Despite the Hype, Is Meerkat Really Worth Your Time?

The streaming video app Meerkat is the tech world’s buzzy new social network, but it’s unclear whether it will be able to provide any real value to brands and publishers in the long run.

For anyone who has been living under a rock these past two weeks, or lives anywhere in the country besides tech and media-obsessed New York or San Francisco, Meerkat is a new iPad and iPhone app that allows people to broadcast live video streams from their mobile devices and automatically promote them to their Twitter followers.

If you’ve been reading the headlines, you might be under the impression that the app is the next big thing. Business Insider says “people are going crazy” for it, The Verge declared it is “turning live video into a big deal again,” and Digiday planted its flag in the ground with the first explainer of the platform aimed at advertising executives.

This level of optimism is not entirely without reason. Meerkat combines the anything-can-happen drama of live television with the user-created intimacy of YouTube. If nothing else, this formula was wildly successful for Twitch, the video game streaming platform that Amazon purchased last year for just shy of $1 billion.

But where Twitch was a platform for people with an interest in video games, it is not readily apparent how Meerkat will make itself a destination. As the failure of the low-profile uStream and the now-defunct have shown, live video shot from a mobile device is not particularly appealing unless what’s being captured is unusually compelling.

The primary difference between Meerkat and these platforms is the former’s integration with Twitter, which has become the go-to platform for people to discuss live events ranging from protests to sporting events. Indeed, live video and Twitter seem like a natural fit, and Business Insider recently reported that the social network purchased a mobile video streaming platform with the same basic functionality as Meerkat, called Periscope, just last month.

But while Meerkat’s integration with Twitter makes it appealing to the site’s core audience of media-savvy technophiles, its exclusivity to Twitter will likely be a turnoff to those looking to distribute their videos beyond the social network’s users.

At present, Meerkat requires people without a Twitter account to jump through hoops in order to use it, a dicey proposition given that Twitter is notoriously difficult for new users to become accustomed to. Before anything else, prospective Meerkat users must sign in with their Twitter handles, and the only way to follow others on Meerkat is to follow them on Twitter.

The app’s reliance on Twitter is compounded by the fact there is no internal search function: Users can only discover videos from people they don’t follow on Twitter by logging into Twitter and search for “Meerkat.”

Still, the app’s inaccessibility to non-Twitter users is counterbalanced by the fact that it gives those comfortable with the social media platform unprecedented ease when going back and forth between watching video and discussing it with others. Twitter veterans will find it convenient that they do not have to go to the trouble of adding all of their friends to their Meerkat follow list, and those who want to discuss Meerkat videos on Twitter will be pleased to find that their comments inside the livestream are published automatically to their feeds.

But despite this convenience for experienced Twitter users, it’s hard to think of an instance when a brand or publisher would be better off shooting and distributing live video on Meerkat than they would be creating and hosting the content elsewhere.

Even if people are more likely to discuss a Meerkat video on Twitter than one hosted by uStream, the increased engagement could very well come at the expense of exposing the video to a lot more people by posting on as many platforms as possible. While Twitter’s 288 million monthly active users is nothing to sneeze at, that number pales in comparison to Facebook’s 1.4 billion.

So if Meerkat and uStream both require publishers to place a link on Twitter leading users off the site, wouldn’t it make more sense to use the platform that enables you to also share the link to a wider audience on Facebook or to embed the video on your own website? For all of the talk about Twitter’s strength in real-time discussion, more people discussed the most recent World Cup on Facebook than used Twitter at all during the month-long event.

This isn’t to say Twitter can’t find a way to use live video to capitalize on its real-time stream. If it were to create a way for publishers to publish live video directly into its feed, which it might be planning with its Periscope acquisition, Twitter could offer media organizations a very valuable proposition that even Facebook wouldn’t be able to match.

For instance, think of how easy it would be for someone like CBS to grab users’ attention with an on-the-ground live feed from a war zone or a protest march. Or how many people would be glued to their Twitter feeds if ESPN pushed out a hand-held stream from the winning team’s locker room after the Super Bowl.

While they still wouldn’t be able to match Facebook when it comes to scale, a platform integration such as this would take advantage of Twitter’s unique capabilities and give users a live, social experience they couldn’t find anywhere else on the web.

Meerkat, on the other hand, could just be a nuisance.

Image by Ljupco Smokovski, Aaron Amat

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