1.4/26  TheCounter.com Professional Edition -Streaming Media


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TheCounter.com Professional Edition
Vol. 2 Number 17
April 26, 2001


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Next Wave of the Web - Streaming Media in Web Sites by Charlie Morris

The next wave is coming, folks. It's a full-motion surround-sound Tsunami that will sweep away TVs, stereo gear and all the rest of our antiquated audio/video hardware, sucking them into the all-consuming Maelstrom of the Internet.

Two trends are contributing to the current explosion of streaming media-enabled sites. Traditional radio stations are getting on the Web, and they need both to get their existing programming online and to establish an informational Web site to serve their listeners and business associates, just like any other business. At the same time, all kinds of businesses, even those that have nothing to do with music or audio, are starting to use streaming media for things like employee training, intra-company news and communication, and so on. They need to broadcast-enable their existing sites.

Different Web sites exist for different purposes, and so they need to follow somewhat different design philosophies. For a radio station, streaming media will be the centerpiece of their Internet strategy. Those who are using streaming merely as a corporate communication tool will take a different approach. In either case, however, streaming media must be smoothly integrated into a Web site, and it should be optimized to take advantage of all the capabilities of the medium.

Shall we go through all the steps involved in building, promoting and maintaining an effective business Web site? Very tempting, but we'll restrain ourselves and discuss just those aspects of Web site design that relate specifically to streaming media-oriented sites.


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DIY, or Purchase a Turnkey Solution?
In today's cafeteria-style economy, a Web site owner can outsource as much or as little of the site development and maintenance processes as desired. Nowadays, any Web design shop worth its salt offers streaming media capabilities as part of its services, and should be able to incorporate a serviceable media front end into a site. But those with more robust streaming needs, such as a radio station or other media company, may consider purchasing a "streaming solution" from one of various companies, even while doing overall Web site development in-house, or through a separate Web design shop.

Let's take a look at a couple of companies that let you outsource the "front end" (developing a user interface and incorporating it into a Web site) of online broadcasting.

One such company is WEBCASTi (http://www.webcasti.fm/), which caters specifically to the needs of radio stations. Apart from the cool domain names (.fm and .am), WEBCASTi offers a "Turnkey Webcasting Solution" that includes developing a custom media player, targeted ad insertion, and access to the iBeam streaming media network.

Another player in this field is RadioWave (http://www.radiowave.com/site.htm), which is coy about what they actually do, but has an impressive client list.

The Branded Player
As we've seen in previous articles, offering streaming media on a Web page is not particularly difficult - just link to a media file. When the user clicks the link, the appropriate player (Real, Windows Media or QuickTime) pops up and plays the stream. But oh how boring that is, when you could have your own branded player.

A so-called branded player enables a Web site owner to experience the full benefits of streaming media, and is perhaps the most important component of a turnkey streaming solution. The branded player can pop up in its own window, or it can be embedded in a larger Web page. The examples offered by WEBCASTi are typical of the species.

In addition to its basic function of giving the user control over media play, the branded player provides a certain amount of screen space that can be used to display any or all of the following elements:

-- Transport Controls. Obviously Play, Stop and (for non-live content) Rewind/Forward buttons must be provided, but their size and appearance should fit in with the overall look of the player. Other controls, such as Volume and Pan, are optional.

-- Web Site Logo and Branding. This is kind of the whole point. Whether you're a radio station, other media company, or even a non media-related organization, you want a custom player that reinforces your brand, not one that acts as a free ad for the company that makes it.

-- Web Site Links. The branded player is not intended to replace the Web site home page, but should provide a link to the home page, and possibly another link or two to key sections of the site.

-- Graphical Display. This is where video content appears. It can also be used to display related graphics in conjunction with audio-only content. For example, an album cover shot or other artist picture(s) can appear as a song plays.

-- Content-specific Links. You can provide links to sites with more information about the currently playing content, including sites where merchandise can be ordered online.

-- Banner Ads. You didn't think this wonderful interactive media experience was totally free, did you?

These aren't the only options. Indeed, the sky's the limit. For the site owner, the branded player has two functions: to reinforce the branding of the site, and to offer links to related content while streamed programming plays. The possibilities for related content are vast, so if you have the imagination and the time and money for development, you can create a highly customized and interactive user experience. Consider that, in a world in which the same content may be available from many different streaming sites, whether a user comes back to your site may depend on how cool your media player is.

There are several different ways to create a branded player. Perhaps the simplest is to design a dynamic HTML or XML page which pops up in a custom-defined browser window. Also, the various media players themselves can be customized to a certain extent to create an individualized player. Another possibility is to use Netscape's Gecko to build a custom browser, while yet another would be to use SMIL in conjunction with some scripting. Or how about writing a whole mini-application in Java? The possible technical means by which to create a branded player are almost endless.

What about money?
In a few short years, we've gone from asking "will it ever be possible to make any money from a Web site? To asking "is it still possible to make any money from a Web site?" In the past year, Web advertising dollars have dried up faster than the Floridan aquifer, and many site owners probably think of incremental revenue from ad sales as a mere pipe dream (which is just how many folks saw Internet audio five years ago). But advertising has always been a boom-n-bust business, and online ad sales will eventually pick up.

Anyway, in good times or bad, streaming media does give you an edge, because you can sell two types of ads - audio or video ads embedded in the programming, and banner ads ensconced in the media player. Furthermore, a radio or TV station has another ace in the hole - a pre-existing customer base. Just like a print magazine that also has a Web site, an existing broadcaster already has clients who are buying traditional radio or TV ads. Adding some online ads as a bonus to a traditional media ad buy is often an easy sell.

