Watching together: Behind the scenes at game changing fan engagement company Sceenic
BT Sport partner Sceenic, the software provider behind the broadcaster’s app functionality for Match Day Experience and Watch Together, was recently named a Game Changer in the Co-Watch trend in the latest Sports Innovation Lab Power Play Index.
We caught up with Jonathan Williams, one of the founders of the company and its chief operating officer, to find out what has bought this game-changing company to the fore of fan engagement.
Music business background
Sceenic was founded in 2010 by a team that included Williams, who came into the business from the music industry, and the company’s current CEO Paul Bojarski, who previously worked for MTV in London and Latin America.
Originally, Sceenic was created as a content hub; interviews were carried out with well known and emerging music artists over Skype by the team’s squads of reporters and then live streamed to audiences in Latin America and put on a central website – something that no one else was doing at the time in the region. Viewers were also able to interact with the artists via Twitter, where they could post their questions.
However, Bojarski suggested that the team needed to bring the technology under their own control, so in 2013 Sceenic began developing its own platform, including the ability for viewers to interact directly with each other.
Explains Williams: “[We decided to] build our own platform where the interaction is between the artists and the people but also to get the people to invite their friends, because they would like to watch the shows together. [Paul] knew that nothing drives more engagement than having your friends watching your favourite shows [with you]; that will keep people longer on the screen.”
“We showed as Sceenic that the future of fan engagement was going to be people being able to share together, despite not being in the same place, which is happening now for everyone”
The idea of enabling people to watch a programme together came about through Bojarski’s experience of watching volleyball with his father. “His father was based in London and [Bojarski] was living in Argentina, and they’re big fans of volleyball,” says Williams. “They were just using Skype and drinking beers and all that kind of stuff. So it made a lot of sense for us to do it, but of course we needed investment [to make it work], so we started looking.”
Sceenic found investment early in 2014. Notes Williams: “In a very – we’ll say crazy – way, we built a huge platform in 2014. It was pretty cool. The brand was a little bit known in Latin America which was great; we had around 20,000 subscribers. We first launched the platform on the web in the last quarter of 2014, then an app in 2015. We had live streaming in the platform using our own technology, with interaction between the artists and the audiences through our own video chat. And we had Watch Together as well.
Pivot from B2C to B2B
“But then we encountered a big problem and that’s what changed everything, and the whole history of the company,” Williams continues. “We had the tech platform and we were also producing content, but producing content is extremely expensive. We had teams around Latin America filming interviews, going to fashion shows and doing all that kind of stuff in order to bring content. We also managed to close a deal with Sony pictures in order to have more content for people to watch, because we had Watch Together, but if we don’t have content it doesn’t work. We realised we weren’t going to be able to make any money, because this platform was free for people.”
Adding to the fact that the company had little incoming revenue, competing live streaming platforms were launching or preparing to launch. “Facebook at that time hadn’t started yet doing live streaming, but we knew that they were moving towards that so we said we need to get away from this area,” reminisces Williams. “In 2016, we had to pivot from a B2C company to a B2B company. We had to say, ‘look, we can’t produce any more content because it’s too expensive’ and we were also trying to maintain the platform because we had to record everything, the cloud cost was huge. So we needed to drop the content and just sell the technology we had.”
The fourth co-founder of the company, who was chief content officer at the time, left the business as his job had essentially been cut and the company moved forwards.
The remaining team had to decide which parts of the platform could successfully be sold. They approached record labels and media groups to try to sell or license the entire platform, but to no avail. “We said to them, ‘use it, this is the future!’, but they said no,” says Williams. “It was extremely hard to convince them to use the entire platform and to live stream. They didn’t get it. And still, they’re just starting to get to get it now, which is, you know, many years later. So we were very, very early to the market.”
Banking on Watch Together
“Eventually we decided that one of the components [of the platform] that drove the most engagement was Watch Together; we decided that that component was the one that we were going to build as an SDK and an artificial intelligence (AI), and try to convince the content owners, the broadcasters, the cable operators and the telcos to use that SDK and put it into their apps and platforms.”
