10 Ways to Create Engaging Shows on Zoom

Video conferencing platforms are now home to engaging new screen-based entertainment competition from industry veterans and new creator talents. Frequently sold-out shows with ticket prices equivalent to up to 10x a monthly OTT subscription are giving audiences more than passive stories to watch, using intuitive and familiar technology. And Zoom is the first of the major platforms to  offer a hub for audiences to discover content using their widely adopted service. 

If you’re interested in developing new interactive show content, this is another new way into audiences’ homes. 

Create Shared Experiences, Not Just Content

Brittany Blum is the Founder and CEO of Chorus Productions - the company behind the Zoom-based nightclub and immersive theatre experience called Eschaton. It’s a world, she explains, that “cannot exist if you’re not there.” Eschaton is one of the most innovative Zoom events out there. It’s far more than putting theatre into a digital space. The interaction between the characters, and audience, make this a layered experience. Their audience is diverse and while the content itself is entertaining, the experience offers more for those “at home looking for connection in a weirdly disconnected world.”

Puzzle master, magician and New York Times crossword constructor David Kwong hosts Geffen Stayhouse’s production Inside the Box, with ticket blocks frequently sold out for weeks. His incredibly fun show is one where guests in essence become game show stars as they play on their own and even in family unit teams. Even the mute button is discouraged because guests are slickly integrated as a part of the entertainment. With both of these critically acclaimed Zoom-based shows, there are options for guests to watch or actively participate.

Meet Audience Members Where They Are Authentically

Eschaton’s Artistic Director Tessa Whitehead highlights the importance of meeting “audience members where they [are] authentically.” This way of thinking helps to guide the team’s decision making from exactly how they chose to pivot due to the pandemic, to the ways that guests interact within Echaton. 

Characters in Eschaton offer guests secret keys to unlock performance rooms. How they are provided was developed based on what made sense for the characters to do in the context of the story, then how that could happen using existing Zoom features. When Zoom created an update, the loose scripting was evolved to fit with the new mechanism of sharing the keys in chat, so every detail still felt authentic to the story. The team also did not feel confined by existing platform features and integrated a second platform that fit with what the story needed for its opening.

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David Kwong in the Geffen Stayhouse production of Inside the Box. Photo credit: Jeff Lorch

Offer Pre-Show Activity

Guests of Inside the Box receive a Puzzle Packet to print and prepare before the show. It also includes a puzzle to solve beforehand, as a way to expand the experience and “engage people as soon as possible.” While some Zoom shows offer physical shipments of cards or even food kits, that can increase costs and risks. If your show does have a printable pairing, be sure to offer an alternative for those households without a printer.

Shows can offer pre-show activities without the need for physical items. The very nature of Eschaton is that it takes place in a digital nightclub, and many guests appear decked out in eclectic outfits, with some even integrating AR-based filters. Afterall, when you attend any Zoom show you are at least encouraged to join others with your camera on to be a part of what the audience is watching.

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Image of Chorus Productions’ Eschaton

Design an Entrance Experience

Instead of an abrupt start to the on-screen show, the entrance experience can act as a segway into the story world that audiences are about to be a part of. As the physical space of great theatres and nightclubs is an important element of the event, so is the digital space that people enter. This is why Eschaton guests begin in a digital web-based lobby off of the Zoom platform,  where the initial interactivity and host is introduced. Inside The Box begins with guests meeting a House Manager who also sets the stage for the show, including how to contact him or his team for any support.

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David Kwong performs in the Geffen Stayhouse world premiere production Inside the Box. Photo courtesy of Geffen Playhouse

Choose-Your-Own Adventure in Its Truest Form 

“When you give people a chance to figure something out it increases not only engagement but their emotional investment” explains Kwong. In his regularity sold-out puzzle-based show, puzzles offer audiences direct engagement with the narrative, Kwong himself, and each other. Puzzles take audiences on an adventure based on how they choose to interact. Audiences can choose how much effort they put into solving the puzzles in both Inside the Box and Echaton, and this offers them depth to the experience and not just a superficial choice of which narrative arc to follow. Puzzles can also simply offer questions that inspire people to explore, without the pressure of solving them. With the seemingly bottomless number of live performance rooms in Eschaton, parts of the performers’ narrative nudges guests to discover mysteries of what’s behind each door.

