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The Buyer's Guide to Online Video Platforms

Today, if streaming video is at all integral to your organization, and if you're currently hosting your own videos or posting them to user-generated content (UGC) sites such as YouTube and Vimeo, it's time to consider using an online video platform (OVP). The big question that this article tackles is how to choose the right one for your needs.

Rather than adopt a features table analysis, I decided to take a user-centric view, talking to 20 or so actual OVP users or soon-to-be users. Specifically, I asked them to identify the one or two critical features that drove their OVP selection and the procedure that they worked through to choose the right candidate. To locate these users, both editor Eric Schumacher-Rasmussen and I posted requests for case study candidates on the Advanced Streaming Media list; I also tweeted and blogged a similar request on my own website, www.streaminglearningcenter.com. I also asked all the OVPs I met with at the Online Video Platform Summit/Streaming Media West conference in November to submit case study candidates.

Admittedly, this is somewhat of a scattershot approach, and it provides no guarantee that the features that each user felt were unique are actually (or still) unique. That said, our users did provide a very diverse range of needs and requirements that should prove useful for anyone planning to choose an OVP in the next 12 months.

The Basics
Just to set the stage, all OVPs share a significant amount of similar functionality. You upload your videos to the OVP, and they are converted and added to your media library. You can create and customize a player with simple embed codes that allow you to incorporate the player into your website. As videos play, your OVP provides a range of playback data and analytics. The high-level benefit is clear. You get sophisticated streaming media functionality with minimal capital expenditure or development cost—you even get reduced distribution costs because OVPs can aggregate their streaming bandwidth to achieve lower rates from their content delivery partners. In plain English, you can get a better platform than you could probably develop yourself at a lower initial and continuing cost.

AllHipHop.com uses OVP Kaltura because it supports the site's many monetization models.

Does the OVP Support Your Business Model?
Beyond these basics, the characteristics of all OVPs are very diverse. When selecting an OVP, the first question that you need to ask is whether the OVP supports your business model. For some organizations, such as Derek Frempong's AllHipHop.com (www.allhiphop.com), that means support for a range of advertising formats. "Currently, we run preroll and postroll advertisements, but we may add midroll advertisements to some shows, as well as in-stream product overlay advertisements that let viewers click to buy or for more information." Frempong chose OVP Kaltura, in part because of its flexible video advertising options.

Note that preroll and postroll advertisements aren't just essential for media companies—they're also helpful for selling your company's products or events. For example, software company Atlassian uses dynamically inserted advertisements to promote its own company events. "We have about 6,500 video views each week and wanted to harvest those views to help us market our annual user conference," says Atlassian's Jay Simons. "So we added a 15-second spot promoting the conference to about 100 videos, which took about 5 minutes in the back end of our Episodic system but would have been totally impractical if we had to do it manually."

If you intend to sell your content, you need a system that supports multiple business models. Gayle Christopher, director of interactive media at Oakstone Publishing, who used OVP comparison site VidCompare (www.vidcompare.com) to help with her OVP selection, needed a system that could support the diverse range of products that her company markets, from continuing medical education certification to health promotion programs. She also needed to distribute video to the websites that help market these products. "Our first priority is a system that can fit all of our revenue models, from pay per view to subscription and other ecommerce," Christopher says. "Any OVP that can't is a nonstarter."

Aside from potential monetization models, you should also make sure your OVP supports other anticipated production workflows, such as user-generated content. For example, Brightcove customer Sun Microsystems, in anticipation of its developers conference—JavaOne—fashioned a contest in which developers could produce and upload a 30-second video explaining why they wanted to attend JavaOne. The producers of the five videos that were the most "original, creative, and humorous" received a free pass to the conference, plus $1,500 travel money.

According to Linda Crowe, Sun's group manager for multimedia communications, development time for this "Dude, Where's My Pass" program was only 48 hours from concept to implementation, which she attributed to the flexibility of the Brightcove system, which obviously can be programmed for UGC videos. Sun displayed the videos in Channel Sun, the central location for most Sun-related streaming videos, and on the JavaOne conference site. Again, this was easily accomplished with simple tagging in the Brightcove back end.