Finally, Virgin Media heard what Sceenic was saying. It integrated Watch Together into its Tivo set-top boxes in Latin America in 2016. However, adds Williams, “it was a very successful integration but then they started changing the set-top boxes for a new [design] and everything got lost in that transition from the old set-top boxes, to the new one. It takes years for them to replace all set-top boxes out there. But in 2018 we entered the BT Infinity Lab competition and we won. We won the prize of a trial with them.”
Since winning the 2018 BT Infinity Lab competition, Sceenic has worked with BT Sport to support last year’s launch of Watch Together on the BT Sport App. In the same vein, BT Sport recently launched Innovate 21, a competition seeking ideas for exciting new sports broadcast experiences from entrepreneurs, creatives and start ups.
Adds Williams: “It’s been great working with BT Sport. The technology has so far been very successful. Both parties are very happy with the results of what we have seen, and, in a certain way, it’s just the beginning of the relationship.”
Future of fan engagement
After winning the BT Sport Innovation Lab competition, Sceenic has won more clients, “because they see BT Sport as one of the most innovative companies in terms of trying new technologies and getting stuff out to the market”. says Williams. “It’s very exciting times for us.
“We showed as Sceenic that the future of fan engagement was going to be people being able to share together, despite not being in the same place, which is happening now for everyone. It became global because of the pandemic, but it’s also a behaviour that has been growing and is staying now as part of the market. That’s why we decided to change from our platform to become a software company, to be able to enable all platforms to bring that option to people as a first step, to have them more engaged with the content and also how you keep the consumers engaged [with that content].”
The pandemic has helped times evolve much more quickly, continues Williams: “The trend [for watching TV with friends] was there back in 2018 – it was a growing trend – but I believe that at that time, big companies such as broadcasters and cable operators were afraid of implementing such technology on their platforms because they saw the human interaction and the social interactions were within social networks only. We knew that the need was there [for Watch Together], but no one was actually putting in the effort and trying to risk it in order to bring it out to the market.
“What COVID did was to accelerate that [impetus] because the score became, ‘okay, we have all the content right now, but it’s not just about the content, it’s about what can I offer to my audience’. Every day now you get another 10 new OTT platforms released; everyone has content. What COVID did is [show people what] the need is, [and that they] need to do something about it. People had started finding ways to communicate and to share content. Now, [because of COVID], it makes total sense for the content platforms to bring the social interaction that was outside the platforms to their platforms in order to keep the people there.”
It is up to Sceenic’s clients to use their imagination and layer and develop uses for Watch Together that suit them and their industry. Williams comments: “On top of [Watch Together] you can do so much more. So for example, NPO, the Netherlands public broadcaster, for the Tour de France last year, what they did with NPO Samen, their Watch Together on the NPO Start platform, is they brought a former cyclist, Michael Boogerd, in to join people’s rooms; he would knock on a room, so [people watching Tour de France together on the platform] would get a message like, ‘hi, Michael wants to join your room’. For people who accepted him he would join to answer questions, watch the Tour with them and take a selfie.”
The company is now spreading its wings out into augmented reality (AR), having partnered with Indian company Tech Mahindra in 2020 to develop Watch Together into a new actuality. The idea came about, says Williams, when he wondered how, with his mother living in Spain and he and his family living in Australia, “we know we’re not able to go on a walk together on daily basis because she’s not close to me, but how are we going to do it?”
“And then we started thinking about augmented reality; not virtual reality,” Williams continues. “I don’t believe in VR as something that will bring people together because I feel VR alienates you from the people next to you. But I do believe in augmented reality. Augmented reality for us for us is the next step and we’ve already started working towards that.”
Sceenic is also looking at the fitness industry and has begun working with a large global chain of gyms to help them go beyond live streaming classes using Zoom and the like, to bring classes into their own apps and platforms while allowing their members to train virtually alongside friends and family with Watch Together. “So again, it’s togetherness,” says Williams.
He concludes: “Every time someone says Watch Together now, we all know what that means. Two years ago we were explaining that Watch Together means watching content with friends online. Now we don’t have to do that; we’re at the stage of everyone understanding that.”