When Streaming Isn’t Enough: Push Video for Better Engagement

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You care deeply about quality user experience in your mobile video applications. It’s hard enough to get people to watch your content in the first place, let alone putting up with playback stuttering, stalling or buffering.

Bottom line: when a user presses “play”, you want stuff to happen, and happen fast.

Your Millennial audience in particular is an impatient bunch. Studies show that a delay between 500 milliseconds and five seconds results in abandonment. One click and their hard won attention goes elsewhere.

What’s standing in the way of instant mobile playback?

Cellular networks have their challenges when it comes to streaming video delivery. Too much data squeezed into limited spectrum (a.k.a. Shannon’s law for those information theory buffs.) Content caching points are on servers somewhere on the other side of the mobile network. The most optimized CDN strategy in the world can’t compensate for congestion at the local base station. 5G is on the horizon, but will be several years before it reaches a critical mass of users.

What can be done? Enter predictive prepositioning.

We’ve been thinking about a better mobile video experience for a number of years. Our solution is Push Video – preloading a video on to the user’s phone, before they know they want to watch it. It works like this:

  • Predictive algorithms select the content from the CMS
  • A piece of video is pre-loaded onto the phone
  • Delivery over Wifi or off-peak cellular
  • Behavioral analytics determine the best time to let the user know the content is there

This is deeply impactful to the quality of user experience. Videos instantly start in full HD. There’s no stalling or buffering, ever. You’re providing a TV-like experience on mobile, and coverage (WiFi or cellular) doesn’t matter.

The results we’ve seen when video owners try it have been impressive. It turns out pre-positioned content is a gateway to longer streaming sessions. If users’ first experience with your service is an instant-start, HD video, they’ll stick around for 3 times longer. That’s 3x more minutes viewed, and 3x more opportunities for monetization.

Push Video has applications for optimizing new mobile ad formats too. Ultra-short form units, e.g. 3 and 6 seconds, will work much better when they start instantly. It’s still possible to manage campaigns – just preload a day’s worth of ad units, and refresh every 24 hours. All prepositioned videos can be deleted each day, or per the ad network policy.

We’re not talking about replacing streaming. On-demand, live events, and rights issues all mean the bulk of video consumption will continue to be streamed. But a hybrid approach using Push Video for promos, ads, or even the first 3 minutes of a show, then streaming the rest, means a more engaged audience.

A high quality upfront experience means users stick around longer, are better able to be monetized, and are more likely to come back for more. And that’s a good outcome for your mobile video business.

This post is adapted from my “5 Minute Defense” presentation at the TV of Tomorrow in San Francisco on 6/07/2016. Thanks to Colin Dixon for the invitation!

Mark Adams is CEO of Incoming Media, a startup creating new revenue models for mobile operators. Like this and follow me for regular updates on mobile, media and the video value chain. 

Scouts to Snapchat: Ad Formats Evolve to Mobile

 

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Over half a century before American Idol and The Voice reinvented the singing competition, there was Arthur Godfrey’s Talent ScoutsA mix of variety, talk and comedy, Talent Scouts was broadcast on CBS from 1948-58 and was a ratings winner.

“Ratings” is a relative concept. Fewer than 100,000 US households had a television set in 1948. While a minuscule audience by today’s standards, advertisers clearly thought TV was a medium worth investing in. Talent Scout’smain sponsor was Lipton Tea, a long-time relationship carried over from Arthur Godfrey’s 2o years as a radio broadcaster.

Radio’s influence on early television is obvious. Godfrey sits at a desk behind a large announcer’s mic, and his on-camera presence is best described as “laid back”, especially compared with today’s TV hosts. This is unsurprising as networks were just beginning to comprehend the power of TV as a visual medium, rather than simply as radio with pictures.

As the number of TV households exploded to 52m by 1960, both programming and advertising became more sophisticated. New technologies were introduced, but adoption was sometimes uneven. The first color TV broadcast was in 1954, but it wasn’t until 1972 that the last black and white show went off-air.

We’re in a similar transition period today as advertisers grapple with digital and mobile channels alongside traditional television. The 30 and 60 second TV commercial is still for now the dominant video ad unit. Although digital ad spend will overtake TV next year, billions worth of airtime was pre-sold at the Upfronts last week.

Advertisers believe that nothing beats the impact and reach of a high-production value, widescreen TV commercial placed in a high-rating show. Watch the NBA playoffs this week and you’ll see the state-of-the-art in slick visual communication. Even Slack, a born-digital unicorn with no salespeople, is on air with a new commercial.

