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Review: Onstream Media Webcasting Service

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Onstream Media’s webcasting service provides a soup-to-nuts system for broadcasting PowerPoint slides and talking-head video to a computer-based or mobile audience, with interactive elements such as Q&A, polling, and surveys, with registration facilities at the front end and analytics at the back end. The system can automatically transcode incoming Flash video for HTTP Live Streaming (HLS) delivery and exclusively uses the Akamai content delivery network (CDN) for public media delivery. To test the system, I ran two public webinars; both of them were technically flawless from Onstream Media’s perspective. If you’re considering a rich media broadcast, Onstream Media should definitely make your short list.

Setting Up the Webcast

Once you sign up for a webcast, you get assigned an event coordinator who will walk you through the production process. The coordinator can create and configure the entire webcast for you, which is how I worked through the first webcast. At the 1,000 total video audience size (for live viewing and archived viewing), the estimated cost using this approach is around $1,800. Or, you can create and configure the necessary pages yourself, saving between $300 and $500, which is how I produced the second. If you’re producing a one-off webcast, pay the money; if you’re starting a series, pay for the first, and then clone your first webinar and customize it as necessary for future events.

The Visual Webcaster 4 interface is HTML-based, with buttons on the bottom logically driving the workflow from setting up the webcast to production. You start by inserting the basic webcast information, such as title, date, time, and duration in the Webcast Info field, then you move to Webcast Features. Figure 1 shows the features available in the system. 

Figure 1. The features available with Visual Webcaster 4

As an overview, there are four main pages involved in the webcast. For the viewer, there’s the eponymous registration page; the listen page, where the viewer visits to launch the webcast; and the player, where the viewer plays the webcast. For the producer, there’s the produce webcast page, where you actually run the webcast. When you’re configuring your webcast, you start by choosing webcast features, since these control the fields and features available in the player and produce webcast pages.

Most of the content-related features shown in Figure 1 are self-explanatory, including the ability to integrate PowerPoint slides, polling, Q&A, and surveys, as well as the ability to upload supporting materials that viewers can download. For example, for both webcasts, viewers could download a PDF of the slides used during the presentation, which was a popular feature that most participants leveraged.

On the marketing side, enabling social media allows you to add buttons for sharing the broadcast with connections on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, or via email. Obviously, if you’re seeking the broadest possible audience, these links can be exceptionally useful.

There are multiple levels of security, including password protection and IP range restriction, where you can limit viewing to specific URLs or block URLs. You can also implement URL referral restriction, where you can host the originating URL on your own webpage within the firewall, and limit viewers to those connecting via that page.

You choose the video audience size so Onstream can reserve the capacity. Pricing is based on the number of streams, which you buy in blocks of 1,000. Once you reach the reserved threshold, you can opt to either get billed for the overages or to cut off additional registrations to avoid the additional fees.

For those interested in continuing education, Onstream recently added a cost-per-engagement (CPE) module, which lets you select the number of credits a viewer can earn and the criteria for earning them, which can be a certain number of correct polling responses, a certain number of minutes watched, or both. The module can also help you design the certificate and email it to viewers who earned the credits.

Media I/O

You have significant flexibility regarding the output streams produced by Onstream from the single video that you transmit into the system. For example, you can produce single or multiple Windows Media, Flash, and HLS streams. Streams can be either 4:3 or 16:9, though 4:3 seemed to fit better in the web player. That’s what I used.

If all intended viewers of a webcast are behind the same firewall and on a multicast-enabled network, you can deliver the stream via multicast from your own Windows Media server. Though I didn’t test this functionality, it could be invaluable for corporations broadcasting internally.

Onstream offers significant flexibility regarding signal acquisition. For example, your source can be a video conferencing unit (VCU) via integrated services digital network (ISDN) or IP, a satellite downlink, fiber optic circuit, or a real-time messaging protocol (RTMP) stream from any encoder that supports that output. Note that Onstream can handle multiple audio/video inputs from disparate locations, which is a nice feature for round-table discussions and the like.

Page Design

You design the registration and listen pages in an HTML-based, WYSIWYG interface with easy access to the HTML source code for fine-tuning. The basic building blocks are images and custom regions for text, with an (optional) 25-pixel grid to assist your placement and alignment (Figure 2). You can import design components such as title, date, and time from the setup page, with canned entries for showing support information and a calendar reminder for the viewer. You can also present videos in the sign-up page, which can help describe the content or otherwise help convince the potential viewer to register.

Figure 2. The WYSIWYG registration page designer

Text controls are typical and should be instantly usable by anyone familiar with Microsoft Word. You can resize and move all blocks very easily, making for a fast and simple design process. However, there are no alignment or layering type controls, which might frustrate the most meticulous of designers.

To assist in collecting registration information, Onstream provides a registration question creator that’s pretty slick. You click the information that you want captured (first name, last name, etc.) and designate which is required and which is optional. The software creates the entry field and inserts it into the registration page. You can design questions to be answered via text entries, check boxes, radio buttons, and drop-down menus, with all information neatly inserted into the Webcast Users database.

Survey and polls are great ways to gather information and keep viewers engaged. As with the registration form, survey questions can be text-only, or answered via check boxes, radio buttons, or drop-down menus. Polls are simpler and can only be answered via radio buttons.

Player design is flexible and simple, with controls neatly divided among functional components such as player window, header, and controls. You can choose the color for the various elements and insert your own graphics for branding. You can also insert links to purchase content on both iTunes and Amazon, which is a useful feature for those seeking to monetize their presentations.

Viewer Workflow

Once you create the sign-up page, you get a fixed URL that you can email to your prospects in the webinar pitch email. Those who want to attend click the link and complete the required information. Registrants receive an automated confirmation email of your design with a link to the listen page, from which they can download a calendar reminder, and to which they’ll return to watch the program.

Beyond this, all emails are manually generated and must be sent through your event coordinator, which seemed like an unnecessary hassle and cost, and it was a key difference between Onstream and MediaPlatform. For example, other systems I’ve worked with let you send automated emails such as a prewebinar reminder, with separate emails for registrants who did and didn’t attend the show.

I asked Onstream why these customer-driven capabilities weren’t available, and my contact relayed that the company previously had similar capabilities, but that the volume of emails sent by its customers had caused issues with spam filters. Again, you can send all these emails through the system, if desired, but you have to go through the event coordinator. Or, you can export the content information at any time and use your own email facilities to contact registrants, viewers, and no-shows.

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