By special guest blogger, Charlie Davis. This post originally ran on his blog.
From the casual observer to the online video professional, there should be no surprise that the online video platform market has two poles – free-to-use platforms, like YouTube, and popular pay-to-use platforms like Brightcove and Ooyala. In the former case, you can publish your content but you may be concerned that your branding will suffer if your primary hosting site is also the home of dogs on skateboards and Rebecca Black. On the other hand, you may not have the budget to spend at least $100/month on just online video alone and require something in between. In between does exist, and we have almost a hundred OVPs in the market, many of which cost a monthly sum of at least a hundred bucks a month. In comes Longtail Video, creators of the free and extremely popular the JW Player, who have released their own OVP called Bits On The Run. They offer a monthly cost starting at under $10 and/or a pay-as-you-go service with no monthly fee. Their minimum cost per GB – under $6. Oh yes, even the author is reconsidering his video hosting provider.
To be honest, I had not paid much attention to Longtail Video before this month. I have known about the JW Player for awhile and have always considered it to be one of the best available (where else can you find a stormtrooper skin for your video player), however I had no idea that Longtail Video acquired the OVP developed by the player’s creator, Jeroen Wijering. This was an excellent purchase for so many reasons. Firstly, the JW Player is compatible with HTML5 and Flash embedded video and they make their point clear – just support both and get on with other priorities in your life. Secondly, they support viewing content on mobile devices including Android and iOS. Thirdly, they just released a private beta of Longtail.tv, a free service that includes the JW Player, where you can display your own videos or earn money displaying content from their media gallery from premium syndication partners, such as AOL’s 5min Media, as well as YouTube content. In other words, Longtail has been able to get the good times rolling with a popular player, and should not be ignored if you are a SMB (small or medium sized business), or in the blogging business and trading in your World of Warcraft account for something more productive, and possibly revenue generating like online video.
Getting Started: The sign up for the free trial is as hassle free as you would you would hope. The first thing I noticed upon logging in is that Bits on the Run is one of the first platforms I have encountered (in fact, I think it is the only one) that doesn’t no rely on Flash or HTML5 to render its management interface. That means no plug-ins, no browser checks, and no hassle. If you are a non-technical user – #winning. Upon logging in, a very simple dashboard is laid out in front, similar in some aspects to how Ooyala greets its customers: an account status, your credits (in GB) remaining, the most recent news including planned maintenance updates and enhancements. Small but valuable bonus – you can subscribe to their RSS feed. A nice touch, as I don’t recall seeing that on the other platforms I have reviewed. Tutorial videos are also included on the homepage that will give you the basics in under ten minutes.
Managing Your Content: To upload video you can naturally perform this task from the desktop or check out the Bits On The Run Mobile Dashboard app in iTunes. Now, I can say this is the first OVP I have checked out that does more than just blindly upload video to your account – most OVP apps have the option to only upload video from the camera roll or take the video then upload, without insight into your library or account. With the BotR dashboard, you can keep track of your account balance from anywhere (this only makes sense since your balance depends on gigabytes viewed), see what videos you have in your library, and then manage the attributes of those video as well. Hopefully in the near future, the app will include the ability to add credit to the account for those times you’re stuck in traffic and hosting the next big viral hit. Nevertheless, they have gone farther than the big players so I tip my hat to this app.
An example of the BotR mobile dashboard for the iPhone
Once you have uploaded video you can check the transcoding status and easily see what resolutions you have available. If you would like to host your video outside of the OVO JW Player, here you have the option of linking to specific transcoded files under the transcoding tab; next to each file is an embed option with a warning: You can create additional transcodes and grab their publish links. These links are only useful if you do not embed your videos with our players.
Once the transcoding was complete, I immediately noticed the size of the H.264 720p result compared to the original .MOV H.264 – nearly cut in half. The platform uses FFmpeg (www.ffmpeg.org) and the quality may have suffered in the translation – I need to do more digging. If you have your own encoding solutions that may help (I can’t say for sure, since I still have’t shelled out for a supported encoder like Final Cut Pro X given its reviews). According to their site, they also support output from Apple’s Final Cut Pro, Sorenson Squeeze, and Adobe CS. Here is an example link for Squeeze.
Moving right along, I decided that before I publish my content, I would like to change the player style. I chose their 16×9 player with the Glow skin, available in the drop-down. You can also upload your own skin, though a warning message makes it clear, “Only ZIP skins are supported, since they are HTML5 compatible (future-proof).” In the interest of time, I chose a player readily accessible though I absolutely plan to import the Stormtrooper skin for future videos (readily available at Longtail.tv if you’re interested).
