Even before SXSW, you could tell which new app would be heralded as the "hot new thing" at this year's conference. Meerkat launched at exactly the right time (March) and had exactly the right appeal ("I'm doing something interesting right now that you must see!") to create a wave of rapid adoption in Austin, but whether the live-streaming video service can convert that buzz into real-world success is far from certain. A careful evaluation of the opportunities and challenges faced by Meerkat and other real-time video broadcasting services, including Twitter's Periscope, suggests a rockier future than many are predicting.
As has happened for most "hot apps" to rise out of SXSW over the past decade (see Quora, Google+, Foursquare, Hashable, GroupMe, Beluga, Sonar, Highlight, etc.), many bloggers have been (too) quick to announce the many ways Meerkat and Periscope are destined to change marketing, social media and the world. As someone who has worked in digital innovation for 20 years, it is exhausting to see how quickly people jump from one new bandwagon to the next, desperate to be the first to anoint each the "next big thing"--a habit that says much more about their need for attention than it does about the technology.
Even in the midst of SXSW, when the buzz was white hot and Meerkat was ranked near the top 100 iOS apps, I had serious doubts about its future. I expressed them on Twitter and found myself in an argument with a couple of early Meerkatters who clearly thought they were destined become the PewDiePie of this new platform. That dialog hardly encouraged me to change my opinion. It came as no surprise to learn that Meerkat is already sinking precipitously. On Sunday, Meerkat had dropped to #523 on the US iPhone download chart; two days later it had fallen even further, down to 669th on the US chart. It seems the app that rapidly came out of nowhere is returning there just as quickly.
I do not think we will be talking about or using Meerkat in any significant numbers within a matter of months. We may see Periscope rise (pun intended), but I have doubts if even Twitter's own live-streaming application can attain broad appeal and usage. Here are the reasons Meerkat is destined to fail and why live-streaming video will be an interesting niche rather than a mainstream game changer:
- Meerkat is built on someone else's platform (or at least it was): We have seen this problem since the early days of Windows, when eager young developers created new applications, only to see Microsoft adopt the same functionality into its Windows OS. More recently, Zynga rocketed to success and then stumbled when Facebook changed its rules to discourage the flurry of annoying posts from friends wanting everyone to become virtual farmers. (As a result, Zynga lost 70% of its value since its 2011 IPO and continues to battle lawsuits from shareholders who claim they were misled.) And it happened again two weeks ago, when Twitter changed Meerkat's access to the Twitter's API. Meerkat cannot survive or thrive without Twitter, and Twitter does not want to support a product competitive with its own Periscope application, so inevitably Meerkat will lose. Building a business model on someone else's platform will always remain a risky proposition.
- We're not all broadcasters: One mistake that social media pros and influencers have made time (Quora) after time (G+) is that they evaluate new social platforms based on their habits and preferences rather than others'. In 2011, as social media "experts" abandoned their Facebook accounts and declared Google+ a "Facebook killer," the rest of the world shrugged and continued using the platform that already contained all of their friends and family. Normal people (i.e., those who do not know their Klout score) cannot pull their "audience" with them from one platform to another, nor do they have a burning need to broadcast their lives to the world as do digital influencers. This last point is key to explaining why digital insiders are wrong so often about new social and communications services--the vast majority of the world does not share influencers' insatiable need to transmit every thought and experience. Meerkat was perfectly suited to appeal to mass influencers while leaving others puzzled about all the fuss.
- SXSW isn't the real world: There is a good reason each year's "hot new SXSW" app tends to fade from view--SXSW is not the real world. Since Twitter rose out of SXSW in 2007, I cannot think of another app that used SXSW as a launching pad to the mainstream. Foursquare came closest, but today it is seeing declining usage and little buzz. Other apps like Groupme, Sonar and Hashable were all the rage in Austin for a couple of weeks but never caught on outside of the SXSW bubble. There is a lesson here for evaluating SXSW buzz: The needs of the world's most digitally connected people while attending the world's most digitally connected event are simply not a good proxy for the needs of people who have busy lives, job stresses, family demands and are mostly overwhelmed with their existing digital communication channels and apps.
