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10 Essential Elements to Creating a Great Video Streaming App
From ad insertion to analytics, successful video app developers focus on more than just the content. Here's a roadmap to creating a successful app.
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When Tim Cook introduced the new Apple TV in September by saying that “the future of TV is apps,” he was in Apple’s typical catch-up mode. TDG Research’s Joel Espelien said the future of TV is an app way back in 2013, and savvy video publishers have been pushing their content out via apps for years.

Still, Cook’s pronouncement adds weight to the notion that, if you’re a content owner who doesn’t yet have an app that works across multiple devices, it’s about time to fix that. We talked to experts across the gamut of the online video workflow to get their insights into what video publishers need to keep in mind as they create apps. And if you’ve already got an app, you might want to re-evaluate it in light of the suggestions that follow.

1. Define Your Product

“Create a crystal-clear consumer proposition for what it is that you are trying to achieve and stay laser-focused on that,” says Andrew Locke, vice president of product strategy at NBC News. ”Really think clearly about what that app on that platform is going to be used for.”

NBC News viewers want to be able to come in at 9:17 a.m. or 8:42 p.m. or 3 a.m. and not worry about what the broadcast schedule is or in what order they want to watch. So simply recreating the linear broadcast in an app wouldn’t serve viewers’ needs.

“Avoid relying too heavily on lessons that you have learned from the web, especially when it comes to something like an OTT platform such as Roku or an Apple TV,” Locke says. “A lot of the lessons are poorly applied if you switch platforms.”

Almost everyone we spoke to emphasized the importance of planning every aspect of app development carefully. While you can always modify something if something doesn’t work, building an app without planning out the necessary components can add significantly to costs.

“We’re Digital Natives at Newsy. I think a lot of the time broadcasters and traditional content creators think they can just slap something on an OTT device and people are going to watch it; that’s not always the case,” says Blake Sabatinelli, general manager of online news site Newsy. “You have to make something that fits the platform and fits the audience, and it has to be good.”

Compelling content is just one part of the story; a methodical approach to the technology behind the content is another vital factor. Viacom has a central product group tasked with bringing efficiencies to app development across brands.

“We provide components to all of the Viacom brands—Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, Nick Jr., and we are on-boarding BET right now onto our video players as well,” says Daniel Balis, senior director of product for multiplatform video, MTS Global, Viacom. “It doesn’t make sense for all of these brands to be developing software components independently.”

Newsy’s app for the Apple TV. Newsy general manager Blake Sabatinelli emphasizes the importance of customizing each app for the platform it’s going to be viewed on, rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach. 

2. User Experience

Video app success comes as much from the user experience as from the content. This means paying attention to how your audience wants to navigate your content, from the menu structure to the player delivery to the type of content.

“We now have the long-waited-for convergence of mobile development and TV,” Locke says. “The capabilities of the platforms are greatly increased over what we had 12 or 18 months ago. We are able to envision features and experiment with things that wouldn’t have been possible before.”

Features trending this year include autoplaying on start, continuous playback, cross-platform viewer-created watchlists, live replay, push alerts, and server-side ad insertion. Users also expect an easy way to sign in and pay, as well as a big catalogue, where they can bookmark and list next episodes for watching.

How do publishers get viewers into the best experience?

In a product redesign, app development company WillowTree was able to increase market share for a client by about 10 percent in a 30-day period. The redesign improved three key areas: the payment system, stream quality, and the user interface. “We didn’t change the content,” says Michael Prichard, founder and CTO of WillowTree. “We built a better experience, which increased their numbers.”

Regardless of whether it’s a new or revised property, the common mantra from the experts was “get viewers into content quickly.”

“I think there’s an overwhelming trend to remove UI layers. In all the properties that we’ve released [in 2015], and there’s been over a dozen, you can one-click into some video from the homepage. This is a shift [from 2014],” says Kalem Fletcher, senior vice president North America of app development company UI Centric.

The one-click approach is being driven by research that reveals Millennials consume an enormous amount of video content. They gorge on video, so apps are being designed to move them into and through content as quickly as possible.

