Social Media

Virtual Rubbernecking: Why Live Content Works

July 18, 2017

Live content has recently exploded on social, but it’s hardly a new entertainment medium. From sports coverage to news reports, viewers have been attracted to live long before social platforms picked up on it. In a new series of blog posts (starting with this one), we’ll discuss how live content taps into our innate human characteristics and how brands can best optimize the format to drive business results. This post will explore the behavioral phenomenon of ‘Virtual Rubbernecking’ as a potential cause of Live’s popularity.

360i has defined Virtual Rubbernecking as a digital behavior when users are so enthralled with raw and authentic content that it becomes difficult for them to look away. Just like a traffic accident, live content acts as a roadblock in the feed that you travel every day and distracts you from proceeding in your scroll. Unlike traffic accidents, live content doesn’t only showcase negative occurrences. It can be a live political press conference or a live video of your nephew’s dance recital. Overall, it is the unpredictability and urgent nature of the content that draws your attention.


As marketers, we believe it is important to understand the user motivations that make live content so appealing and Virtual Rubbernecking so common: 

  1. Distrust. The first live broadcast was in 1939 when NBC aired a baseball game, just six months after the largest “fake news” scam of all time, Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast. While these two events may not be directly linked, independently they reveal our trusting nature as humans and serve as early examples of Virtual Rubbernecking. Real news or not, each event caused the nation to pause and draw attention. Today, trust for business, government, the media and NGOs is at an all-time low, and people frequently rely on multiple unfiltered algorithmic feeds for information. To make matters worse, social media users can easily share inaccurate news, allowing outrageous headlines to amass 2 million+ engagements and lead to millions more misinformed impressions. With increased awareness of fake news, people are attracted to live content because they feel they can at least trust their own eyes. 
  2. Connection. People are naturally attracted to communal virtual experiences. Experiences where they can be a part of the action or conversation but easily remove themselves from the situation if needed. Live content brings you to the front lines of historic protests, behind the scenes of your favorite television shows, and offers the mic at the latest political press conference – all alongside likeminded users. However, when the community becomes overwhelming or you are no longer interested in the content, you can easily exit your browser and return to your usual setting.
  3. Unpredictability. You are on the edge of your seat, your heart is pounding out of your chest, and your ears are ringing because you are surrounded by yelling. Yes, I’m talking about my household when the Pats beat the Flacons in the final minutes of Super Bowl 2017. We all know that rush when watching your favorite sports team in overtime, or when the music quickens during an action scene in a movie. At this moment, you’re anticipating all possible outcomes, good and bad. These are the feelings that are amplified when watching live content and can explain why Bravo’s Watch What Happens Live With Any Cohen’s live social media week saw over 2.4MM views. The unpredictable nature excites us and keeps our attention 3X longer than other video content.

Virtual Rubbernecking could be why we see record-breaking organic video metrics across platforms. For example, “Chewbacca Mom” saw more than 164M views on her four minute Facebook Live video. And in the political sphere, 2016’s Presidential debates saw 2.5M viewers on YouTube, 55M on Facebook, and 3.2M on Twitter, making them the most live viewed debates of all time. And those results weren’t even reliant on paid media.

You can now Virtually Rubberneck on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. Despite its popularity and proliferation, digital live streaming is still in its very early stages. Average social viewership doesn’t quite compare to the Super Bowl’s 111.3M TV viewers or even the Oscars’ 34.4M TV viewers, but it is ramping up and giving platforms a reason to introduce more traditional advertising placements (pre-roll and mid-roll) within their feeds.

As digital marketers, we are currently experimenting with live formats and how to leverage them to help meet business objectives for our clients. Below are the three primary ways brands are activating with Live:

  1. Traditional Live Streaming: This tactic can bring fans into the action of a real-time event or behind the scenes of a television show or movie, emulating a connected or voyeuristic experience.
  2. Publisher Partnership: This tactic enables brands to work with high quality publishers (NFL, Bloomberg, etc.) and take advantage of the live format without having to produce their own live content. This tactic also clearly disclaims the news or entertainment source, adding to the sense of trust that only live content can provide.
  3. Media placements: This tactic allows advertisers to take advantage of live content’s broad reach. Just like the Oscars goes to a commercial break right before they announce the winner for Best Picture, media placements within live streams allow publishers to create exciting and unpredictable viewing experiences.

While Live has proven to be a successful format for brands, it is not a one-size-fits-all experience. Our next blog post will expand on the above brand opportunities, evaluate what makes Live right for a brand, and guide marketers on how to best take advantage of live formats.

Juliette Leavey, Senior Social Strategist, Amy Donnelly and Valentina Bettiol, Social Marketing Supervisors at 360i also contributed to this post.