Meerkat and Periscope … as Business Tools

Live-streaming is lots of fun … but can these apps help the bottom line?

Chances are you’ve either never heard of Meerkat and Periscope or you’ve already heard way, way too much.

In the span of about a month, these two apps — which allow users to broadcast live video using their smartphones and followers to comment on the action — have gone from obscurity to being among the most talked about things in tech. Meerkat had its big coming out party in mid March at the South by Southwest Interactive conference, tech’s Super Bowl. Twitter then launched rival offering Periscope a week later.

As to which product is superior, I won’t wade into that fiercely contested debate. But I think I can shed light on a more pressing question: Do these apps really matter and, if so, why?

Initial evidence is mixed. Last month, the hashtags #fridgeview and #showusyourfridge began trending, as early Periscope users rushed to broadcast the contents of their refrigerators to the world — not exactly must-see TV. Viewers opening up the app today are likely to see lots of people sitting around at cafes and bars, lots of people sitting around in their living rooms and lots of people wondering out loud what they’re supposed to do with the app.

But Periscope has also showed potential as a more valuable communications tool. On the day of its launch, in fact, hundreds of users viewed a live stream of the aftermath of the explosion of a building in New York — accessing real-time video from the scene even as news crews were still arriving.

These are early days, of course, but one thing is already clear to me. Live streaming technology will not be a passing fad and — from a business perspective — there’s certainly potential. At my company, we’ve already begun exploring ways to use it to connect with users and customers. Here are some early observations from the frontlines.

Live streaming as a tool for transparency and community building

Once a week, for the last several weeks, I’ve invited the world to a live Periscope broadcast in my office. When I open the app and tap “start a broadcast,” an invite automatically goes out to my Twitter followers. (I’ll also send a link to my LinkedIn and Facebook connections). From there, the invite is shared and reshared across the social web, drawing in even more viewers. So far, hundreds of people have tuned in to ask me questions about Hootsuite and the state of social media. At times, the commentary and questions stream by so fast that I can hardly keep up.

To me, this is valuable primarily for its immediacy. I get unmediated, real-time input from customers, stakeholders and people interested in social media. I’ve had suggestions for future updates to my own product (including a Periscope integration), as well as feedback on what we need to be doing better and questions about features in the pipeline. Yes, some commentary is off-topic. But most of it is relevant, even eye-opening.

Meanwhile, viewers get to know me and put a face to the company. There’s a surprising level of connection and trust in a Periscope broadcast. Because the video is live and unedited, with no second takes, there’s nowhere to hide. Admittedly, this kind of vulnerability isn’t for everyone. But for the right person, it’s an excellent way to build rapport with customers, humanize a company and create a personal attachment with a brand.

This same immediacy and authenticity could also prove valuable in a crisis communication scenario. Just as nothing escalates a crisis like obfuscation, delay and equivocation, nothing defuses a crisis quite like transparency. In the face of a product recall, service outage or other mishap, a live streamed broadcast by a senior executive — with running questions and comments from users — could go a long way toward reassuring customers that their business is valued and the company has nothing to hide.

Live streaming as a tool for marketing and promotion

This March, millions of viewers tuned in as Apple unveiled its long anticipated smartwatch at a live event called Spring Forward. As Steve Jobs and the rest of the Apple brain trust realized long ago, a live product launch, with all the unpredictability and drama that go along with it, makes for great marketing.

With live streaming apps, startups can tap into some of that same energy and excitement when unveiling their own new products or just sharing company news. At Hootsuite, our social media manager Jaime Stein (always an early adopter of new technology) has started offering a weekly peek inside our company via Meerkat. He tags along each Monday as new employees are given a tour of our headquarters, from the gym to the yoga room and the various company departments.

To build excitement, Jaime announces the live stream a few days in advance on our company Twitter and Facebook channels. When he launches Meerkat, his followers are automatically alerted and we spread the news further on social media. Viewers tune in and comment as he introduces key employees (usually caught off guard), shows off some of the perks of our workplace and offers a live, running commentary on life at Hootsuite.

Our audience for these tours so far is in the hundreds, not the millions. But live streaming has offered a new channel to shine a light on workplace culture and, of course, help with our efforts to recruit top candidates. Because it’s spontaneous and immediate, it attracts a demographic we wouldn’t normally reach.

It’s worth pointing out that, not too long ago, Twitter was also derided as a novelty app for sharing updates on food. Today, it’s a crucial tool for networking, promotion and advertising, valued at more than $30 billion. The business use case for Meerkat and Periscope is still evolving — and it’s likely their real value will only become clear in the months and years ahead. But it’s safe to say that live streaming won’t be limited to peeks inside people’s refrigerators for long.