Sun Microsystems chose Brightcove, in part because it supported UCG content and enabled fast-turnaround projects.

Regarding the utility of the Brightcove system, Crowe commented, "The program generated several hundred videos submitted and tens of thousands of page views, so the ROI was huge. The features and flexibility of the Brightcove system really made it happen because we didn't conceive of the program until about a month before the conference—if we couldn't implement it in 2 days, it probably wouldn't have happened."

Distribution, Distribution, Distribution
Once the video is in the system, the focus turns to distribution. And the more options the OVP enables, the better. For many producers, social media sites are key. I spoke with Ken Kaplan, Intel's new media and broadcast manager, about Intel's use of YouTube. He detailed Intel's history of video distribution: It first used The NewsMarket to distribute B-roll footage to broadcast media and then used FeedRoom to create videos for embedding in Intel's webpages and blogs and to send to iTunes. Over the past few years, however, Intel's focus has changed from marketing through the news media to marketing directly to consumers.

"Intel sells to a relatively small group of computer manufacturers. But our end users are a diverse group, and many are very interested in the technology behind our CPUs. Video is a powerful way to reach them on their own terms—no briefings or phone calls—and to create a preference for Intel and specifics as to why. Videos on YouTube are a great way to maintain awareness from announcement to announcement, and bloggers seem to prefer embedding YouTube videos over those available on our site."

I checked Intel's channel on YouTube and found the numbers impressive—1,241 uploaded videos that have been viewed more than 5.6 million times, with 7,282 subscribers. Videos uploaded to tout then-unreleased products such as the "Making the All New Intel Core 2010" (17,832 views) and "Making First 32nm Microprocessor" (40,819 views) obviously helped create the premarket buzz for the new CPU's January 2010 launch.

Repurposed 30-second TV advertisements such as the "Intel Star" (1,200,918 views) and "Our Jokes Aren't Like Your Jokes" (330,528 views) further spread the word, all for the cost of a 10-minute upload. As Kaplan concluded, "You can't publish your videos on a single platform; you have to make them available where potential end users want to watch them."

You don't have to be a multibillion dollar chip producer to benefit from exposure on YouTube. Frank Galli, owner of Sniper's Hide (www.snipershide.com), who sells target shooting-related products and training, deploys video on his own site, on YouTube, and on other sites via Tube Mogul, which he can access as an output option on his Veeple content management system. Through Veeple's agreement with TubeMogul, Galli can access more than 20 UGC sites such as YouTube, Vimeo, and Metacafe, all from a single upload. He can access consolidated playback analytics from all the deployed sites from his Veeple account as well.

VH1 distributed the Hip Hop Honors show to the iPhone (and BlackBerry) via Kyte's mobile applications framework.

Sun Microsystems is another believer in YouTube videos and consolidated analytics. According to Crowe, one of the most important aspects of the Brightcove system is that it lets the company feed playback statistics into its Omniture analytics system, which can consolidate results from Sun's internal channels as well as from YouTube.

Beyond social media sites, many consumer video sites are starting to use their OVPs to distribute to iPhones and other mobile devices, for both continuing and event-specific distribution. As an example, AllHipHop.com serves its mobile customers through OVP Kaltura, uploading a single file that Kaltura encodes as needed for all target playback platforms. Currently, AllHipHop uses Kaltura templates to deploy the iPhone and Android's native video player rather than using a custom player for each device. All mobile streams have static data rates, though Frempong expects to add HTTP Live Streaming with dynamic streams through Kaltura in the next few months.

VH1 has its own platform for web and mobile streaming. But when it needed a short-term mobile platform for the Hip Hop Honors show, it used Kyte's mobile applications framework. I spoke with Noah Vadnai, senior director of VH1 Mobile, who commented, "Custom applications are expensive, but Kyte's plug-and-play framework made it easy and affordable to deploy a range of services along with the video, like Twitter feeds, comments, and ratings."

