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The Latency Equation for Amazing UGC User Experiences

March 21, 2017 by Chris Michaels

An ever-growing share of time spent online is consuming user-generated content (UGC). The rise of UGC is tied to consumers’ increased desire for authentic experiences. Studies show consumers now trust UGC more than any other type of media. What’s more, websites that feature UGC keep visitors on the site 90 percent longer than sites without it. Of the top 100 videos tracked in one 30-day period, 50 percent of those on Facebook and 32 percent of those on YouTube were UGC—versus just 1 percent and 17 percent, respectively, created by brands.

What makes this content compelling is the ability to interact with it in real time, as the broadcaster is experiencing it. For this degree of real-time interaction to be possible, latency must be at an absolute minimum. On platforms offering purely ephemeral live streams, such as Snapchat, Instagram and Live.ly, users must watch in real time, before the content disappears forever—further tapping into users’ Fear of Missing Out (FoMO). Other platforms, such as Facebook and YouTube Live, allow live streams to be saved as permanent posts, a strategy known as live-to-VOD (video on demand). This drives additional viewership for streams that users missed the first time around.

When the UX Is Real Life, Low Latency Is Key

UGC apps capture and share moments as they're happening, making users across the globe feel like part of each other’s everyday lives. This may explain why more U.S. adults think about checking their smartphone when they wake up than think about their significant other. Of course, to truly simulate real life, UGC apps need to utilize low-latency streaming video.

As in the online gaming market, apps that allow for a high degree of real-time interactivity will have a competitive advantage. The user experience is dependent on how quickly videos load, their level of quality and the degree to which users can interact with streamers. Six seconds or less is considered a good latency score for UGC apps, but three seconds or less is ideal.  

UGC apps also tend to be “surfed” by users, who will scroll until they find a clip they find interesting. If streams don’t load immediately or play properly, users will quickly move on to the next one. If they encounter too many problematic videos, they may abandon the app.

UGC video has an advantage in delivering low latency over other streaming platforms, such as sports or news broadcasting apps, because most of the traffic is from one mobile device to another. While this can present network challenges, it also means platforms can use smaller video resolution when streaming—after all, there’s no need to transmit 1080p video to the tiny screen of a smartphone. Instead of transmitting video streams at 4 Mbps, UGC apps can send streams at 1 Mbps, which takes up less bandwidth and helps reduce latency.

As a whole, UGC apps had the lowest latency ratings of any of the markets we tested. To see how individual platforms measure up, we analyzed our test results for seven well-known, publicly available UGC apps. Here are the results:

YouNow Disrupts With Low Latency and High Engagement

Echoing trends in the gaming market, video-streaming startup YouNow is beating industry titans by providing richest and most consistent user experience. YouNow scored 2.5 seconds across the board for both average end-to-end latency and average TTFF.

For YouNow, engagement is key. Since streamers make money directly off viewer interactions, YouNow immediately encourages streamers to start their first stream, and gives tips on how to incentivise their audiences and gamify the interactions. Viewers pay to have their real-time comments highlighted so the streamer doesn’t miss them, or to give gifts to streamers that help them trend faster. YouNow doles out payments to its highest-performing streamers, and has given out more than $1 million to date.

Given this, low latency is crucial for both streamers and the platform itself. Viewers will only contribute if they have a positive experience that allows for a high degree of interactivity and response from the streamer—which requires that videos load quickly and play at high quality. Not only can users interact with live broadcasts through comments and gifts, YouNow boasts an “advice” section, where streamers take viewer questions via chat and answer them in real time. The platform also supports video chat for users who want to call each other directly. These features are another driving factor behind YouNow’s low latency numbers—particularly end-to-end latency, since real-time interaction depends on uninterrupted streaming.

While live streams can be saved for future viewing on YouNow, founder and CEO Adi Sideman told TechCrunch that "nobody watches live stream archives." After all, the draw of live-streaming video is the fact that viewers are experiencing a moment in real time—which is why live videos are watched three times longer, on average, than recorded ones. However, YouNow has a unique feature designed to increase engagement with pre-recorded streams. When a viewer finds an interesting moment in a video, they can share up to 15 seconds of it by holding their finger on the screen.

