MediaPlatform just announced enhancements to the pre-webcast diagnostic tool that can be used in conjunction with its WebCaster software. I am a big fan of automated connection and setup tests that attendees can run before a webcast or web conference. When you consider network bandwidth and quality, streaming audio/video playback, third-party software such as Flash, and other components that can affect a viewer’s experience, attendees can use all the help they can get!
I recently spoke with MediaPlatform’s president, Greg Pulier, to get an update on the latest features and direction for WebCaster. He told me that WebCaster is designed to run completely in the cloud (aka: SaaS), but provide enough power and flexibility to stream audio and video to audiences numbering in the tens of thousands or more – A sweet spot that has traditionally been served by turnkey webcast production houses. Obviously, this is not a product designed to compete with typical webinar software made for interactive participation among audiences in the hundreds. MediaPlatform customers are likely to be large Fortune 500 enterprises that need to communicate with massive audience sizes.
Greg says MediaPlatform was the first webcasting product to take advantage of the new multicast capabilities in Adobe Flash (I tried to give a simplistic explanation last September when the announcement came out). He says that the big enterprise shops are really buying in to the advantages this gives them in managing network load during large company webcasts.
As with most SaaS products, WebCaster runs in the most popular browsers on Windows or Mac operating systems. Companies can preconfigure selectable “themes” for their webcasts. A theme specifies color, branding, types of content to be displayed (for instance Twitter feeds, polls, surveys, slides, video, lobby pages, etc.), position of the different components, and so on. Each company can have a library of themes that webcast hosts can choose from depending on the needs of their webcast.
Creating a theme is a self-service task, but MediaPlatform is looking to add more structure to the process by testing and certifying that a created theme has been built properly and will work in real use. There is enough power and flexibility in the theme creator to let a functionality error creep in if the author is not careful. Fortunately, it is easy to clone an existing fully-specified webcast setup to help avoid these glitches.
There are a good number of options for managing setup, registration, and communications surrounding a webcast. I look for this flexibility when I am evaluating or using high-end products, so I was happy to see that I can send separate invitations to my audience and to my production team. I can select different functionality permissions for production team members (eg: guest presenters vs. moderator vs. support staff). I can send out a wide variety of email notifications such as registration confirmation, reminders, thank you, sorry we missed you, and so on. As expected, I can also customize the fields used on event registration pages.
The webcast itself is hard to review in generic terms. Performance is largely influenced by the physical data carrier and data delivery network. MediaPlatform typically uses the Akamai Content Delivery Network, although companies can elect to use a different CDN if desired. The configuration and controls available to viewers are dependent on the theme that the company has set up. Video is delivered via Flash, while other component pieces in the console are delivered via HTML. Again, this is not an unusual approach.
Most high-end webcast products expect content (particularly video content) to come in through a third party encoder such as the Microsoft Windows Media Encoder (now called Microsoft Expression Encoder). That will produce the best source video, but WebCaster also allows a standard “plug and play” webcam as video input if necessary. That avoids the entire encoding step for people who don’t know how or don’t want to manage it.
At the moment, MediaPlatform does not extend its encoder-bypass step to allow native screen sharing straight from a host’s computer desktop (a common feature in webinar or web meeting products). But this is in beta and they expect to add the functionality later this year.
I was impressed by some of the features offered for administrators/producers after a webcast is over. They can see a variety of charts, graphs, and reports covering audience activity and statistics. For instance, you can create a Google Maps overlay to see where your audience attended from. MediaPlatform includes “campaign tracking” so you can add a parameter to different registration links and follow which promotional activity produced the best results for registration and attendance.
An online editor allows producers to manipulate the archive recording of a webcast. The most common task is to simply trim the beginning or end to get rid of dead air before and after the main content. But MediaPlatform also added a feature I have only seen in dedicated third-party A/V editing tools… Timelines show the audio and video content along with actions such as starting a poll or running a video clip. You can drag an action along the timeline to resynchronize it to the proper point in the flow after making edits. This is tremendously useful and powerful.
Recordings are stored on the MediaPlatform server, but producers can download a copy of the recording in Flash FLV format for more advanced editing or re-hosting/distribution if desired.
Companies that want to produce fee-based webcasts (pay to attend) can ask MediaPlatform to do a custom integration to a PayPal merchant account.
I would say at the moment that the weak spot in terms of functionality and flexibility is audience chat. Admittedly, this is not quite as critical an issue when dealing with audience sizes in the tens of thousands… There simply isn’t a practical way to monitor, manage, and respond to individual comments from that many people. Webcasts to groups of that size tend to be one-way affairs, with some interactive polling to judge group opinions. To be brutally honest, chat is usually turned on as a psychological “trick” to make audience members feel more involved. But the current implementation does not even allow for a private response to a single audience member. Hosts/producers can only send out general “public bulletin” messages. MediaPlatform is working on adding private response right now (and may well have it implemented by the time you read this).
This is an interesting look at a segment of the web communications industry that at first glance seems identical to more familiar webinar products such as Cisco WebEx / Adobe Connect / Citrix GoToWebinar. But the requirements for running smooth audio/video streams to massive audience sizes are indeed different, and MediaPlatform is striking a nice balance between the functionality and convenience of those cloud-based webinar products and the power and reliability of the turnkey production houses that have traditionally been necessary.