Review: Onstream Media Webcasting Service

Onstream Media’s webcasting service provides a soup-to-nuts system for broadcasting PowerPoint slides and talking-head video to a computer-based or mobile audience, with interactive elements such as Q&A, polling, and surveys, with registration facilities at the front end and analytics at the back end. The system can automatically transcode incoming Flash video for HTTP Live Streaming (HLS) delivery and exclusively uses the Akamai content delivery network (CDN) for public media delivery. To test the system, I ran two public webinars; both of them were technically flawless from Onstream Media’s perspective. If you’re considering a rich media broadcast, Onstream Media should definitely make your short list.

Setting Up the Webcast

Once you sign up for a webcast, you get assigned an event coordinator who will walk you through the production process. The coordinator can create and configure the entire webcast for you, which is how I worked through the first webcast. At the 1,000 total video audience size (for live viewing and archived viewing), the estimated cost using this approach is around $1,800. Or, you can create and configure the necessary pages yourself, saving between $300 and $500, which is how I produced the second. If you’re producing a one-off webcast, pay the money; if you’re starting a series, pay for the first, and then clone your first webinar and customize it as necessary for future events.

The Visual Webcaster 4 interface is HTML-based, with buttons on the bottom logically driving the workflow from setting up the webcast to production. You start by inserting the basic webcast information, such as title, date, time, and duration in the Webcast Info field, then you move to Webcast Features. Figure 1 shows the features available in the system.

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Figure 1. The features available with Visual Webcaster 4

As an overview, there are four main pages involved in the webcast. For the viewer, there’s the eponymous registration page; the listen page, where the viewer visits to launch the webcast; and the player, where the viewer plays the webcast. For the producer, there’s the produce webcast page, where you actually run the webcast. When you’re configuring your webcast, you start by choosing webcast features, since these control the fields and features available in the player and produce webcast pages.

Most of the content-related features shown in Figure 1 are self-explanatory, including the ability to integrate PowerPoint slides, polling, Q&A, and surveys, as well as the ability to upload supporting materials that viewers can download. For example, for both webcasts, viewers could download a PDF of the slides used during the presentation, which was a popular feature that most participants leveraged.

On the marketing side, enabling social media allows you to add buttons for sharing the broadcast with connections on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, or via email. Obviously, if you’re seeking the broadest possible audience, these links can be exceptionally useful.

There are multiple levels of security, including password protection and IP range restriction, where you can limit viewing to specific URLs or block URLs. You can also implement URL referral restriction, where you can host the originating URL on your own webpage within the firewall, and limit viewers to those connecting via that page.

You choose the video audience size so Onstream can reserve the capacity. Pricing is based on the number of streams, which you buy in blocks of 1,000. Once you reach the reserved threshold, you can opt to either get billed for the overages or to cut off additional registrations to avoid the additional fees.

For those interested in continuing education, Onstream recently added a cost-per-engagement (CPE) module, which lets you select the number of credits a viewer can earn and the criteria for earning them, which can be a certain number of correct polling responses, a certain number of minutes watched, or both. The module can also help you design the certificate and email it to viewers who earned the credits.

Media I/O

You have significant flexibility regarding the output streams produced by Onstream from the single video that you transmit into the system. For example, you can produce single or multiple Windows Media, Flash, and HLS streams. Streams can be either 4:3 or 16:9, though 4:3 seemed to fit better in the web player. That’s what I used.

If all intended viewers of a webcast are behind the same firewall and on a multicast-enabled network, you can deliver the stream via multicast from your own Windows Media server. Though I didn’t test this functionality, it could be invaluable for corporations broadcasting internally.

Onstream offers significant flexibility regarding signal acquisition. For example, your source can be a video conferencing unit (VCU) via integrated services digital network (ISDN) or IP, a satellite downlink, fiber optic circuit, or a real-time messaging protocol (RTMP) stream from any encoder that supports that output. Note that Onstream can handle multiple audio/video inputs from disparate locations, which is a nice feature for round-table discussions and the like.

