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Video Streaming: Business in Living Color

Online video streaming, formerly a technology only available to large businesses with deep pockets, is now low cost -- and even free. Businesses are streaming programs focused on products or broadcasting meetings to staff.
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Sierra Snowboards is a small ski supply store with about 30 employees. Located in Sacramento, Calif., it also does business on the Internet through its website, sierrasnowboards.com. The company began a live streaming webcam in the store in mid-2007 as an experiment, and started using it to do a weekly online giveaway drawing among the online members currently viewing the stream. It quickly turned out to be a real boon to the company's Internet business.

“We started online video streaming from the store eight or nine months ago,” says Sierra Snowboards store manager Jared Snelson, “and our online membership -- and sales -- have been rising ever since.”

Businesses have been using video streaming internally for years, for Web conferencing, in-house training, and face-to-face strategy meetings. But there generally haven't been good enough reasons to justify the cost of expensive hosting solutions for streaming video to multiple viewers. Live video streams, sometimes called IPTV or IP-based video, have not been considered part of the usual business plan.

Making video streaming accessible

The technology has also, in the past, been quite complex, requiring highly trained (therefore highly paid) tech workers to implement. It generally took deep pockets to offer a live video stream, so it's not been available to small and medium sized companies.

Just in the last couple years, however, very affordable video stream hosts have sprung up, bringing these formerly high-ticket tools to even very small companies and changing the rules.

"The quality of IPTV and streaming broadcast continues to increase while the cost continues to drop,” says Sandeep Agrawal, group marketing manager for IPTV at Sun Microsystems.

At last year's Tribeca Film Festival in lower Manhattan, Sun Microsystems launched its new IP-based video delivery server platform, the Sun Streaming System, capable of handling up to 160,000 simultaneous, unique video streams with a price of less than $50 per stream for a complete video headend. Sun also walks the talk, by using video streaming to bring round table discussions, seminars, and educational sessions to the general public.

“It is now possible for small and medium-sized businesses that already administer some form of virtual communities or social networks,” says Agrawal, “to also include streaming video to enhance the users experience, both with personalized content and targeted advertising.”

There are many companies now offering video stream hosting for a low monthly fee. But if even the lower priced video stream solutions are more than you can handle, real results can be achieved even using one of the free streaming video services, like UStream.tv or Mogulus.com. Using a simple webcam on UStream, Sierra Snowboards discovered that live video streaming brings more value to its business.

Engage customers with video

“The live cam on UStream gives our online shoppers a real chance to engage with the store and personalize their experience,” says Snelson. “They get to see that we aren't just a website, but a full service store, giving them more confidence to shop with us.”

The stream seems to be a great success. Instead of weekly, the drawings for a new snowboard or other merchandise now happen five days a week, and if the number of registered members signed onto the video stream goes over 500, then Sierra Snowboards adds an extra prize to the mix. This encourages members to get their friends and family to sign on, join up, and become regular viewers. And it has paid off – recently, the company gave away a new snowboard and added in the bindings when the viewers topped 500. Snelson says this happens quite often now.

There are likely many ways of building your business via live streaming, even if it's just a variation of advertising. The idea of using live streaming video to engage with customers may indeed be an idea whose time has come. Advances in computing technology have brought the price of broadcasting on the Internet way down, and the increasing ubiquity of broadband is creating a public hungry to use it. And no geeks required.




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