- Streaming video isn't new and isn't growing rapidly: I cannot imagine how all the excitement over Meerkat and Periscope must look to the folks who developed platforms such as Qik, Livestream, Justin.tv and a dozen other live-streaming platforms that have been around for years. Sure, the new live-streaming apps offer great social features and terrific user interfaces, but apps with similar capabilities have long been available. Of course, you could argue the same about Facebook, which was preceded by SixDegrees, Friendster and Myspace, but the difference in that case was that each successive social network was more popular than the last. This is not the case with live-streaming video apps, which are not seeing any sort of profound growth or success. After a rapid start, Qik faded and was eventually acquired and shuttered by Skype, while Justin.tv eventually shifted out of broadcasting the real world and into the more interesting business of broadcasting gameplay via Twitch.
- The world has already voted, and people prefer pre-recorded video to live: One filter I use to evaluate new technology is how well it fits into existing models of human behavior. In the case of Meerkat and Periscope, one only needs to look at the early days of television, when all video was live, and compare it to the prerecorded network programming of today. The problem is that live TV is generally not polished, well paced or exciting; Jon Stewart may make moments in Congress look funny, but have you ever tried to watch C-SPAN live? The same is true outside of TV--consumers can watch live concerts by artists on Concert Window, but they still opt to stream the slick music videos on YouTube and Vimeo in much higher numbers. And Fathom Events beam live performances from The Met to theaters around the country, but far more people show up for the latest over-produced but disappointing Adam Sandler film. The entertainment industry long ago shifted out of live broadcasting and into prerecorded, edited, post-produced video that corrects the problems of live performance.
- The world is timshifting more than ever rather than watching live: Not only have consumers shown a preference for prerecorded entertainment, they are increasingly rejecting the tyranny of watching anything on someone else's schedule. In today's fast-paced world, ever more people are timeshifting, opting to use streaming, DVRs, Netflix and YouTube to watch video when and where they want. Meerkat and Periscope are entering a world at a time when fewer people watch video as it is broadcast than at any time since TVs entered homes in the 1950s. This should tell us something about the appeal of real-time video, which is...
- "Live" video brings no additional value over pre-recorded video outside of very specific use cases. Live TV is today reserved for special situations like American Idol (real-time voting), news and sporting events (real-time occurrences with broad appeal) and the rare stunt programming (real-time risk that Allison Williams' Peter Pan may trip over a prop on live TV.) If Hollywood cannot find a way to make live video appealing outside of select use cases, what does this say about the experiences you and I might broadcast? How many opportunities will you have to share urgent, timely, in-demand content? Will that beautiful sunrise or your dog's amazing tricks really be of interest to people in real time? Is posting a video to Instagram of something that occurred in the ancient era of two minutes ago really going to degrade the viewer experience? The reality is that outside of some select use cases, such as newsworthy events (the tragic explosion in NYC) and entertainment (Jimmy Fallon broadcasting a rehearsal), most of us have precious little reason to use Meerkat and Periscope to broadcast anything to others in real time.
- Most brands will be too risk-averse to adopt live video: While many agency bloggers are predicting (and hoping) marketers will adopt Meerkat and Periscope in large numbers (and pay agencies to develop the live content), I struggle to see how most brand brands will accept the risk of raw live video. Even in the age of Facebook and Twitter, marketers still maintain tight control over the planning and vetting of content, and in those rare situations when brands staff "newsrooms" for real-time marketing, compliance and legal personnel are on hand to approve every word and image. You think brands are now going to point a camera live at an event or person and trust everything that happens will be appropriate, on-message, legal and compliant? All it takes is one person wearing a branded T-shirt, dropping an F-bomb or having difficulties with the product on a live video, and someone's head will be on a platter.
- Few brands will have anything to share that people will need to see in real-time: Finally, even if brands can overcome the various practical and legal challenges associated with live video, will they have anything worthwhile to say in real-time? Today, organic reach for brand content is falling, with brand posts disappearing from Facebook news feeds and being ignored on Twitter. If most brands cannot find a way to be interesting with the luxury of time, what would they stream that might demand consumers drop everything right now to watch it live? Video is powerful, but between Instagram, YouTube, Vine and other platforms, are brands really lacking for ways to share video?
To be fair, I anticipate Periscope will see reasonable adoption and some exciting uses for very specific purposes, but I do not anticipate broad adoption for this or other live broadcasting platforms. Before we buy into yet another round of hot-new-thing-forever-changing-communication-and-marketing hype, I suggest we step back, assess the needs and wants of real people, consider which brands have opportunities and which do not and ensure we do not invest limited time and budget in yet another digital boondoggle.