli Stonberg: I think they're here to stay. I think hybrid events will be a big piece of this too, where you have this intermix of a live audience online, as well as an IRL audience. You alluded to it, there's a big cost savings with virtual events. You don't need a venue, you don't need an in-person crew. You can have amazing talent come to your show because it's easier for them to dial in remotely than it is to get on a jet and fly out somewhere. And certainly, when it comes to politics, the appeal of a grassroots donations that can come in from around the world, is huge. I think people have just noticed the benefits of a global audience and the reach that that can provide. So I think it's here to stay. I'm really interested to see where we can push further by having online audiences change an in-person event. I want to be at concerts where the online audience is affecting the visuals that people are seeing in the concert. I'm big on tapping into the creativity of the audience and using that in the show. And I think the value there, with a global audience is huge because, one of the best things about our toolset is we really give the creator and the producer of the show moderation and curation tools that make it very easy to hand-pick the best audience submissions from any platform. And I think that's really potent because, when it comes to a big global audience, if you can prompt the audience for a creative request, they give you all this stuff. Even if 95% of it is not usable, if you can just pick out those gems--and our tools give you the ability to do that--then you can really use that to make comedy, make the audience feel like they're part of it, build community, and kind of co-create your show with the audience.

When you can do that, you can do that far better with a virtual or hybrid event than you could in person. Even when it comes to Q & A, if you think about a Q & A in person, people raise their hand, you call on the person in the back, they might be a conspiracy theorist. You don't know what you're getting. With virtual or hybrid events, you can pick and choose the best of the best and use that, and also push the audience to give you meaningful engagement and positive sentiments. If they know that their, um, their engagement is going to be part of the show, it really encourages them to be good actors and provide useful material.

So I think the benefits of having a virtual audience are many, and I think this pandemic has gone on to demonstrate that to a lot of people. And we're really just at the start of what's possible when it comes to a show that says, "What would meaningful participation look like? What does it look like to improvise a little bit when the audience is obsessed with a meme and, on the spot, can your show go in that direction and reward them for this cool idea that just came up? I'm excited about reactive storytelling and audience participation and where it can go. And I do think this pandemic forced that into the spotlight and the benefits are now clear. I'm excited to go back to in-person events. I can't wait to go to my first concert, but I also think that, especially for big events, we've seen that the benefits of having a virtual audience are undeniable, and can only be improved on from here.