Because these spots cost millions to produce, brands reuse creative across digital channels like YouTube. Just like the first television ads were essentially radio on TV, digital ads are repurposed from the big screen. This works fine for PC and even tablet, but on mobile, it can be found wanting.

Progress is being made however. While there’s debate around the natural way to watch video on a mobile (horizontal or vertical), brands are beginning to experiment with the latter. Snapchat’s 100m+ daily active users are in the vertical camp, and the industry is taking note. Snapchat created a standard called 3V (vertical/video/views) and early adopter marketers like Intel, Universal Pictures and Hungry Jacks are embracing it.

Vertical video screenshots from Hungry Jack’s, the Aussie Burger King 👍🏼

While these efforts are nascent, it’s great to see the brands exploring what can be done with vertically-oriented video. Like the transition from radio to TV, creators begin by using the conventions of the previous format. With time and experience, a new set of standards develop for the medium, both creatively and technically. For example, shorter formats like 6 and 10 second spots could be optimized by pre-loading onto handsets instead of streaming.

Is vertical the future of mobile video? It has to be a a larger part of media budgets for 2016 and beyond. The average Snapchat user is on the platform for 30 minutes a day, and that won’t be the only place that makes sense for 3V. New implementations are emerging that make sense for vertical e.g. lock screens and wallpapers. Brands go where the audiences are, and vertical video is becoming part of the mainstream media landscape.

Mark Adams is CEO of Incoming Media, a startup increasing ARPU and engagement for mobile operators. Like this and follow me for regular updates on mobile, media and the video value chain

How Does “Free” Work in the Post-Mobile Era?

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The mobile ecosystem is at an economic intersection. Device makers, value-added services and the network operators that underpin them are under pressure to innovate and keep growing profitably. The ways and means of mobile monetization are in flux.

Of course the mobile platform will remain an important platform for years to come. 5 billion people are yet to join the smartphone club, but commoditization and margin compression will influence how users interact and pay for devices and services.

OEMs and Operators Under Pressure

Even as smartphones evolve in new ways (e.g. the quixotic Project Ara from Google), their days as the coolest piece of consumer tech are numbered. Not surprising when no one besides Apple is making any money, and even their growth is slowing. OEMs are now turning their attention to VR and IoT as the next drivers of growth.

Over on the network operator side of the mobile business, the so-called “dumb pipe” has been steadily churning out profits for years. Despite being caught up in the 3G spectrum frenzy mobile operators have been fairly consistent in profit growth since the 2000s.

People have always understood the need to pay their phone bill and as a result, the mobile operator business has not been a bad one to be in. But even this growth engine has slowed. Monthly average revenue per user has peaked in the US and other mature markets. Even in developing markets, ARPU is falling victim to commoditization of voice and data services. And they still have the investments to make in 4G, let alone the 5G upgrades on network vendor roadmaps.

As mobile moves from adoption to the replacement phase of the cycle, how will operators, who are increasingly converging into content and media companies, sustain business models?

Mobile Video is Premium Video

Growth in mobile media consumption should be leveraged as a tool for creating new value. Video is over half the traffic on mobile networks, and accounts for the majority of growth. Americans spend ten hours a day looking at screens of all kinds, up from seven in 2010. That additional three hours is all on mobile, and around 30 minutes (and growing) of that is spent watching video.

But with APRU maxed out, operators can’t charge subscribers more for data plans that enable this video consumption. Prices per Gb will continue to fall with the rise of “all you can stream/download” plans. So from where will the revenue be sourced?

Brands are beginning to recognize that the handset is premium digital real estate. In the age of ad-blockers, measurement/attribution issues, and click fraud, mobile can be a robust option for sponsors looking to cut through and reach audiences.

When you think of the mobile OS itself as a media publishing destination, rather than individual apps or the browser, possibilities for new ways to engage with subscribers emerge. Wallpapers, lock screens, app transitions, and notifications are all potential sponsored inventory that could be managed by operators.

Combining this new inventory with premium video, operators are in a unique position to capitalize on subscriber data. Developing media-centric plans could lead to a new type of operator business model.

Imagine a completely free mobile experience, with as much video as you want. Younger subscribers and those in emerging markets could have their value enhanced by plans that let them consume video in exchange for targeted, quality messages.

All-you-can eat video experiences must delivered in a way that doesn’t crush the network infrastructure. Flattening the peaks in network utilization by separating video delivery from consumption is one approach.

