A Buyer’s Guide to Live Streaming Services

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So, you’ve decided to stream a live event, and you’re considering your options. You definitely need a streaming server to reach your target viewers. You could buy and install your own server (or rent a cloud instance), but then you’d have to create the player and configure and manage the server yourself, which requires lots of technical expertise that you may or may not have. Or, you can use a service provider to supply this functionality.

There are multiple classes of service providers that can get the job done. For example, if you’re currently using an online video platform (OVP), it’s likely that it has support for live streaming (or soon will). If so, you can use the player and all other features you’ve created for your on-demand video and your existing analytics, and your live events are converted to on-demand streams and added to your library right after the event. This level of convenience is tough to beat.

If you don’t have an OVP, another class of services called live streaming services might be the best option. You can start streaming live at no cost, with various trade-offs in terms of resolution (HD or SD), third-party advertising, branding, and scalability that vary among the service providers. As your live streaming activities flourish, you can opt for different levels of service that remove these limitations and provide much more control over security, monetization, and branding. Since most of these services, which include popular sites such as Livestream, Ustream, Justin.tv, and most recently YouTube, are popular sites with many viewers looking for content, these sites may also deliver viewers that you wouldn’t reach if you only displayed the video on your own website.

Though most of these companies are only about 6 years old, the market is fairly mature, and you’ll find more similarities than disparities among the contenders. For example, they all work similarly. You use a live encoder to send a stream (or streams) to the service provider, who displays the video on a dedicated page in the service, which I’ll call the channel page. Depending upon the vendor and the plan you’ve selected, you may also be able to embed the live stream into a page on your own website. After the event, you can usually trim frames from the start or finish (if necessary), create highlights, and download the video so you can deploy it elsewhere. You can also check viewing analytics to see how many viewers tuned in and for how long.

By this point, most services are very social media-aware, with easy links so viewers can tweet and like and otherwise spread the word. They also recognize that viewer interactivity is key, so most enable comments and chat to some degree. Otherwise, with all this similarity, how do you choose the best service for your live events? By focusing on the topics identified here, starting with what you want most from the service.

Looking for Eyeballs?

If you’re looking for eyeballs, you definitely want to know which sites have the most traffic. According to Compete (using November 2013 data), among the non-YouTube participants in the group, Livestream has the most traffic, though there is one potentially significant asterisk. Specifically, Twitch, a Justin.tv sister-site dedicated to live gamers, recorded about 2.23 million unique visitors in November 2013, though unless you’re attempting to reach these gamers, it’s not relevant from an eyeballs perspective.

However, it is relevant from a scale perspective, meaning that the combined viewership from Twitch and Justin.tv is the largest (non-YouTube) of the group, so the combined entity should have lower delivery costs and more users to spread development costs over. I’ll also point out that according to comScore statistics Justin.tv shared with me (but that I wasn’t able to independently verify from comScore), Justin.tv had more viewers than both Livestream and Ustream, and much better ratings in metrics such as minutes-per-viewer and videos-per-viewer.

Of course, none of these numbers are relevant if the viewers these sites attract aren’t likely to be desirable viewers for your content. So if eyeballs are your goal, it’s best to spend some time looking at the existing content on the site and assessing whether existing viewers are good candidates for your content.

What about YouTube? Well, YouTube is obviously the largest, but that’s combined on-demand video and live, and we know the former dwarfs the latter at this stage, which might make your live content harder to find. As will be discussed later, there are also some important features that YouTube lacks from a live perspective. Just because it’s the largest, that doesn’t mean it’s the best.

White Label: How White and at What Price Level?

All live service providers except YouTube offer a “white-label” version without the service’s branding. The question is, how much does it cost to lose the label? For example, with Livestream and Ustream, you have to commit to the $999 plan to remove the respective company’s branding. Justin.tv’s plan costs $399, while Stockholm’s Bambuser costs $599 per month.

Beyond removing the service’s branding, you may also want the ability to add your own branding, which could include options such as choosing the background color for your player and adding a logo to the page or a bug over the video. In the same vein, you may also want to disable the channel page (so viewers can only watch the embedded player on your website), password-protect or restrict the embedding of your videos, or even geo-block viewers in some geographic locations. Not all services offer these features, so get them on the table early if they’re important to your intended use.

Which Site Delivers the Best User Experience?

This one is definitely subjective and content-specific, and there are two extremes: one represented by Livestream, the other by Ustream. Specifically, Livestream presents each event on a separate page, with extensive live blogging capabilities to add videos, pictures, and comments to the experience. This is great when you’re attempting to present a complete experience as opposed to simply a live stream.

The other extreme is exemplified by Ustream and is also used by most other services. In this paradigm, each publisher has a separate page with live videos (or formerly live) shown in a window on that page with a defined chat area, usually to the right of the video. Surrounding the live video are other videos from the same publisher, which is a great way to retain a viewer once you have them on your page.

When researching the various options, visit some live events on all candidate services and assess the channel page for each service. Though this is my subjective opinion, in general, Livestream optimizes the event, perhaps at the expense of the channel page, while other services optimize the library of events but don’t deliver as rich an experience for each event.

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