Ever host a sales presentation, seminar or conference and wish customers who couldn't fly in for the event could tune in anyway? Small businesses are getting into Internet TV, live streaming meetings, conferences and other events.
Scott Kurtz was looking for a way to promote his 10-year-old Web cartoon business when he decided to broadcast himself drawing the strip, an ode to video games and the geeks who love them called PvPOnline.com.
After some initial experimentation, the 38-year-old Dallas resident hit on a winning formula: he draws the strip directly onto a touch-sensitive computer screen and live streams the video and audio over a website called Ustream.tv so fans can watch him work.
At first Kurtz was self conscious about sharing his creative process with the world. But once dozens and then hundreds of fans started logging on at any given time -- and sticking around to chat with each other and buy the strip's merchandise -- Kurtz got a lot more comfortable with the concept. 'They really are getting to know me, they're getting invested, and that's the X factor between a causal viewer and someone who might want to buy something,' he says.
Like Kurtz, small business owners are starting to use live streaming in all aspects of their operations, including sales, marketing, and customer service.
Broadcasting in real time
Live streaming is like podcasting with a few major exceptions. Both consist of an audio or video segment broadcast over the Internet. But while a podcast is recorded for future download and playback, live streaming happens in the here and now. Unlike the solitary experience of listening to a podcast, broadcasters also link live streams to chat rooms and other social networking features so viewers can exchange comments with each other while they're watching.
Live streaming is taking off in and out of business circles because the equipment that's required has become plentiful and cheap. It's also been helped by a proliferation of Internet-based broadcasters such as Ustream, Livestream.com, and Justin.tv that small business owners can use to stream their feeds for little or nothing.
In many parts of the country, companies that would rather not take on the logistics of live streaming a meeting themselves can now hire a live streaming producer or consultant to do the work for them for hundreds or thousands of dollars depending on the length and complexity what's being produced.
For do-it-yourself types, a basic live stream set up doesn't cost much. Must-haves include:
A reliable high-speed Internet connection and some kind of video input -- a high resolution or high-definition video camera is recommended but even a PC's built-in webcam will do
Audio from a video camera or stand alone microphone
A computer with enough processing power and memory to handle upload speeds of 500 kilobytes per second for normal broadcasting or 1 megabytes per second for HD pictures
Kurtz, the Web cartoonist, uses a free software program called CamTwist to stream what appears on his Mac's monitor to Ustream, and Audio Hijack Pro, another free program that lets him stream audio from his video camera, Skype, iTunes, or another audio source.
Though she can't quantify exactly how many of Livestream.com's 450,000 active channels are run by small businesses, the number is growing, says Deborah Kornfilt, the New York City company's head of content and partnerships. Among them: Network Solutions, which streamed its recent GrowSmartBizConference on the network; Women's Enterprise Network, an Ohio-based organization that runs a channel devoted to promoting women in business; and a retailer that streamed a fashion show to market its wedding dresses. 'They had a contest to win a wedding gown and used live stream as an incentive to bring traffic to their site,' Kornfilt says.
Like several other live stream broadcasters, Livestream.com offers a free service that's supported by advertising, as well as premium plans with lots of extra, including a white-label player companies can put on their own website. At Livestream.com, premium plans cost $350 and $1,250 a month for additional channels and storage as well as HD-quality video.
Hiring a live stream producer
Businesses that would rather not do their own live streaming can hire Internet broadcasters and live event producers to do the work for them. SLL Productions in Portland, Ore., handles everything related to designing, setting up, and broadcasting an event. The firm, run by husband and wife team Mike and Cami Gebhardt, also provide extras such as conducting interviews at a company's event and broadcasting them along with the event's main stream. 'It provides a deeper online experience for people who can't attend' in person, Mike Gebhardt says.
Joe Christiansen, owner of Blaze Streaming Media, also of Portland, thinks of himself as a virtual event coordinator, staging a client's live stream, testing Internet access at a meeting space and capturing e-mail addresses from people who watch the live stream for the client to use for lead generation afterward. He also acts as the liaison between his client and the live stream broadcaster and provides extras that a Livestream.com or Ustream might not offer.
Such customization doesn't come cheap. Christiansen's fee for live streaming an event runs $1,000 to $10,000. His bill to live stream an Oregon soil company's three-hour fall meeting, including running multiple cameras and live chat was $3,500. Christiansen's fee also included statistics on exactly how many minutes each one of the company's customers tuned in, information sales reps will use in follow-up calls. 'Times are tough and their attendance was down' but the live stream gave the company a way to connect to customers anyway, he says.