Buyer's Guide: Live Streaming Services
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.
Of course, if your goal is to embed the video on your own website and attract viewers there, you care more about the embedded player than the channel page. While most services deliver roughly the same experience in both places, YouTube Live does not, specifically not letting you embed a player with comments or a playlist of other content into your own website. If you're trying to attract and retain viewers on your own website, this is a definite negative.
Looking to Monetize Your Video?
There are multiple ways to monetize your video, including inserting pre-, mid- and post-roll advertisements into the streams or charging pay-per-view or subscription fees. Services differ significantly here, so if you have a monetization model in mind, check early to ensure that your candidate services support it. If you plan to push viewers to your own website, make sure the monetization model works on embedded pages as well as the service's own channel page.
Looking to Maximize Your Video?
Most producers are truly live only a few hours a week, but some services, such as Ustream, allow you to create a continuous channel feel with their Live Playlists feature. Ustream also allows you to upload videos to your Ustream channel, to fill out your channel, and to syndicate your live content to YouTube, to maximize your eyeballs. While you can download your videos from other services and upload them to YouTube or elsewhere, Ustream's integration saves a couple of time-consuming steps.
Where Do You Want the Video to Play?
This is a big one. At this point, most corporate video producers want their videos to play on computers, as well as iOS and Android mobile devices. When evaluating a service, make sure both the channel page and the embedded page plays on all these devices, and note whether your viewers will have to download and app to make this happen.
If you're streaming to consumers, OTT and similar platforms are a plus. Here, Livestream plays on Roku devices, while Ustream has apps for smart TVs from Samsung and other vendors. Beyond embedding in your own website, you may also want the video to play within environments such as Facebook or Twitter, which not all services support.
Looking for a Free Service?
If you're looking for a free service, be sure you understand the different trade-offs each vendor makes with its service. With Ustream, for example, the free service is advertising-supported and has a limit of 480p SD video, while Bambuser limits its free service to 50 viewing hours a month. In contrast, Livestream goes in a completely different direction, requiring viewers of free content to log in with their free Livestream accounts. There are never any advertisements, restrictions on video quality, or viewing limits on Livestream, but if you're concerned that your viewers may not want to sign up for a Livestream account, this may be a significant limitation.
Are You on a Tight Budget?
The unique curse of streaming video is that if your live event truly goes viral, it could break the bank, leaving you with a huge invoice for additional viewing hours and no means to pay. In this regard, it's significant to note that all Livestream plans are totally inclusive; the various plans are differentiated with features, not with viewing hours, and there are never any overages. In contrast, virtually all other services differentiate their premium plans with features and viewing hour limits, with overages when you exceed the plan limits. The key exception, of course, is YouTube Live, with which you never incur any charges.
Are You Broadcasting Out of Tight Spaces?
By this point, most, but not all, services support adaptive streaming, where multiple streams are made available to viewers to match their playback platform and connection speed. This is a highly desirable feature, particularly when delivering to mobile viewers. However, one major difference is how the service produces these streams.
Justin.tv, Ustream, and YouTube Live can all transcode an incoming high-quality stream into multiple files, reducing the outbound bandwidth requirements at your live event and simplifying on-site encoding. In contrast, Livestream producers must encode all streams at the event, which means you need a sufficiently powerful encoder to produce the streams and enough outbound bandwidth to get the stream from the live event location to the service.
Walled Garden or Open Toolset?
All live streams start with an encoder. Most services offer a browser-based encoder, which typically uses the encoder in the Adobe Flash Player, which is easy to use but produces inferior results. Many services also offer their own free desktop encoder, such as Livestream, or free, limited-feature versions of Telestream Wirecast (Ustream, YouTube), which simplify connecting the encoder to the service. In contrast, Justin.tv doesn't offer its own encoder, which makes getting started a touch more complicated, though not rocket science by any means. There are also several free live encoders available, including Adobe's Flash Media Live Encoder (FMLE), so Justin.tv's approach won't cost you any more.
Beyond these free tools, Livestream has created its own mixer/encoder program (Livestream Studio), and on-camera encoder (Livestream Broadcaster), and a plug-in for the NewTek TriCaster, while refusing to extend support to tools such as Wirecast and FMLE. This has created somewhat of a walled garden around Livestream service. According to company officials, Livestream pursued this strategy to simplify integration with the service, and to ensure that their technical support staff could effectively support their producers during the encoding stage. Of course, if Wirecast, FMLE or a similarly unsupported tool is your encoder of choice, you're out of luck.
Ustream has taken a different tack, providing a free, tightly integrated desktop encoder and pursuing tight integration with other tools, which is similar to the approach taken by YouTube, while other services, such as Bambuser and Justin.tv, should work well with any encoder. While on the subject of encoders, if you think you'll be broadcasting from tablets and smartphones, be sure to check if your candidate services supply these encoders.
When Does Live Support Start?
When things go wrong with a live event, you have a short time to get things right, which makes telephone support essential. No service provides free support for its free service, but it varies on which plans get free service. For example, Justin.tv's phone support kicks in with its entry-level $39-per-month plan, and Ustream's phone support starts with its $99-per-month Silver service. In contrast, you'll have to choose Livestream's Premium service, at $399 per month, for phone support, and Bambuser's standard service ($329 per month). At this point, there's no mention of phone support in the YouTube Live help offering, which may be the single largest disadvantage of YouTube Live.
This article appears in the 2014 Streaming Media Sourcebook.
Jan Ozer's article first appeared on OnlineVideo.net
Companies and Suppliers Mentioned