The Moving Picture: Meet the Online Video Platform
Posted Oct 12, 2009

Although you may not have heard the term "online video platform" (OVP) before, you will soon, and OVP service providers are becoming increasingly important. Here I'll explain why, and I'll discuss factors to consider if you or a customer decide to choose one.

At one level, OVPs are organizations that charge for what you're probably getting for free today from YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook, blip.tv, or some other user-generated content (UGC) service that you upload videos to and that provides a player to embed into your webpage or into a customer's webpage. Why would you pay for this? Better control over your videos, enhanced security, and more comprehensive distribution and player features.

Why now? Because providers such as Brightcove, Ooyala, Sorenson 360, and many others are vastly cheaper today than they were 2-3 years ago when they were chasing big-budget media companies such as Akamai. You should be able to get started with one of these services for less than $100 a month (for example, Sorenson Media just announced a $29 starting price for Sorenson 360).

How do you choose an OVP among the growing ranks? All OVPs provide the same basic services, with more similarities than differences in the core features. Let's discuss some of the high points while working through the general upload, player creation, and deployment workflow.

Today, most OVPs support Flash distribution only, with VP6 support ubiquitous and H.264 support prevalent but not universal. If you're a WMV, QuickTime, or Silverlight aficionado, you'll find your options severely limited.

One major difference between OVPs and most UGC sites is that you can encode your videos to the OVPs' final format and then upload them without duration, resolution, or bandwidth limits. Some sites (Sorenson 360, StreamCity Ltd.) offer client-side encoding modules that accept MOV, MPG, and AVI input and encode before uploading, saving you the cost of a third-party encoding tool and the hassle of encoding separately. Most other services can encode after upload, but uploading raw files is always time-consuming.

Check to make sure that your OVP can upload multiple files at one time. I recently tested an OVP that didn't support multiple-file upload, and uploading my 15 test files took the better part of a day. Sites such as Brightcove (and even YouTube) let you queue multiple files for serial upload, a vastly superior approach.

On the player side of the OVP equation, there's a significant diversity in player features, with some features more important than others. One critical feature is the ability to set the size of the player irrespective of the video content. For example, on my website, http://streaming learningcenter.com, which is driven by the Interspire CMS system, I have to set my video player at 500-pixel resolution or smaller; otherwise, it will extend into menu items and other fixed content. Nonetheless, because I expect many viewers to zoom to full screen, I want to encode at much higher resolutions, sometimes as high as 720p.

Some OVPs set video size based upon the underlying video, which wouldn't work for my site and probably wouldn't work for many others. So check how the OVP sets player size early in the selection process.

Regarding player customization, most OVPs will let you change the color and decide which controls to exclude or include. Not all allow you to add your own logo. Interactivity, or the ability to click the video to download a contract or spec sheet, is useful and is supported by Veeple and Ooyala. StreamCity lets you attach documents to a video that the user can view or download by clicking a button on the player bar. I also like Sorenson 360's ability to password protect the video and Viddler.com's ability to input tags into the video that highlight content areas ("Click here to see our special offers").

Most OVP sites distribute their video via progressive download, which means that the video is cached locally and is easy to copy. If this is a concern, find an OVP that offers streaming via the Flash Media Server or Wowza equivalent. If your client is big enough, they may want to be able to prevent certain sites from embedding their video (blacklisting) or limit distribution to certain countries (georestrictions), which are not common features.

While typically relevant only for larger organizations, if your clips enjoy sufficient views, make sure your OVP supports third-party ad servers. Also check the OVP's ability to syndicate your video to other sites, both third-party sites that might pay and UGC sites such as YouTube, blip.tv, Google Video, and others, which are all still critical components to any viral video campaign.

Most OVP sites provide a similar range of viewing statistics such as number of views and bandwidth consumed and the like. Ooyala goes one step further and can show where most viewers stop watching your videos, a valuable key to producing sticky videos.

Ask whether the OVP serves as its own CDN or whether it distributes via a third-party CDN, which probably bodes well for quality of service. Finally, ask for a trial and check ease of use. For many potential nontechnical users, a basic range of features that are exceptionally easy to use may be the optimal choice.

Jan Ozer (jan at doceo.com) is a frequent contributor to industry magazines and websites on digital video-related topics. He is working on a new book on using streaming video, social networking, and content aggregation sites for marketing purposes.