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Meerkat, Periscope and why brands should get in early on the live streaming action

Meerkat's Ben Rubin

It’s 2am in a Manhattan nightclub and Ben Rubin, the 27-year-old founder of live video streaming app Meerkat doesn’t seem to have a care in the world.

Rubin, a former architecture student from Israel, was thrust into the limelight earlier this year when his brainchild Meerkat, which allows Twitter users to stream live video footage from their phones, became an almost instant hit.

Within days of the app launching all kinds of celebrities from Ashton Kutcher to Tony Hawk and even Rio Ferdinand were ‘meerkating’ their every move. A few weeks later Meerkat took SXSW Interactive by storm and within a month the service had racked up hundreds of thousands of users.

With over $18,2m worth of venture capital reportedly under his belt, Rubin was all set to become the next Silicon Valley sensation. But then things started to go a bit pear-shaped. Twitter unveiled its own video streaming service, Periscope – and promptly blocked Meerkat users from automatically connecting with their friends via its platform. Then, as quickly as they had hailed its success, the Palo Alto pundits were giving Meerkat just months before it disappeared back into its burrow with its fluffy little tail between its legs.

The future of Meerkat may still be uncertain but at least the premise on which it’s based looks set to be a lasting one. A premise that Rubin explained (several hours before he started enjoying New York’s nightlife) to a room full of brands, content creators and media owners at the recent DigitasLBi New Front.

According to Rubin, we are entering a new paradigm in the way people engage with entertainment, one that is defined by active audiences rather than passive consumers. “If the past decade has been about people sharing content then the next decade will be about people participating in content,” he says. “The future will be defined by interconnected screens and conversations owned by everyone.”

The arrival of Meerkat does indeed come at a time when we are witnessing a shift in the way people consume content, certainly in the way they watch TV. We’ve already experienced the lingering death of linear TV, superseded by on-demand entertainment allowing people to watch what they want, where they want, when they want. However, beyond audience fragmentation and choice paralysis, another side effect of TV’s evolution turned out to be the loss of the shared viewing experience we all so cherished.

Recently though, thanks largely to dual screening we are seeing the resurgence of appointment to view TV with people flocking to Twitter or Facebook for all new digital watercooler moments. Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead for example wouldn’t be the same without the cacophonous social media commentary that now accompanies them. And of course thanks to Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat et al we can perpetuate this desire to share our every waking moment in all other areas of our lives.

However, Meerkat and Periscope are interesting because they take things one step further, inviting users to become the star of their own reality TV show. “We are witnessing the birth of a new participatory medium,” says Rubin. “One that dissolves the barrier between broadcasters and audiences. One that empowers viewers to feel that they are actively taking part and changing reality.”

While this may be a terrifying prospect for some, marketers would do well to get in early on the live streaming action. Recording artists including Madonna are already using Meerkat to peddle their wares, whilst brands such as Red Bull, Spotify and DKNY have been quick to experiment with Periscope.

Live video streaming will only increase in popularity thanks to our unquenchable desire for 15 seconds of internet fame. And for brand owners, the chance to ‘be’ the conversation in a unique and original way rather than just being part of it is too good to miss.

Things are certainly looking up for Meerkat following its recent deal with Facebook, but while the jury may still be out for the fledgling company, it seems live video streaming is here to stay. And as for Rubin? Well as long as the music keeps playing he’ll undoubtedly keep dancing.

Gareth Jones is chief brand & content officer at DigitasLBi

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