As the next 5 billion smartphone users are added to their networks, operators can capitalize on the boom in video consumption to create a new type of mobile plan. Subscribers are becoming audiences, and video is going to be the next engine of growth for mobile operators.

New Frontier for Mobile at NewFronts

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The Digital Content NewFronts are on again in New York City. Not to be confused with the TV UpFronts, the NewFronts event is a showcase for online content owners to pitch ad spots to brands.

37 creators including Hearst, Vice, Youtube and Mashable present their upcoming digital video series. One of the themes emerging this year is the deeper integration of promotional messages into the content.

While product placement is a concept as old as commercial media, the trend towards “native content” has been accelerated by ad blockers and a general sense of over-saturation in the online market.

So promotional content is becoming part of the story. What about becoming part of the platform – particularly smartphones? A tighter integration of video into the mobile user experience opens a whole new revenue stream for operators. But it must be executed in a sensitive manner or it will annoy users.

Publishing content directly to the smartphone creates interesting new content units. Lock screens, wallpapers, app interstitials and notifications are all new real estate that can be used to engage subscribers with relevant video content.

Two important qualifications for this work: timing and relevancy.

As with most things in life, timing is everything. You look at your phone 100-200 times per day, mostly with a purpose in mind: checking e-mail, your calendar, Facebook. But at other times, you have time to kill, and want to be entertained. Picking the right moment in the mobile users’ day magnifies the engagement with the message up to 10x.

Relevancy is also key. It’s got to be content you’re interested in or it will be ignored. Pushing content to users before they know they want it requires you to know the type of content users like across different contexts e.g. before work, or commuting.

Understanding what smartphone users want to watch, and when they want to watch it unlocks a whole new set of business models and network efficiencies for mobile operators. As the line between content, advertising, and platforms blurs, deep mobile video integration represents a multibillion dollar growth opportunity.

Mark Adams is CEO of Incoming Media, a startup enabling new business models for mobile operators and OEMs. Like this and follow me for regular updates on mobile, media and the video value chain. 

Picture: Randy Lemoine / Flickr

The War For Attention

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POLITICO co-founder, Jim VandeHei, wrote a great post recently called “Escaping the Digital Media ‘Crap Trap’”. He contends that era of mass-produced web content designed to attract clicks has led to a decline in quality, but that the pendulum is swinging back to thoughtful, well-written and produced stories and videos.

This a welcome development, but in the age of unlimited choice, how can quality  content stand out and attract a financially viable audience?

There’s a screen in every pocket, but with an overabundance of things to read, watch and listen to, the struggle for viewers’ attention is fierce. Audiences are trending downwards for every piece of content, and have been for decades. US TV audiences (ex-Superbowl) peaked 30 years ago, when the population was 28% smaller. Now consumers have shifted online, shattering the mass market into a million tiny niches.

There is too much content being produced for anyone to consume it all, even within specific interests and genres. How many blog posts do you read a day? What about NYT articles, news aggregators like Drudge Report, and of course Facebook. Blogs on every topic under the sun. Smart newsletters from Nuzzel, InsideThe Information. Podcasts by the hundred. 500 hours of video uploaded to YouTube videos per minute409 original series on network, cable and OTT (streaming) television.

The volume of content has exploded, but the number of minutes in the day to consume it has remain steadfastly fixed. So the age of mass viewership/ readership/listenership is over, and content owners fight over ever-smaller pieces of the audience pie.

For consumers lost on this ocean of choice, VandeHei offers technology as a lighthouse:

“Thanks to technology, all your devices will know what you want, where you are and how to serve up content the way you want to consume it at that very moment.”

Predicting what your audience wants and getting it to them before they know they want it is the Holy Grail in a content-saturated world. What’s the best way to deliver this?

One device that knows lots about your content consumption habits is the smartphone. This is why we see mobile operators developing content strategies, with video as the centerpiece. A scan of recent strategy presentations of major global operators reveals that mobile advertising, analytics and video are expected to take them to the next level of growth.

Operators are making serious plays to become the next generation cable companies, acquiring valuable rights, making original content, and partnering with OTT players like Netflix. It makes sense – they know so much about you – even when you’re not using your device.

The old business models based on content scarcity are going away. In the war for attention, the smartphone will be a valuable weapon in the content distributor’s arsenal. With the right technology, mobile will be the centerpiece of a push-centric distribution strategy, where content and context combine to cut through the clutter at just the right moment.

