This article first appeared on Mashable
When the late designer Alexander McQueen live streamed his spring/summer 2010 show in late 2009, his aim was to transform fashion week, an invite-only industry event, into “global entertainment.” He said at the time, “I wanted to create a sense of inclusion for all those in the world who are interested in my work and the world of fashion. This is just the first step towards revolutionizing the ‘show system’ as we know it.”
That show garnered 3.5 million views on YouTube, and though McQueen never did another live-streamed show — the Spring/Summer 2010 collection was his last — the concept rapidly spread. Four years later, live streaming is the norm across fashion weeks around the world. But the experience hasn’t perhaps come to fulfill McQueen’s original vision. In most cases, live streams are mundane, and watched by very few people.
IMG, which runs New York’s Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, is kicking off a new season this Thursday, and has lined up live streams for 59 — approximately two-thirds — of its shows. The degree of designer participation may seem surprising, given the levels of consumer engagement last season. According to Jarrad Clark, global creative director at IMG Fashion, the 60 shows live streamed at New York Fashion Week in February amassed 840,000 plays in total, an average of just 14,000 views per show.
Likewise in London, the British Fashion Council’s most-viewed show last September sat somewhere in the region of 6,000 views, according to an industry source. Even Marc Jacobs only attracted 20,000 viewers to its live stream, the company said. Burberry is one of a few brands with a substantial viewership, amassing 240,000 on-demand views for its most recent show on YouTube.
Rosanna Falconer, head of digital for designer Matthew Williamson, formerly BFC, says: “When [live streaming] first worked, it felt like magic, it felt more digitally innovative than anything we’ve seen in recent years. But that novelty has worn off a bit, everyone is now doing it.” NYFW alone has over 250 shows and presentations in eight days, a significant proportion of which are live streamed. That’s a lot of content to expect the public to tune into. So is it even worth it?
Understanding the ROI of live streams is a bit of a grey area. Many designers record videos of their shows regardless of whether they’re streaming it, so the greater part of the financial investment live streaming requires is already there. Likewise, many showing with IMG in Lincoln Center or Made Fashion Week at Milk Studios get the live stream as a part of their show package. Even if the content delivery isn’t vastly creative — two or three cameras are standard — it’s an easy add-on to accept.
A bespoke live stream inevitably increases the price. I was quoted in the region of $20,000 to $50,000 for the full video package, depending on the production requirements. To make a live stream more interesting, designers often invest in other extras — a more elaborate set, for example, or a musical performance — which can up the price even further. Streaming itself costs only around $12,000, and that’s for those hosting off-site from the main venues and in need of a satellite hook-up, a source says.
If you line up those costs against total viewership (i.e., cost per view), live streaming shows doesn’t make for a great return on investment. Yet a number of people in the industry stand by the fact it’s valuable even if not quantifiably (by reach). “We looked at it [when we first launched it three years ago] as the next step in cultivating fans, giving them an inside look into something that was otherwise very private or hard to get into.” Daniel Plenge, director of digital at Marc Jacobs, says. “We never looked at it as needing to show a return on the investment. It’s more about a branding and brand DNA extension for us.”
Quynh Mai, founder of agency Moving Image & Content, who helped produce Nicola Formichetti’s live-streamed shows while at Mugler, agrees it’s all about the super fan. “They’re the ones who share it with their friends and become brand ambassadors in their own social circles.” In other words, even if the quantity of viewers is low, the quality in terms of brand advocacy has potential to be high.
Tabitha Goldstaub, co-founder and director of fashion at Rightster, the video network powering live streams for the likes of IMG and the BFC, says the figures for minutes watched, rather than number of viewers, can back this up. NYFW viewers watch between 12 and 24 minutes on average, she says, demonstrating significant engagement in a world where the average online video is just 5.2 minutes long, according to comScore.
Though relatively small in reach, the size of live-stream audiences do provide some valuable data to brands. Most are able to view the demographics of their audiences, including age, gender, income bracket and geography. Marc Jacobs is also using its live stream to capture e-mail addresses, inviting fans to RSVP for the live stream in advance and for a chance to win tickets to attend the show in person, Plenge says.
