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Behind the scenes with David Cameron and Nigel Farage at BuzzFeed’s Facebook Live Debate

The Drum was handed a backstage pass last week to BuzzFeed UK’s foray into live political broadcasting: a town hall-style debate on the EU referendum, broadcast on Facebook Live.

Held last Friday (10 June), the event at Facebook’s north London offices featured a live and diverse audience - hand-selected by pollsters - who were put in front of pro-Brexiters Nigel Farage and Penny Mordaunt, and Europhiles Nicola Sturgeon and David Cameron.

The production involved a multi-room set up, a stage build and a broadcast-standard production team - a stark contrast to the smartphone point-and-shoot associated with early Facebook Live adopters.

The sessions, alongside post-match analysis from BuzzFeed News’ political team, were streamed instantaneously on Facebook’s infant video platform. Web users at home could put their questions to the politicians through the site, and could also ‘react’ to what was being said at any given time through the medium of frowning or smiling emojis.

A consensus of these reactions was displayed at key points throughout each session, by way of a live sentiment tracking bar. The inventor of this was Paul Curry, editorial developer at BuzzFeed.

“The tracker would very frequently ask Facebook what the current amount of reactions were and of which type," he told The Drum. "We had between 15 and 30 seconds worth of reactions being monitored at any given time - enough to be statistically significant.

"What that meant is that if people joined the video and in the first five seconds laid their reaction down and just left, their reaction wouldn’t show up later. We were only interested in the immediate moment.”

This kind of tech, alongside the huge names involved and a high-profile new streaming platform, amounted to an event that was the biggest thing the brand has ever done, according to BuzzFeed News’ UK social media editor, Andy Dangerfield.

Interestingly, the initial idea was sparked by Facebook. Dangerfield explained: “We went away and discussed what we could offer, because Facebook were approaching a number of potential partners to do this event with.

“We talked about how our general audience and our UK Facebook page is younger than a lot of other media companies so it would be a good chance for politicians to reach a younger audience with an important story.”

Once the project hit the ground running, BuzzFeed was given creative rein on set design, production and the different interactive elements that could be added to the Facebook Live stream. Dangerfield was also clear that he also wanted these to reflect the BuzzFeed brand.

“Facebook provided the platform, the technology, the venue and organised the event,” he said. “Whereas we provided all the editorial input. That was purely us. We decided what the format would be, who we wanted to speak and the make-up of the audience. There was a clear divide between Facebook and BuzzFeed.”

The four videos (Facebook Live’s 90-minute limit broke the day’s constant stream up in such a way) have now garnered more than 7.5 million views combined. By way of comparison, BBC1’s Election Debate, which aired ahead of the General Election in 2015, raked in 4.3 million live viewers.

“It’s the first time BuzzFeed has done live broadcasting to that scale and we were so happy with the reaction and the feedback we got from the audience, and the amount of viewers,” said Dangerfield.

"We just feel that with the extra level of audience engagement and interactivity, we really set the bar to make our Q&A distinctive from all others. I think we were really able to engage a young audience with a serious news subject more than traditional broadcasters would have done."

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