Obviously, integration with social media is equally important for traditional streaming applications. Oakstone Publishing's Christopher commented, "We would like to have ratings, reviews, and commenting because they are proven means of increasing sales." Christopher also assessed the search engine friendliness of the video players posted by each OVP.

The Open Source Alternative
Multiple interviewees—primarily those working with Kaltura—valued the open source nature of the Kaltura offering, though the reasons varied. For Davyeon Ross, president of AthletixNation (www.athletixnation.com), it was all about time to market. "Kaltura gave us about 85% of what we needed, and [it] matched up well with our in-house development expertise. That got us to market faster with a superior product."

For Bruce Colwin, founder of LegalMinds.tv (www.legalminds.tv), an open source OVP gave him control over his distribution platform. "I've worked with multiple vendors in the past, and sometimes they promised features in upcoming releases that didn't make it in. I don't want to count on my OVP provider to build out the functionality that I needed going forward, and an open source platform lets me build what I need if I have to."

AllHipHop's Frempong had a different take—damage control. "Our software lives with Kaltura on their server, but I have access and rights to that software. If anything happened to Kaltura, I'd have to look for another hosting provider, but I still walk away with the platform. With other OVPs, I could be dead in the water."

Moving into less mainstream OVP offerings, another group of companies valued interactivity within the video, claiming response rates greater than those achieved with other advertising mechanisms. Veeple user Galli of Sniper's Hide includes clickable video links for rifle scopes and other products he reviews; he reports click-throughs to the seller's website in the 4%-6% range and up to 30% for informational (as opposed to sales-oriented) click-throughs. For example, in his training videos, he may make pants, boots, or other equipment clickable so viewers can view the make and model.

Another Veeple user, Erik Boles of Beer Tap TV (www.beertaptv.com), reports even higher response rates. "If we make a beer mug clickable in a show, it might generate click-throughs in excess of 20%. Click-throughs to our forums—say to answer a trivia question—can exceed 50%."

With its new Sorenson 360 OVP and the most recent version of its encoding program, Squeeze 6, Sorenson created a review-and-approval workflow that many customers find a valuable timesaver. Guy Cirinelli of Cirinelli Video Productions uses Squeeze as his encoding tool and Sorenson 360 to host videos on his site and for many of his clients. "With Squeeze 5, I had to wait around until my project finished encoding, then upload it for customer review. With Squeeze 6 and Sorenson 360, I encode and upload in a single step, plus [I] have a dedicated webpage to collect feedback. For longer projects, the integrated workflow means that I get to go home at 5:00 rather than 7:00."

All OVPs offer analytics packages. But the most frequently mentioned feature in my interviews was "drop-off" statistics, which identify where most viewers stopped watching the video. For Atlassian's Simons, this helped the company understand how to design videos that its customers would watch longer. "We know when viewers stop watching our videos, which helps us understand how to produce videos that keep our viewers engaged."

Beer Tap TV's Boles takes another tack: "Many of our viewers watch from start to finish, especially our shorter shows, which are generally beer reviews. Still, after checking our analytics and seeing when viewers leave, we make sure to insert our advertisements in the first 3 minutes just to make sure that most viewers see them."

In general, OVP pricing dropped dramatically as the largest media clients got signed and more OVPs entered the fray, making pricing more competitive. However, there are still large variances in pricing and pricing structure. Dennis Smith, founder of iFocusToday (www.ifocustoday.com), chose Marcellus.tv primarily because its pricing structure unbundled features from bandwidth cost, allowing iFocusToday to choose the level of required features and then just pay for consumed bandwidth. Marcellus packages start at $5 per month for videos up to 20 minutes in length. But if you need longer videos or want to insert preroll or overlay advertisements, you'll have to pay a minimum of $75 per month.

For Smith, the low-end package was ideal. "The low-end plan fits my needs, so I have a minimum fixed cost and then just pay for bandwidth. Since the service is based upon the Amazon S3 Cloud, I know that they can scale [it] to meet my needs."