Serving banner ads (at least on a full-scale commercial level) is a complicated and expensive proposition, which makes it an excellent candidate for outsourcing. Coordinating audio and banner campaigns adds another layer of complexity, so ad insertion can be a very valuable service for a solutions provider to offer.

WEBCASTi offers ad insertion in partnership with iBEAM and Scott Studios. Touting a "turnkey, full-service advertising solution," they offer ad serving, ad sales and complete campaign management and reporting. Their system uses the Engage Knowledge database, which contains millions of user profiles, to help advertisers target likely marks.

Music and media sites also have another possible revenue source in the form of e-commerce partnerships. Like the music you're hearing? Want to know more about the artist? Buy a CD? T-shirt? Concert posters? Action figures? Cereal? Click right here.

Different Strokes for Different Sites
Online radio stations are the most visible (and the most fun) applications of streaming media, and we've been discussing them quite a lot in this column. However, radio stations and other media-oriented businesses are by no means the only organizations that are incorporating streaming media into their Internet strategy.

In fact, almost any organization may find itself considering the benefits of streaming media. Of course, the uses they put it to differ widely, and so should the way in which they incorporate it into their Web site. Many aspects of Web site design are dictated by the end purpose of a Web site (or should be), and streaming media is no exception. Let's discuss just a few examples of different goals and different media strategies.

A Radio or TV Station Site
For a broadcaster, streaming media is the raison d'etre of their site, and it should be treated accordingly. Just as an e-commerce site features large and prominent links to their ordering page, an online radio station typically places a link called "Listen Now" or "On the Air" or some such, in an eye-catching position "above the fold." As the Webcast is the star of the show, all aspects of it should be of top quality, from a full-featured and easy-to-use branded player to a high-performance Streaming Media Network (SMN) that offers the user a trouble-free broadcast.

Of course, not all online radio stations have the same goals. Some are existing traditional stations that simply want to extend their geographic reach, and prepare for the eventual obsolescence of AM/FM broadcasting, by putting their existing programming online. Others are expanding their program offerings to include multiple simultaneous streams or "channels."

In either case, many broadcasters offer archived content in addition to their live programming. Archived content can be streamed or, alternatively, offered in the form of downloadable files (usually in MP3 format).


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A Record Company Site
For a record company or artist, Webcasting fills a different role than for a broadcaster per se. While a broadcaster exists to broadcast, a record company exists to sell CDs, DVDs or whatever. As we've noted several times in this column, this is a bit of an artificial distinction, which will eventually fade away, but for the moment it's very much alive.

For site owners in this category, Webcasting is not a product, but a tool to help sell a product (CDs, etc.). Indeed, the recording industry tends to see the entire concept of radio and TV as a marketing tool rather than a service in its own right. Record companies aren't selling music by the file yet - they're still shipping little discs of plastic around the world. The music they offer online is in the form of "samples" or "teasers," designed to let you hear enough to want to buy the CD, but not enough to make buying it unnecessary.

Does being able to download music free really cut into potential CD sales? Maybe so, maybe not, but record companies are firmly convinced that it does, and thus they tend to follow two principles in their site design: First, they prefer streaming over downloading, as the former makes it harder for users to save music as a permanent file. Second, they almost never offer the entire contents of any particular CD online. A snippet here, a sneak preview there, is the order of the day. As we've seen, some record companies are more generous than others with their free offerings, but none are giving away the store.

"Theme-based" Web sites were the rage among Web designers a couple of years ago. Alligator Records' (http://www.alligatorrecords.com/) site is an example of how cool such a site can be if done properly. The home page is "Blues Street," with a guitar-playing gator or two lounging around, and storefronts leading to the main sections (Record Store, Artists' Entrance, Blues News, etc.). This clickable image map is backed up, as is proper, by text navbars at top and bottom. The site features a Webcast that spotlights Alligator artists. Alligator Radio sports a branded player that really brands. An elaborate animated intro (featuring their hip green gator mascot, of course) distracts the viewer while the audio is buffering.

A Corporate Site
Radio stations and record companies want their sites to be the hippest of the hip, but most non-media corporations want just the opposite. They want to disseminate information efficiently and cheaply, both within the company and to the outside world. Of course, this is just what streaming media excels at, so make no mistake - the staid and respectable corporates are getting geared up for online broadcasting, too. As always when designing for corporate clients, however, taste and discretion are the order of the day.

Major corporations aren't embedding full-motion video commercials in their home pages just yet (and it would be okay if they never do). They are, however, making use of Webcasting for various internal applications. Internal corporate video has been widespread for years, and in almost all of the applications where it's used, big cost savings can be achieved by moving it to the Web.

There are many streaming solutions providers that target the business-oriented market. Some of them occupy pretty specialized niches, for example Online Events (http://www.onlineevents.com/), which specializes in investor relations Webcasting, and PR Webcast (http://www.prwebcast.com/), which offers Webcasts of press releases and press conferences.

Catch the Next Wave
We've covered the hardware, the software, the legal, financial and philosophical aspects - just about all you need to know to get streaming programming up and running on the Internet. But online A/V is evolving rapidly, and there are plenty of new surprises around the bend. Interestingly, a couple of mainstream business magazines have recently identified streaming media as the "next big thing" in the Internet world.

About the Author:

Charlie Morris has been involved with the Internet since caveman times (1994). He was previously the managing editor of The Web Developer's Journal and The Tapeless Studio. His other activities include freelance writing, freelance Web site design, Internet marketing consulting work, and playing guitar in a blues band. He divides his time between Europe and Florida.

Reprinted from The Web Developer's Virtual Library http://wdvl.internet.com/WDVL/


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