Finally, YouNow gamifies the experience for both viewers and broadcasters by creating “levels”: The higher your level, the more interactive extras you can access. Viewers advance levels by giving gifts and “stickers” to streamers to put on their profile; by “liking” videos and chatting; and by following streamers. Streamers advance by receiving stickers, gifts and likes; gaining followers; and by the number of streams they broadcast.

What’s more, anyone can advance levels by promoting individual streams or YouNow on other social media platforms; getting new users to join; or by integrating their profile with other networks. Of course, to be properly incentivized, users need to have a high-quality experience with the platform—which relies on low latency. YouNow’s competitive advantage rests on the interactive capabilities enabled by high-quality video streaming.

Flurry Captures User Base With Interactive Extras

Flurry live streaming app also smashes the end-to-end latency ratings, clocking in at two seconds in our tests. TTFF scores were a little higher: as low as three seconds and as high as five. While the other platforms we tested cater to broad audiences, Flurry and Live.ly primarily serve a teenage user base—Flurry Live describes the mobile app as oriented toward teens, while TechCrunch reports that about half of Live.ly’s users are teenagers. This user-base is one that expects more than just a simple video stream, or interactive likes and gifts. Instead, it expects real-time interactivity.

Flurry offers a unique experience that brings user engagement to the next level: Viewers can video chat with streamers during the broadcast, in real time. Similar to Apple’s FaceTime feature, this provides an intimate degree of interactivity that chat simply can’t provide. Low latency is essential for this level of real-time engagement. When video chat stalls or takes a long time to load, the face-to-face element of the interaction is lost, and the conversation becomes hard to follow.

Because users tend to connect with friends or their favorite stars through the app, Flurry’s higher TTFF rate makes sense. When seeking out a specific stream, viewers will be more likely to put up with a few seconds of loading time without frustration—as opposed to the shorter tempers users may have when surfing.

Facebook Smashes TTFF and Delivery at Scale

As it frequently does, Facebook is dominating the live-streaming video market, despite its longer latency: 500 million users view videos on Facebook each day, to Instagram Stories’ 100 million users. Facebook Live users have the advantage of being able to build on their existing follower bases, rather than having to start from scratch. Facebook is the largest social media platform, approaching 2 billion active monthly users at the time of publication, and Instagram is the second-most popular. That gives streamers a great opportunity to capture a very wide audience, contributing to a positive user experience.

A core part of Facebook's strategy is to deliver the live to VOD experience, allowing for additional views after a live session has ended. These residual views help to build an audience even further, and give traditional broadcasters and news outlets a way to extend the news relevance to stories and events. Be it a White House briefing or a major news story from the far reaches of the globe, the ability to have the VOD content gives additional power to Facebook's video offering--and one that has the potential of surpassing YouTube's if Facebook's viewing statistic trends continue.

With pre-recorded video, TTFF becomes a more important metric. While video must still play without excessive stuttering, what’s most important is that it loads quickly, so it isn’t scrolled past. Facebook Live beats the pack for TTFF metrics, and will likely continue to smash startup speeds and overall latency as compared to traditional cable and satellite broadcasts as noted in our Presidential Debate study. Even though the end-to-end latency tested higher than other UGC mobile applications, Facebook also has consistently higher quality, and even allows API access for third-party encoders.

One additional feature of Facebook Live is its Live Maps feature, which allows users to search for streams by geographic region anywhere in the world. Live-streaming “hotspots” appear as larger, darker circles on the map. This allows streamers to reach global audiences, far beyond their “friends” or "fans" lists.

Conclusions

Overall, smaller startups are leading the pack in terms of end-to-end latency—especially YouNow and Flurry, which also offer comprehensive interactive capabilities. But it's Facebookthat delivers unparalleled access to huge user bases with consistently higher quality and solid live-to-VOD growth strategy.

As consumers assume that live means real-time and they want to interact with broadcasters as events are streaming, the giants need to now compete with faster, more engaging new platforms to deliver more tha must video. But to deliver quality at scale, there may always be a trade-off between latency and user experience.

See the full infographic below.

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Chris Michaels

Chris Michaels has spent over 20 years providing public relations and marketing communications counsel for many of the world’s largest technology companies, including Intel, HP, Microsoft, SAP, and more than 100 startups. He is currently the director of communications and PR at Wowza.