Page Design

You design the registration and listen pages in an HTML-based, WYSIWYG interface with easy access to the HTML source code for fine-tuning. The basic building blocks are images and custom regions for text, with an (optional) 25-pixel grid to assist your placement and alignment (Figure 2). You can import design components such as title, date, and time from the setup page, with canned entries for showing support information and a calendar reminder for the viewer. You can also present videos in the sign-up page, which can help describe the content or otherwise help convince the potential viewer to register.

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Figure 2. The WYSIWYG registration page designer

Text controls are typical and should be instantly usable by anyone familiar with Microsoft Word. You can resize and move all blocks very easily, making for a fast and simple design process. However, there are no alignment or layering type controls, which might frustrate the most meticulous of designers.

To assist in collecting registration information, Onstream provides a registration question creator that’s pretty slick. You click the information that you want captured (first name, last name, etc.) and designate which is required and which is optional. The software creates the entry field and inserts it into the registration page. You can design questions to be answered via text entries, check boxes, radio buttons, and drop-down menus, with all information neatly inserted into the Webcast Users database.

Survey and polls are great ways to gather information and keep viewers engaged. As with the registration form, survey questions can be text-only, or answered via check boxes, radio buttons, or drop-down menus. Polls are simpler and can only be answered via radio buttons.

Player design is flexible and simple, with controls neatly divided among functional components such as player window, header, and controls. You can choose the color for the various elements and insert your own graphics for branding. You can also insert links to purchase content on both iTunes and Amazon, which is a useful feature for those seeking to monetize their presentations.

Viewer Workflow

Once you create the sign-up page, you get a fixed URL that you can email to your prospects in the webinar pitch email. Those who want to attend click the link and complete the required information. Registrants receive an automated confirmation email of your design with a link to the listen page, from which they can download a calendar reminder, and to which they’ll return to watch the program.

Beyond this, all emails are manually generated and must be sent through your event coordinator, which seemed like an unnecessary hassle and cost, and it was a key difference between Onstream and MediaPlatform. For example, other systems I’ve worked with let you send automated emails such as a prewebinar reminder, with separate emails for registrants who did and didn’t attend the show.

I asked Onstream why these customer-driven capabilities weren’t available, and my contact relayed that the company previously had similar capabilities, but that the volume of emails sent by its customers had caused issues with spam filters. Again, you can send all these emails through the system, if desired, but you have to go through the event coordinator. Or, you can export the content information at any time and use your own email facilities to contact registrants, viewers, and no-shows.

One other feature available on some competitive systems, but not Onstream, was the ability to track registrants by link source. For example, if you send a pitch letter to three lists, you can code each link separately and track which list each respondent came from. With Onstream, you don’t have this capability. While there are several workarounds available using the the Onstream system, the direct ability to track viewer by source would be a nice additional feature.

Project Workflow

As previously mentioned, Onstream offers several levels of service. If you opt for the full service “white-glove” package, your event coordinator will walk you through a rehearsal the day before the event. On the day of, your event coordinator and project engineers will conference with you before the event, verifying audio/ video quality and other settings, and basically holding your hand to help ensure that the event goes smoothly. Overall, this level of service was very useful for the first webcast.

On the second webcast, when I took the hands-off approach, I found myself worrying about 20 minutes before the event that my signal looked awful or that my audio was poor. That’s because on the standard Produce Webcast screen, shown in Figure 3, you can’t see the video or hear the audio; it’s primarily available to push the slides and manage the Q&A.

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Figure 3. The Produce Webcast module that you use to control the webcast.

Fortunately, my event coordinator had provided me a telephone number for Onstream engineering, so I called and got a status report. The engineer actually thought my video was running a bit hot, so I closed the aperture one stop and avoided overexposure. Lighting is always a problem with selfie-webcasts, and I was glad to have the assistance. Speaking of that, I should say that both the coordinator and engineers that I spoke with were absolutely top-notch, responsive, knowledgeable, and a great feature of the overall service. Nice work, people.

After the event, I asked my Onstream contact whether I could have gotten a link to watch the live feed before the event to perform this type of debugging on my own. The answer was yes, but you have to ask for it in advance. If you take the drive-your-own-webcast approach with Onstream, I recommend that you do that.