LegalMinds.tv's Colwin wanted to make sure that pricing was based upon actual bandwidth consumption rather than on clicks. "If the viewer only watches 1 minute of video," he commented, "I don't want to pay for the entire video." He also cautioned that while low-volume, low-cost pricing is nice, "You also have to assume success and calculate and compare pricing 6 and 12 months out to really understand how the vendors compare."

Final Thoughts
Both Colwin and Sun's Crowe had some interesting high-level thoughts when it came to choosing an OVP. For Crowe, part of Sun's decision was a feeling that Brightcove's product offering was bigger than what Sun's vision for video distribution was at the time. "When we looked at the Brightcove system, we saw lots of capabilities that we didn't even know we wanted until we saw the potential," Crowe says. "That made us feel confident that the platform would meet both our current and future requirements."

Colwin focused on the financial and administrative cost of changing CDNs and wanted to make sure that he chose a company that not only met his current needs but would also be around for a while. "There's a high cost of converting OVPs, including potentially reuploading all the videos, additional redevelopment, and the embarrassment of having to reach out to all of my customers and tell them that they have to change their embed codes. Before I choose an OVP, I want to know how long they've been in business, who their reference clients are, and how they're funded to help ensure that I don't need to make a change down the road."

A Six-Step Decision-Making Process

As you've read, I spoke to a number of OVP users and asked them all about the processes they went through to choose an OVP. Bruce Colwin of LegalMinds.tv had the most cohesive program--probably because he's a serial entrepreneur who's worked with OVPs in the past. His first step was to visit www.vidcompare.com, a comparison service for decision makers seeking tochose an OVP. Eric Schumacher-Rasmussen detailed VidCompare in an article he wrote last November (www.streamingmedia.com/article.asp?id=11533).

Briefly, VidCompare lets you search for OVPs using categories such as Delivery and Payment Structure and provides basic information such as a feature list, a pricing structure, and the date the company was founded.Even though he was familiar with the OVP market, Colwin found VidCompare useful because the comprehensive service-provide listing covered companies he shouldn't miss. He estimated that he spent about 6hours total on the VidCompare site before making his decision.

Gayle Christopher from Oakstone Publishing also recommends VidCompare. "We checked with VidCompare and found viable new options that we didn't know existed. The availability of the sites helps add rigor to our decision-making process and helps ensure that we don't choose aprovider just because someone has used them before or knows someone at the company."

After identifying potential options on VidCompare (which was Step 1),Colwin used information on VidCompare and the vendor sites to weed out services that didn't fit his business or pricing model (Step 2). Then, he read the company information and any user reviews on VidCompare and polled his business connections to see if any of them had any relevant experience with the remaining candidates (Step 3). Next, he contacted the candidates to ask any remaining questions and to make sure that he understood their pricing structures (Step 4).

Then, he requested trial accounts with the final candidates (Step 5).Over a period of a few weeks, he uploaded content, tagged it, embedded the video into browsers, and played them back on multiple computers.During this process, he found that one potential vendor had problems with WordPress that could have been a huge issue with some of his potential clients. With another final candidate, he found the presales service lacking,which soured him on the prospect of its after-sales service.

Colwin wasn't the only user who tried the OVPs before buying.According to Jay Simons, Atlassian created several trial accounts and found significant differences in quality, video delivery performance,player load time, and the responsiveness of technical support during the trial period. In lieu of actual trials, AllHipHop.com's Derek Frempong asked his final candidates to provide reference accounts; then, he compared their video playback results from a number of different connections and locations. He also found substantial differences in responsiveness and smoothness that helped steer him toward Kaltura.

Mel Aclaro, from real estate site www.isucceed.com, had narrowed down his candidates to Marcellus.tv and one other. He chose Marcellus when his trials revealed that the site provided much better quality than the other candidate. So even if you skip all the other steps of Colwin's procedure, you should definitely kick the tires before you choose your OVP.

As for Colwin's procedure, after the trials, he consolidated his findings regarding quality, usability, pricing, and customer service and then made his decision (Step 6).

Jan Ozer's article first appeared on OnlineVideo.net

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