How to Build a Livestream Community (from Scratch)
My husband and I first started streaming at twitch.tv/a_couple_streams in January of 2016 for fun with exactly zero followers or friends on Twitch and no idea what we were doing. A little over one year later, we have over 35,000 followers and by some stroke of incredibly good fortune, we get to do this full-time.
There’s still a lot to learn, but one thing we know for sure is that the backbone of every successful stream is its community. Nothing in here is new, and some of it isn’t especially unique to streaming — dealing with negative comments and competition are some common pain points regardless of your platform. Still, I hope it can help get you off to a strong start, whether you stream music, art, games, or puppies painting elaborate watercolor murals. Some points apply mostly to the platform we use, Twitch, but most of them work for other livestreaming platforms as well.
To begin, I’ll steal a little something from Austin Kleon’s inspirational guide to creativity, Steal Like an Artist. Travis has written a fair amount about the technical side of setting up your stream, but these are the tools you’ll need to get started building your community.
Support other streamers.
This should be step one in building your stream. Streaming is a social platform, so try not to be too insular in your approach. Keep up with other streamers, spend time in their channels, ask questions, and participate in their stream communities. This should go without saying, but don’t do this purely for self-promotion or the live chat equivalent of blog comments where people say, “NOICE! Check out my site plz!”
One of the best ways to show your support is to host another broadcaster you like at the end of your stream, sending your viewers to their channel. On Twitch, you can also curate an “auto host” list of your favorite channels, so that you can host them whenever you’re not streaming. We also use a shout-out command in our chat which allows us to easily link to a fellow broadcaster’s stream while we’re streaming if we mention them or they happen to stop by.
Keep it positive.
The world is a small town, and the livestreaming platform you choose is an even smaller town, so be nice. Taking the high road is always the right choice.
Be a human, and embrace what makes you unique.
Sure, there’s nothing new under the sun, including that quote. That’s okay, though. Determine what your strengths are and play to those. You don’t have to do or be good at everything to have a successful stream, and (excellent news for me) you don’t even have to be extroverted. There’s a place for every kind of personality and skill set, and you will be most successful if you aren’t pretending to be a certain way for hours on end. Authenticity is important, and luckily enough, you’re probably best at being yourself already.
You’re a real person, and your viewers are real people, even if you can’t see the faces behind the unusual usernames. Livestreams are not like traditional formal entertainment. They’re pretty much the opposite of a succinct, perfectly edited YouTube video — they’re often long and unscripted, with mistakes and awkward pauses galore.
Create emotes that reflect your stream’s unique culture. (Anyone can create emotes for their channel using BetterTTV.) Don’t ever feel chained to a particular way of doing things on your stream — or even a particular game or type of content.
Interact with chatters, and don’t call out lurkers.
When you’re first starting out, it can be tempting to peek at the viewer list and say hello to folks, even if — probably especially if they’re not saying anything in chat, and you’re running out of things to say out loud to yourself. Don’t do this. A public chat message is an invitation to chat, and it’s safe to assume that anyone who isn’t chatting doesn’t want to be called out.
But do talk to chatters as much as you can, and as long as you feel comfortable responding. The live chat is the main difference between a stream and a pre-recorded video, so be sure to make your audience feel as involved as possible. Keep dead air to a minimum.
Keep a regular schedule. Stream at least once per week, but preferably more.
Livestreaming isn’t like YouTube. The fun is in the live experience, so do your audience a favor and let them know exactly when you’ll be streaming each week. Then stick to it as best you can, and keep everyone posted on the social media platform(s) of your choice if you have to make any changes. At first it won’t seem like it matters much, but it won’t be long before you’ll see people who are ready for your stream to start before you even go online.
This is a medium where you have to be live to grow your following, so don’t expect your channel to grow very quickly if you don’t stream frequently or for long hours. But it’s also easy to get burned out if you do anything too much. It didn’t take us long to figure out that playing live music for 3-4 hours at a time was about our max, and that it was hard to do it with full enthusiasm every single day of the week.
