YouTube’s Crisis, Facebook’s Dilemma: Is Live Video Safe for Brands?

There are better (safer) ways to capitalize on content

A person uses a laptop computer showing Youtube’s logo. Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

Google CEO Sundar Pichai confirmed this week that YouTube, the company owned by the Internet giant, is in serious hot water with advertisers. He admitted his team had called “thousands and thousands” of brands to try to convince them not to pull their ads from the video platform. Major clients like McDonald’s and Audi moved to suspend their YouTube campaigns after it was revealed their ads were being placed against offensive content.

This came hot on the heels of a mass murderer in Cleveland, who used Facebook’s video platform to broadcast the execution of an elderly man—and then streamed his confession and flight from police on Facebook Live.

Yet Twitter announced this week that they will soon broadcast live video on a 24/7 basis. So what gives?

To the extent that every brand needs a live video strategy, should the approach be “Avoid at all costs”? Or should it be “Get with the times and embrace live, but do what you can to mitigate risk”?

First, it’s important to note that not all “live video” is the same. Twitter TV will be very controlled programming covering news, sports and entertainment. They’d be happy to become “ambient video”—digital content people keep in the background like they sometimes do with TV. But this is more akin to traditional TV broadcasting. It’s not “What will happen next?” live streams from users à la their Periscope platform.

Facebook’s approach to live means user-generated content that’s virtually impossible to control. Which advertiser wants to have their brand’s display units next to streaming video of a gang assaulting someone for hours on end (to cite another recent Facebook Live horror)?

Some marketers love to do live content for the sake of it, rather than going live because it can make advertising more engaging. This was painfully evident during the most recent Super Bowl, when both Snickers and Hyundai fielded live commercials that were boring, had nothing to do with their respective brands, and were not made any more compelling or effective by the live element. As is typical, Madison Avenue types were focusing on the shiny new thing.

But there are better ways brands can capitalize on live content—and they’re safer, too.

It might not be as exciting as live streaming video, but live sports are a tried and true venue for effective advertising. People are drawn to things that remind them of a simpler, better time—and sporting events can deliver on multiple angles for that impact. Live sports viewing is a time-honored, shared experience for consumers. It’s a way to engage in those legacy rituals, like indulging in beer and pizza with friends and family, or marking the start of spring with a season opener, hot dogs and more beer.

The mix of familiarity and anticipation delivered by live sports is also a winner. Consumers know sports deliver relaxation and escape from day-to-day life, and there’s still an unknown outcome to look forward to. That same general predictability—the seasons, the tournaments, the drafts, etc.—means advertisers can go into a sporting event with confidence about what certain games are going to deliver. Media buyers can take comfort in knowing they’re probably not going to be advertising during a live murder scene.

Another less risky bet for brands are live competition shows like The Voice. These formats combine an unknown result with the opportunity for viewers to have an impact on the result with their voting. Beyond linear ads, these shows offer scope for product placement—sorry, brand integration. These can be very effective if the placement aligns with who you are as a brand.

There is probably no better example of this than the emotional moment Gatorade has managed to create with the tradition of its product being dumped on the head of the game-winning football team. Gatorade is seen as a drink for elite athletes and an element of victory and celebration. Similarly, American Idol offered viewers the weekly expectation of seeing familiar red Coca-Cola cups next to every judge’s seat. It was a wholesome, cool show for a wholesome, cool brand.

No matter how live content evolves, consumers still want and need the same things: to know a brand exists, whether it’s for “people like me,” and if they should buy it. Persuading them of this is an exceptionally tall order when marketers are trying to do it via consumer-generated content—especially if the content is live and sketchy.

So while Facebook Live might be the flavor of the month, brands ultimately need a platform that’s ready for prime-time—not a 24/7 free-for-all feed that carries more risks than potential benefits. If Twitter can avoid that, their non-stop live video offering might just be worth a look.

Jeri Smith is the CEO of advertising research firm Communicus. Her clients include Fortune 100 companies and the top advertisers in the United States. She has contributed to Fox Business News, Wall Street Journal Live, Forbes, Ad Age, The Drum, and more.