Mark Adams is CEO of Incoming Media, a startup enabling new business models for mobile operators and OEMs. Like this and follow me for regular updates on mobile, media and the video value chain.

Telling a Story in 6 Seconds

Ad formats need to evolve with changes in viewing habits and technology, especially video. YouTube has announced a new “bumper” ad format aimed at smartphone users who skew towards short-form video consumption. Bumpers are a six-second pre-roll ad unit, and are an important milestone in the  evolution of mobile video.

YouTube’s product manager Zach Lupei describers bumpers as the “Haiku” of video ads. Much can be accomplished in three lines and 17 syllables, so six seconds of HD video is a vast canvas in comparison. This is a high-impact and unobtrusive way to get the audience’s attention. YouTube says early results have shown a “strong lift in upper funnel metrics like recall, awareness and consideration”, which sounds like a good start.

Can six seconds contain a beginning, middle and an end? I’m betting there are creative folks out there who are already working on this challenge. No doubt it will be an award category at Cannes in the near future. Certain types of content lend themselves well to the abbreviated format. For example, Atlantic Music created six second clips for the band Rudimental, which is enough time to showcase the melody and leave the listener wanting more.

For a bumper to be effective, it should brief, to the point and of course, vertical. Repurposing web video doesn’t do this format justice. Brands should unleash their agencies’ creativity to really get the most out of it. Vertical ad units need vertical content and while there’s limited availability today, Snapchat and Elisabeth Murdoch’s new company Vertical Networks are leading the charge in terms of content production.

Something that could hamper effectiveness is mobile network constraints. Users will be impatient if the six second ad takes five seconds to start streaming. Millennials have a notoriously low tolerance for buffering, only prepared to wait milliseconds for video to start playing. This could be solved by preloading the ad units, allowing an instant start at the highest quality. Predictively preloading a day’s worth of ads when the user is on wifi would increase fill rates and is something the industry needs to start exploring as the majority of video consumption heads to mobile.

Smartphones are the primary media platform of a whole generation, particularly when it comes to video #streaming. Mobile deserves its own unique ad unit, like every other platform. Six-second ads are a step in the right direction, but to be successful, they can’t be simply a recut derivative of other campaigns/platforms. They need to be built from the ground up to take advantage of the creative possibilities imposed by the time and screen-size restraints. It might even be the start of a whole new way of storytelling.

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Chatbots Won’t Kill Apps – Yet 🤖

“Chatbots” are top of mind post-F8 Conference last week, where Facebook announced bot developer tools for Messenger. While not a new idea, bots are an intriguing concept. Could they be a way to streamline (or eliminate) application search and discovery process? I have at least 130 apps on my phone, and finding the app I want, let alone adding new ones, is a pain. Does this mean discrete apps going to be replaced by a single chat window?

Unlikely, for now at least.

The idea of a command-line style interface to all apps and services is an appealing one. Instead of searching for and opening lots of apps, you simply use Messenger (or Line, or WeChat et al) as the primary interface e.g. instead of opening the Uber app, you just tap the car icon. If you send your location to a cartoon cat called Poncho, he’ll come back with the weather. That’s if Poncho understands your location. It feels like a beta-type experience, with the limitations of the technology becoming quickly apparent. But that will quickly improve and usage will grow.

The Poncho Messenger Bot interface

While the idea of chat bots and messaging apps eating every other app is appealing to some, not every type of app experience lends itself to a “conversational” interface. Bots (in their current generation at least) are best for utility-type queries: what’s my bank balance, when did my order ship, what time does the game start? When you are not sure exactly what you want, or you are looking for a richer experience, then a standalone iOS or Android application is a better option.

Video, music, games, picture-based services are all better suited to an app experience. Premium content owners especially are still spending big dollars on custom mobile user experiences. But the question remains, how can my app get discovered, and used? If bots are best for user-initiated requests, then apps (and their content) should proactively find the consumer.

CNN App versus Messenger Bot

The idea of content (especially premium video content) finding the user at the perfect moment is key.  To cut through all the noise on the mobile platform, smart strategies are required around user context and understanding how content preferences change throughout the day. Building models on each user’s device and predictively pre-loading content is a strong way to build engagement in the crowded market for app attention.

The app paradigm will be with us for a while yet. Google and Apple want to retain control over the app and app store experience. They won’t easily cede control of a multibillion dollar ecosystem to Facebook, or any other messaging solution. And the handset OEMs are in the mix too. Watching the apps versus bots story play out (and the bigger OS vs Platform battle) is going shape the dynamic in the mobile industry for some time to come.