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Image of Chorus Productions’ Eschaton

The Platform Is a Part of The Story

“Never Pretend that You're Not on a Zoom call” cautions Kwong. “You’re clearly in people’s living rooms” and it is also clear to audiences that they are seeing and interacting with the Zoom platform. His show embraces all features of the platform, including leveraging the grid in the Gallery View in multiple ways. Video conferencing platforms are not something to distract from as they’re synonymous with connecting with others. Embracing this as a part of the overall story entertainment experience offers value to audiences that passive linear content cannot. In Eschaton, audience members interact with on-screen talent when called upon as well as in the chat window.

This perspective can also serve as an inspiration for other digital platforms housing curated content. Standard elements of their user interface can evolve to extend and enhance their story experiences through user interaction.

Image of the crowd in Alison Wonderland’s Wonderverse performance on Wave

Layer into Larger Events

Zoom shows can also offer exclusive experiences that tie into larger events. In Alison Wonderland’s recent Wonderverse performance, the audience was able to be a part of the live interactive show by logging into the Wave platform on their computers. The concert took place inside a digital universe designed using a game-engine, and Alison Wonderland stepped inside it to perform as an avatar, while wearing a mocap suit. On top of this, fans were given the opportunity to join a concert viewing and virtual dance party on Zoom. There, they could wear themed AR filters, and get selected to be streamed into the digital concert venue to dance alongside Alison Wonderland, gnomes and the magical environment. 

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Sri Rao in the Geffen Stayhouse production of Bollywood Kitchen — Photography by Hartman Benzon Media

Offer An After-Show Experience

An after-show experience can offer additional value and interaction to audiences. Where traditional linear after-shows are often talking heads, the social nature of the Zoom platform can make the aftershow evolve into an afterparty with others in your home in person and on-screen. With the Bollywood Kitchen show, digital guests can choose from pricing tiers tied to their participation, which include the ability to be a part of a Bollywood After-Party with a live DJ after select performances. After-show content offers additional opportunity for fitting branded content integration as well.

Potential To Extend Existing Entertainment Brands… And More

Shows have the opportunity to extend into one-off or recurring events to drive revenue and fan engagement on Zoom. Cameo has started to offer fans the chance to pay a premium to have short personal conversations with celebrities ranging from Bethenny Frankel to Kevin O’Leary, and there is no doubt that audiences would be eager to also pay to join film or show cast calls, and even more happy to get gifted access through a brand promotion. Even Cuisinart has been getting into Zoom content creation, offering select customers access to a Zoom Cooking Class paired with a physical Dinner in a Box Kit with a minimum product purchase.

Select Talent based on your Desired Experience

Zoom shows aren’t confined to set formats, and likewise there are no consistent qualifications for the right talent to work on video conference platform-based shows. Eschaton’s unique blend of a nightclub with some puzzle-based narrative is a success because it’s a collage of what the team is passionate about - with Whitehead’s background in game and experience design, through to Blum’s in nightclub entertainment, plus diverse on-screen performers that have involvement in their characters and the freedom to improvise. Inside the Box’s behind the scenes team features Creative Director Brett J. Banakis who designed sets for the Metropolitan Opera to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, as well as Kwong’s puzzle design collaborator Dave Schucan.

Laura Mingail
Laura Mingail is an award-winning marketer, strategist and thought-leader in the entertainment space. She founded Archetypes & Effects to provide organizations in storytelling industries with impactful strategy, marketing and business development support. She is also a contributing author and media commentator focused on innovative forms of storytelling and technologies.
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