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During any other inauguration, Washington, D.C., would be abuzz with parties right about now, with officials mingling behind closed doors with big-check fundraisers and other high-profile supporters. While many of those events have been canceled this year, the Delaware and Pennsylvania Democrats decided to instead team up for a virtual event.
Their "Biden Home States Inauguration Celebration" is being powered by Hovercast, a startup that has become a bit of a magic bullet for Democrats during the 2020 campaign. By combining livestreams hosted by the stars of "Hamilton" and "Parks and Recreation" with audience participation, Hovercast helped Democrats raise millions of dollars for crucial swing state races. With Wednesday's event, the company is looking to pivot to its next act: helping Dems govern.
Hovercast was founded with the goal of making livestreams more interactive, CEO Eli Stonberg told Protocol. "Often our clients come to us asking for help, making something that goes beyond a Zoom. They don't want it just to feel like a conference call."
To break through the Zoom fatigue, Hovercast allows live event producers to incorporate a number of interactive elements, including polls, trivia and calls to action. The platform also lets livestreamers pipe in select comments from Facebook, YouTube, Twitch and Twitter, lifting up positive voices and doing away with abusive online trolling. "We're really more focused on curation than moderation, but the moderation is part of it," Hovercast CTO Jeff Greco said.
Greco and Stonberg first began working together on an event for ad agency Wieden+Kennedy, which was looking to produce a Twitch-like live event for its client Old Spice. When they co-founded Hovercast in 2018, Greco's past experience working for progressive tech consulting firm Blue State Digital as well as the Obama Foundation helped open doors to Democratic campaigns. "We kind of bounced from Tom Steyer to Andrew Yang to Bernie Sanders," Stonberg said.
The company also worked with Democrats from Wisconsin, Georgia, Ohio and Minnesota to raise money for their swing state races. "We were really able to help elevate and spread the message of these campaigns on a national level," Greco said. These livestreams often featured celebrities like Lin-Manuel Miranda, Will Ferrell and Aubrey Plaza, who joined them from the safety of their own homes. "The barrier for entry was so much lower for them that they were all so enthusiastic to participate," he said.
Wednesday's virtual event is scheduled to include participation from Sens. Bob Casey and Chris Coons as well as state party dignitaries and musical guests. Biden himself will join via a pre-recorded video. Just as important will be the audience itself, Greco said. "A lot of audience members are really motivated to help you put on a good show," he said. "Our platform really lets them sort of jump into the control room with us and be a part of it."
That includes people who usually wouldn't be able to participate in these kinds of festivities. "[These] events were typically restricted just to high donors in Washington, D.C.-proper on the weekend of the inauguration," Greco said. "We are excited to let voters of all stripes participate from home."
This kind of more inclusive approach could also help Hovercast pivot to a role beyond fundraising by allowing representatives to talk to their constituents. "We've definitely seen how successful interactive livestreaming can be for campaigning and fundraising," Greco said. "I can't help wondering what interactive livestreaming could do to help governing."
Of course, there's also always the next election cycle, which is just a year away. Hovercast wants to continue to work for nonprofits, and allow them to hold virtual and hybrid online events even after the pandemic subsides.
But this week, everyone is focused on the inauguration. "I so badly wish that I would be able to be in Washington, stand in the National Mall and see this inauguration," Greco said. "But given the fact that the National Mall is closed and there is a pandemic going on, I'm excited about doing the next best thing."
Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.