Lies, damn lies and YouTube analytics – Part 1

Or the boring but effective title: What YouTube analytics are telling us about virtual council meetings

TL;DR

  • Online quizzes with your family are no longer fun, more like a war zone
  • Statutory council meetings are taking place online and available in real time to citizens
  • YouTube analytics are revealing things about viewer engagement that suggest we need to rethink the regulations and experiment with how council meetings are led and managed
  • Meetings are viewed asynchronously, rather than in real time
  • Viewers are watching short sections, rather than an entire meeting
  • Engagement across different types of meeting vary significantly
  • Don’t be a rookie analyst – large viewing numbers don’t equate to a successful meeting, its effectiveness or value. 

Back in April – when doing a virtual quiz with our relatives still felt like a novelty not a chore – Parliament passed regulations making provision for statutory council meetings to take place remotely. Councillors – for the first time – could meet online and continue the virtual role of governance and scrutiny. To ensure access and accountability to local citizens, the regulations also stipulated that meetings should be available online and in real time. 

For many, the prospect of delivering council meetings virtually sparked ambition for increased participation. At Hackney, we’ve been live streaming our statutory meetings via YouTube. Early indications show that more people are watching the live stream than would have attended a meeting in the town hall prior to COVID-19. Whether this trend will continue is something we need to assess over the coming weeks. 

In June and July we’re collecting baseline data for all our statutory meetings at Hackney. We are using a combination of qualitative feedback and YouTube analytics. The analytics are revealing things about viewer engagement and behaviour that suggest assumptions in regulations are not reflected in online behaviour, and that the structure and delivery of meetings may need to change to increase participation levels.  

Here’s the health warning. The analytics tell us very little about the inherent value of a meeting or how effectively it was managed. These things need to be measured in other ways. To be clear, a low number of views doesn’t mean a meeting has little value or is ineffective, and popularity should not be taken as a proxy for quality. 

What do we know so far… 

Engagement varies hugely between different types of meeting

This makes it difficult to draw conclusions that are relevant for all meeting types, but over time we expect to see trends emerge for specific committees and commissions. In June scrutiny commissions attracted a higher number of views, both concurrent (in real time) and asynchronous (watching afterwards), as did our planning sub committee. 

People are viewing in their own time, rather than real time

Concurrent views measure the number of people watching in real time. This is small in comparison to the number of people who are watching asynchronously across all meetings. The regulations assume that people would want to watch the meeting as it was taking place, but the analytics we have don’t bear this out. 

People watch short sections, rather than the whole thing

People aren’t watching the entirety of a meeting. This chimes with online behaviour. We tend to skim and skip through online content. We have grown used to bite-sized pieces of information or entertainment. In 2020 it’s an anathema to give your undivided attention to something for three hours. 

Long meetings, agendas, copious reports

Long meetings traditionally have been a bit of a badge of honour – a reflection of their seriousness and gravitas. Lovingly prepared, lengthy reports by Council officers are also held in similar esteem. I’m not seeking to decry or undermine the Herculean efforts of councillors or officers (I’ve written and presented those reports myself). My point is that neither translate well into an online environment. The implications of the previous sentence are huge, more than a blog post can convey or one Council can solve trying to tackle it alone.

Conclusions, thus far

The new regulations are a game changer in some ways and in others not. No-one anticipates a wholesale rollback to face-to-face meetings – virtual is here to stay. The big question is how can it’s value be sustained and meaningful. 

Lifting and shifting a face-to-face process online isn’t the answer. The emergency regulations replicate a process that is over 40 years old – something that wasn’t designed for internet-era culture, unresponsive to short feedback loops, out of step with people’s expectation of service provision and a 24 hour news cycle.

How might we: 

  • Improve the experience for viewers watching asynchronously (watching after the live stream has taken place)?
  • Improve the experience for viewers who skim content and watch short sections?
  • Experiment with structure and delivery of meetings?

We’re continuing to measure our meeting analytics in July and I’ll blog again about the results. 

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