The right schedule will be different for everyone, and it will certainly depend on what you stream. It’ll take a little while to figure out a good rhythm, but don’t underestimate the power of having some kind of rhythm so that you can integrate yourself into your viewers’ weekly schedules.
Theodore Roosevelt famously said that comparison is the thief of joy. It’s also impossible to do accurately, so don’t waste too much time worrying about it. Stats and charts and comparison graphs and concurrent viewer numbers can be fun, but they can also weigh you down if you think about them too much.
You never want a fluctuating viewer number count to control how you feel. Viewer counts also do not accurately measure the “success” of a stream — how much you enjoy it, how much your viewers enjoy it, or even how many tips you make. If you stream long-term, numbers will go up and down and down and back up and then down again, ad infinitum.
Try to positively reframe any urge you feel to compare as motivation or inspiration, and take the opportunity to zero in on what it is you really want. Sometimes you may be surprised at what is really fueling your competitive or negative feelings. If you want to go above and beyond, do something nice for whoever is triggering you. The action of encouraging another person is often the best antidote for envy or the feeling that you are lacking something. (Becoming Minimalist has a great guide on this subject as well.)
Set boundaries, and get some good mods.
Take some time to think about what rules you’d like in your community, and then don’t be afraid to enforce them. You are in charge of your stream and how people treat you.
When they’re first getting started, a lot of streamers will err on the side of putting up with troublemakers solely because they’re afraid to lose viewers. Don’t ever feel like you have to do this. Toxicity will wear on you over time and may even keep nicer folks away from your stream. Decide what kind of environment you want and work to maintain that.
Most so-called trolls are eager for a live reaction from you — any kind of reaction at all. Obviously it’s up to you how you want to handle it, but if you don’t want to continue a conversation for any reason at all, simply don’t engage with the person. It’s not rude. It’s setting boundaries, and in any kind of setting where you’re putting yourself out there — but particularly in the anonymous abyss of the internet — you must learn to do this for your own sanity. This is a lot harder to do in a smaller stream with less chat activity, but with a few reliable mods on your side, it is possible.
Consider getting a Discord.
Or some other kind of thing like Discord, where your community can congregate while you’re not streaming and chat, group up for games or other sorts of collaborations, and so forth. We were pretty slow to get on board the Discord train, because we were already feeling kind of overwhelmed with all the social media platforms we were “supposed” to use. (They never end.) But there is something nice about having a sort of home base where folks can interact while you’re offline.
Don’t be afraid to get personal.
While I wouldn’t advocate oversharing about yourself, don’t hesitate to get to know your viewers as personally as you (and they) feel comfortable. There is no better feeling than that of being remembered and being listened to, so make a point to connect with the people who watch your stream and have real conversations with them as you would with good friends. Ask questions. Involve viewers in stream-related decisions. Host game nights or movie nights (or something else of the sort that feels right).
Have fun, and keep a good sense of humor.
I know this seems like a super cheesy throwaway point to make, but it’s so obvious and important that it often gets overlooked. (It’s an aspect of marriage that often gets overlooked as well.) It’s easy to get tunnel vision whenever you spend a lot of time on something, and then it’s easy to get bogged down in minor disappointments or tiny problems that grow larger and more menacing the longer you focus on them.
Perfectionism can ruin most good things, and streaming is no different. The more you focus on elusive perfection, the more frustrated you will become, so I recommend focusing on one thing and one thing only: making it a good experience for yourself first.
If you’re having fun, your viewers will have fun. And you’ll be enjoying yourself regardless of your viewer numbers or if some random viewer decides to tell you that your hair cut triggers them and they demand that you explain your styling choices immediately. (If you keep doing this, there will be a lot of these kinds of stories, some easier to laugh about than others. Best to at least try.)
Fellow streamers, what are some of the most important things you’ve learned about community-building?
Feel free to share your stories and tips in the comments section. We’d love to hear them!
To find out more about the equipment you’ll need to start your own music stream, check out our Gear Guide for Music Streaming.
Read about how to get your microphones and software set up and ready for streaming in our guide to Streaming with a DAW.
Learn about the best online platforms for performing music in the Top 5 Platforms for Streaming Live Music.