Newsy encapsulates the emphasis on user experience nicely: “We’re video creators, after all, and we should be proud of the work and we should be getting people into the experience as soon as possible,” Sabatinelli says.

“We build video with the Facebook user in mind and, specifically, with the user that has their phone in their hands and does not have the volume on but they still want to be able to watch the news,” Sabatinelli says. “We produce stories specifically with text on screen and subtitles on people who are speaking so viewers can get what they need to know and never have to turn their volume on.”

3. Big Data and Experience Customization

“Personalization” has been a buzzword for years, and with the help of big data, one development company has started to deliver it in a unique way.

UI Centric uses artificial intelligence to create models based on demographic information, then apply that information to the user experience. Using data to target viewers isn’t new, but actually changing the user experience by segmenting out delivery and providing custom user experiences in apps is. UI Centric is taking the web-based practice of A/B testing to see what performs better and using this information to help one of its clients serve up a custom experience.

The result is that UI Centric can deliver a different experience depending on what is more popular for the particular user type.

“[It’s] actually changing the user experience completely by changing the navigation model based on the type of user we think you are,” Fletcher says.

While few publishers are doing this now, expect it to become standard practice moving forward.

4. Planning an Advertising Strategy

Audience growth is driving revenue opportunities, which is why we’re seeing more content owners interested in dynamic ad insertion, either to replace or supplement existing commercial breaks.

“Everyone is trying to get the right balance between user experience and monetization,” Fletcher says. “I would say, make that a core piece of your strategy of how you are delivering advertising and how much of it. Those policies need to be in your strategy to begin with. A lot of the broadcasters have reduced the numbers on the preroll and then put a very early midroll that makes up those ad units. That’s one of the strategies to make people get into the content and stay into the content.”

One development company commented that publishers want to include ads, but provided few details on the ad planning side of the equation. There are questions to consider, such as how long is the optimum length for a break? Do you let people skip ads, or do you find a more exotic solution, as YouTube did with skippable advertising?

Publishers have the chance to be as creative with advertising as some of the content they are delivering through different placement types, keyword types, A/B testing variations, and static vs. pre- and post-roll ads. Stay tuned.

MTS Global provides apps for all Viacom video properties, including Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, and soon BET. Senior director of product for multiplatform video Daniel Balis says that, for companies with multiple brands, it makes sense to have a single app development group for consistency and efficiency. 

5. Ad Technology

Once you’ve got an ad strategy, you need a technology to execute it. Server-side ad stitching is becoming more popular for app developers. “It makes the experience on all your devices more seamless and

higher quality,” says Judy Johnson, director of product management at app development company Bottle Rocket. “We’re even talking about doing server-side ad stitching on live content in some cases within our native player, without needing a third-party player.”

“If app developers want to use server-side ad insertion, they will typically not need to do anything special, because the advantage of server-side ad insertion is that the stream playlists [manifests] get modified on-the-fly before they reach the player, making them compatible with [almost] any stock HLS or DASH player,” says Alex Zambelli, principal product manager, iStreamPlanet.

App developers should still make sure their players can handle time-stamp discontinuities and codec changes that can result from server-side ad insertion.

Another great benefit of server-side ads is ensuring the advertisements bought for a particular spot get delivered. “This year we’ve really seen big brands stand up server-side ad insertion and make real money off of this,” says Matt Smith, chief evangelist at Avanto. “If you’ve installed an ad blocker on your iPhone and you’re watching the NBC stream through their app, there is 0 percent chance that you’re going to get an ad blocker to interrupt that stream.”

Still, client-side ad insertion has its proponents. “The advantage of the client-side ad insertion, as opposed to server-side, method is that it allows greater flexibility and scalability in targeted advertising, but it comes at a potentially higher app development cost,” says Zambelli.

Implementing support for client-side ad insertion is a much more labor-intensive task for app developers, as it typically requires integration with third-party SDKs (such as Adobe Primetime) or developing homegrown solutions to ensure seamless transitions between main programs and ads.

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