Once you have uploaded more than one video, you have the ability to create and manage playlists. Your playlist can be based on manual curation of your content, or the playlist can be built dynamically based on rules such as the tags you have assigned. Your playlist can be set to a hard limit of how many videos you want in the list, and you can sort by date. Once you have built your playlist, you can also publish it as a RSS feed, containing meta data and links to the videos. If you have chosen a manual playlist, then you simply drag and drop your videos into the playlist from the playlist properties. If you have chosen a dynamic playlist, then make sure you have tagged your videos. Adding tags to the playlist will filter out those videos that do not contain the same tags. This is a creative approach to filtering content, and very valuable as you start to build up your library with more than a few dozen videos.
Publishing Your Content: When you’re ready to publish your content, just choose the embed option under “Your Videos.” Now this is where it gets interesting – you have embed choices. Every OVP, even YouTube, has embed options. However, the folks at Longtail have explained what each embed code means, and which are strategic (future proof) versus non-strategic (at your own risk of being left out of the mobile and HTML5 parties to come).
As part of embed process you can also hop to it and broadcast your video through Twitter or Facebook. After a few minutes of uploading, customizing, and embedding video I received the result below:
As I mentioned above, I could tell some of the quality was lost in the transcoding. Below is the same video uploaded to YouTube:
If you wish to embed a playlist full of videos instead, then under the playlist tab you have the same embed option to select as if you were embedding a single video. Publishing playlists in BotR also offers the ability to publish via RSS to iTunes as a podcast and to Boxee.
Analytics: Reporting is one of the toughest parts of being an OVP in my opinion, and you can feel like you only bought half the cow if your reporting is below par or even non-existent. For what Longtail offers, I gotta say I am impressed with what they give you and how they do it. For one, the Longtail Video team does not create giant, obnoxious charts. There are some analytics dashboards that will create pie charts 500 pixels wide and fill the space with a lot of sidebars and knobs so you can rotate and zoom into the results. Eh. The results here on the other hand are very clean, easy on the eyes, to-the-point, and also able to track player specific qualities. At a glance, I can see my video views of when someone played the content, page views of when the player was loaded which may or may not include playing the content, and the total number of minutes of content viewed.
The chart in the middle of the page can measure Views, Page Views, and Time Viewed in more detail, charting the results over the last month. If you want to go deeper, you can check out the engagement data – just click on a video and watch it in the player as the progress line in the chart shows you where viewers may have dropped off.
If you want to export the results, views by day or views by video can be exported to a .csv file. Finally, if you want to track your results through Google Analytics, there are options found here. The nice addition to using GA is the visitor demographics (country, region, language) which does not seem to be available in the native BotR analytics.
Conclusion: If you are a small or medium sized business, then check out Bits On The Run. The free trial is always recommended and thankfully their pay-as-you-go model ties in nicely with their trial so you can continue onward once your time is nearly up. Their pricing model is very flexible and should be able to meet any small business budget if that business is interested in more than what YouTube offers. For comparison, Brightcove’s Express Edition costs start at $99/month for up to 50 videos with 40GB of bandwidth. For the same cost per month, Bits offers 120GB of bandwidth, with starter packages offering 6GB of bandwidth for less than $10. With the trial account, you can gauge your volume and bandwidth and find the right package appropriate for your needs. You may have noticed but this platform does not have immediate access to Longtail Video’s ad solution, therefore I haven’t included it in this review. You can find more info on their web site and how to stream ads into your content. Be sure to check their FAQ for details.
Another reason you will want to use the free trial is the encoding quality. Again, my results were not as crisp as YouTube, and that may be a deal breaker if you encounter the same results. You can try a few encoders I mentioned earlier that are supported. Sorenson Squeeze and Adobe Premiere have trial versions at no cost, but the full versions cost more than $500 each. If you’re shopping on a right budget for a supported encoder, then you may want to check out Final Cut Pro X, which has been chopped to $300 (along with several Pro features apparently). In any case, give this platform a chance. It is easy to sway to the OVPs in the market like the ones I have mentioned and review before, but you may be pleasantly surprised if you try before you buy.
Charlie is an experienced technologist in the multimedia space for over ten years, and currently works for one of the top financial information companies in New York City as Director of Support for its Corporate Communications business. His passion for online video and social applications prompted Charlie to narrow his career focus specifically to Online Video Platforms. To dig deep into the business of OVPs and understand the market landscape, Charlie began writing detailed user reviews publicly on his web site to bring unbiased feedback and help readers find the right platform to fit their needs.