Meerkat and The Dawn of Sender-Side VOD

There are plenty of live-streaming platforms out there for anyone who wants to set up their own broadcast on the cheap. But few have caught on as quickly or generated as much buzz as Meerket, the barely month-old streaming app that rides atop Twitter.

meerkat_logoOr at least it did until Friday, when Twitter abruptly cut off Meerkat’s ability to easily access users’ list of followers to automatically alert them to when a new “Meerkast” is in progress.

The move was neither unprecedented for Twitter, which has never been overly developer-friendly, nor particularly surprising insofar as Twitter announced its acquisition of Periscope, a competing live-streaming app, reportedly for $100 million, on the very day it shut the door on Meerkat.

So much for platform neutrality.

It’s not hard to see why Twitter would want to reserve the opportunity represented by Meerkast for itself, however. It has the potential to become a very powerful platform in its own right.

Live video streaming is not a new technology. But the Meerkat app got a lot of things about it right. The app is launched and streams are initiated from a smartphone (so-far iOS-only but an Android version is in the works) and, like Snapchap photos, the streams are ephemeral. There is no pausing, rewinding or sharing during a Meerkast (although the originator can download a video of the stream). The app is also very easy to use: just tap it and start shooting; everything else, including notifying your Twitter followers, happens automatically (or did) in the background. It makes live-streaming no harder than taking a selfie.

All that makes Meerkasts feel much more serendipitous and personal than most other live video chats or streaming platforms. No advance preparation or promotion is required.

Meerkat is also two-way and interactive: The user can see who among her Twitter followers has opened the app and is viewing the stream, giving the user an instant read on the audience. Viewers can also comment on a stream in real time via Twitter and their tweets are incorporated into the stream itself, not relegated to a separate window or a comment thread after the fact, allowing the content of the stream to be tailored to the audience in real-time (the porn business will love it).

From a broader ecosystem perspective, however, Meerkat’s most compelling feature — and the one that Twitter has now shut down — was the way it recruited an audience for the live streams. No one need know in advance when a broadcast is going to occur, or remember to tune in (although that option is available); even the broadcaster doesn’t need to know in advance. Instead, the user’s Twitter followers are (or were) automatically notified when a stream went live, allowing those with the Meerkat app to simply open the app and join the broadcast.

That feature is (or again, was) key to any future monetization plan. The ability to push content out to a particular audience based on a social graph, to know precisely who is watching and where they are, a what their social graphs look like, if it can be done at scale, could be very valuable to content creators and marketers alike, which helps explain why commercial broadcasters already were trying to figure out how they could use Meerkat. Leveraging that ability is no doubt central Twitter’s monetization goals for Periscope and what made Periscope worth $100 million while still in private beta.

It’s not hard to imagine Twitter selling promoted tweets in live streams by popular or influential Periscope users, or even in-stream video ads in cooperation with Periscope broadcasters. Nor would Twitter need to stop at a user’s social graph. In theory at least, alerts about live streams could be sent to everyone using or following a particular hashtag, for instance, or in a particular location.

The real breakthrough that Meerkat and (presumably) Periscope represent, in other words, is the ability to push video content out, on demand and serendipitously, to an identifiable, bespoke audience. It’s the inverse of traditional video-on-demand where the demand comes from the receiving end. Meerkat represents sender-side VOD.

Add to that the real-time, unskippable immediacy of live video and you have the makings of a potentially rich value proposition for creators and marketers.

There’s no reason it needs to be confined to Twitter, however. While Twitter has become the go-to platform for real-time interaction there’s no reason in principle that sender-side VOD couldn’t work on Facebook, Tumblr or any other social media platform. No matter what happens with the Meerkat app on Twitter the breakthrough it represents is likely to reverberate.