Finalizing the prep stage, Onstream makes it easy to upload your slides and your handouts, which I did about an hour before the event. Other services seem to insist on much longer lead times, but Onstream uploads and processes your content in a matter of moments.

Going Live

Going live could be a touch more polished, particularly for those producing selfies or with limited staff. Specifically, once you start streaming (and the player goes live 15 minutes before the event), viewers can see the video and all your last-minute preparations unless you take steps to avoid this. During the first webinar, I used Wirecast software from Telestream and displayed a graphic before the event went live. To go live, I cut to the live feed in Wirecast.

For diversity’s sake, I used the Adobe Flash Media Live Encoder for the second webinar, which doesn’t offer the same feature. To shut out the audience, I taped a piece of cardboard in front of my camera lens until the webinar began, so early birds couldn’t see my pre-event fidgets. Again, lots of simple workarounds; use Wirecast or a TriCaster, or, if you have helpers, focus the camera on a wall or computer screen with the appropriate message. In contrast, however, other systems let you cut to the live video with a simple button, which would be a nice option.

During the event, the speaker’s sole task is to click Next to send the next slide to the viewers (Figure 3). Note that you can also click the slides in the slide panel on the left to load a slide, so it’s easy to go back and forth if you need to.

To take questions at the end of the webinar, you click the Q&A tab on the upper right. Attendees seemed to like the function; I got 20 questions in the first presentation and 14 in the second.

Watching the Event

Viewers watch in the typical webcast player, with video on one side and PowerPoint on the other (Figure 4). Note that this is the archived version of the player; during the webinar itself, there’s a tab for asking questions. Another function of the archived player is the automatic indexing function that you see on the lower left; this lets viewers click directly to the desired slide, providing very useful interactivity for those who want to jump to specific content in the webinar. In 20:20 hindsight, I’d probably make the video window smaller and the PowerPoint slides larger, which is certainly an option in the player designer.

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Figure 4. The player for an archived webcast.

I played back the archived webcast on an iPad, and the experience was virtually identical to a computer. It had good audio and video quality, as well as full interactivity with the indexed content. With an iPhone, you can choose between just the video, or the slides and audio, again with full interactivity with the indexed content.

Every party has a pooper, and, often with streaming, it’s Android playback. I tested archived playback on a Toshiba Thrive tablet running Android version 4.04; although the video played back fine, the Indexing tab did not appear on the player. I checked, and indexing isn’t a feature supported by Onstream on the Android platform. Note that you can check mobile and desktop playback on my archived video streams.

During both events, I peaked at just under 60 simultaneous viewers and was distributing a 500 Kbps audio/video stream plus the PowerPoint slides. Onstream distributes its streams via Akamai’s CDN, which all seemed to go very smoothly, with no customer complaints of any kind. As part of its standard package, Onstream hosts the webinar on its website for a year after the event, so you continue to collect eyeballs once the live event is over.

Analytics

Onstream provides a nice range of analytics, including how long each viewer watched the webinar, as well as which stream they watched and other technical details. You can export a comma separated values (CSV) file with additional data such as whether viewers downloaded the handout and how they responded to polls and surveys.

You can see the other reports in tabs on the top of the Figure 5, which includes a bar chart of live viewers (Live Users), a page to download registration-related data (Registration), the afore-mentioned viewer details (Webcast Users), statistics about those viewing the archived and live streams (Statistics, shown in Figure 5), a list of all questions and answers, a combined list of live and archived viewers, and a no-show list of registrants who didn’t view either. If you click the Summary button on the upper left, you get the Summary screen shown on the right in Figure 5.

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Figure 5. Onstream’s analytics were functional and useful.

Overall, Onstream’s platform provided all the key features I needed for my webcasts, with hand-holding when I needed it for the first webinar, and it provided excellent responsiveness to my harried requests for the second. I had no system-related complaints from my viewers, which is always a good thing, allowing me to recommend the system whole-heartedly to anyone considering one or more rich media broadcasts.

This article appears in the October/November 2013 issue of Streaming Media magazine as “Review: Onstream Media Webcasting Service.”

About Jan Ozer

I help companies train new technical hires in streaming media-related positions; I also help companies optimize their codec selections and encoding stacks, and evaluate new encoders and codecs.

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