Belstaff analyzes the social sentiment of its live stream to determine which pieces in the collection are most favorable with viewers. Such data informed the buying team for the current season, The New York Times reported in February, and is even helping the brand merchandise its regional e-commerce sites accordingly. Interestingly, Belstaff has chosen not to live stream its show this season, implying the initiative wasn’t perhaps as successful as made out previously. The company was unable to comment further for this piece.
Topshop, under the direction of Chief Marketing Officer Justin Cooke, has likewise used its live experience to gather data from its consumers over the past two seasons, capturing not only which items, but which colors they most engage with. The high street retailer said 4 million viewers tuned in to its February 2013 show, which was live streamed and then available immediately on-demand. A “Shoot the Show” tool, which let viewers capture and share screenshots from the video, upped engagement, triggering 200,000 shares across social media.
The future points to more of this. Rightster is set to introduce an in-player feature next season that will help brands measure social sentiment on different looks. As with Topshop, viewers will be able to grab specific tops and bottoms from the streamed show and share them over social, Goldstaub explains.
The Engagement Challenge
Developing social strategies around live-streaming experiences is the strongest way to ensure their success, says Dan Clifford, a former VP of marketing at Victoria’s Secret. “We need to be as careful with the content as we are with the product. That’s what reaching the individual that doesn’t have the luxury of being there is about,” he said. “Too many brands isolate the runway as a moment in time and don’t consider the pre and post opportunities that they could be harnessing and leveraging across the whole season.”
There’s reportedly a significant drop off in terms of viewers when shows don’t start on time — a standard occurrence in the fashion industry — making the pre-show roll particularly important to help establish and maintain engagement with fans.
Plenge agrees: “We’re trying to be creative to incentivize people to come and watch and pay attention for more than 10 minutes, which nowadays is really hard.” The Marc Jacobs show has had blogger Leandra Medine of Man Repeller and then model Jessica Stam play host on its pre-show broadcasts for the past two seasons. It also has a social stream built into its player where viewers can see tweets and Instagram pictures, as well as an accessories-cam that shows close-ups of the shoes and bags as they come down the runway.
Plenge says there will be an “improved version” this season with cameras placed in such a way to “really benefit the viewing experience for fans,” but he hastens to add it’s not about bells and whistles. “If we do that we lose the integrity of the show and the collection. We don’t want to be known for our digital initiatives but for Marc’s vision and his clothes.”
Jarrad Clark, global creative director of IMG, says content strategy results in deeper engagement. The organization introduced pre-produced segments, as well as interviews with designers post-show, to Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia this year. “It increased radically the amount of time spent with the shows,” he says. In Australia, shows averaged between 23 and 50 minutes of engagement among viewers last season, nearly double the amount of time averaged in New York.
Fashion Week live streaming might not live up to McQueen’s vision across the board, but the future of live streaming, if approached strategically, is set to only get more interesting, says Clark. “As more technological advancements come our way, and the industry continues to experiment, we’re going to see live streaming very differently. [Designers] will begin taking more risks with it all, so it’s not as cookie-cutter as it is now.”
A key area for evolution is making the experience shoppable, something pioneered by Burberry and replicated by numerous other brands since including Topshop and Ralph Lauren. From a data perspective this is especially important opportunity, but it points to the fundamental problem of fashion weeks generally. How can consumers engage wholeheartedly with product they can’t buy for six months? And even if they can buy it, as is the case with some of Burberry’s collection, why would they want to buy something off-season, i.e. a coat at the beginning of spring?
“The problem with live streaming is it’s put a focus on how bizarre the timeline of fashion is,” says Lou Stoppard, fashion editor of SHOWstudio. “Being able to buy and get the pieces immediately is an exciting next step, but it opens up so much around the seasonality and pace of fashion. We’re going to see that completely upturn very shortly. Younger designers particularly are showing they’re very disgruntled by the fact they’re making stuff that people want and can’t yet get.”
Ultimately, fashion weeks still need to be about business before entertainment.