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Why it’s important to monitor your viewer’s video experience

online video viewing experienceWho’s to blame when video streaming experiences aren’t good? If you’re watching a major streaming service like Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, or others, they will probably point the finger at your ISP. Or your home network configuration. Or maybe even your device.

These companies are heavily invested in online video so they know the formats are correct. They know they can support just about every device (though Amazon has some funny stuff going on with the Kindle …), and they’ve accounted to the extent they can for fluctuating network conditions. So much so that if there is a problem, they are pretty sure it isn’t them.

Unless of course, it is them.

The truth is that the networks that deliver our online video are extremely complicated. The video packets get shipped around a complex web of servers and networks owned by nations, corporations, private companies, and who knows what else. So generally speaking, if you’ve done all you can to ensure the video is ready to be consumed from your servers or CDN, then it might be ok to point the finger somewhere else.

As long as you can be sure it really isn’t your problem. And the only way to do that is to make sure you monitor your streaming performance within your own systems and as far out as you can. In many cases this means you can see reports of which point of presence on the CDN delivered a stream or if your network was delivering the right bitrate when the video began its stream from wherever you are hosting it. There are more metrics too, but those are for another blog.

An example is sort of what happened with Netflix in America last year. It complained that ISPs were throttling the delivery of its videos once the data entered the ISP network. The claim stirred up a whole lot of arguments over how much control ISPs have, or should have. And if ISPs could offer “premium” services to customers where they pay not to have their bandwidth throttled, or “capped”. In other words, if customers didn’t pay, they wouldn’t be able to have the bandwidth to view Netflix movies, or potentially any online video or service. But the tide turned when ISPs fought back and pointed out that it was Netflix’s own network configurations and how they tied into ISPs that caused the issue and not the ISPs themselves. (Note: In the US this is one example of a fight for Net Neutrality which led to the government taking action to ensure ISPs could not throttle bandwidth arbitrarily. As of this writing, the major ISPs are challenging the ruling in court.)

In the end both ISPs and Netflix looked bad to customers. Most people don’t understand enough about how online video works to figure out who is telling the truth.

So if you’re streaming video, it’s best to be informed about your performance to the extent you can know. And if you find an issue on your end, work to correct it. Then consider compensating the people who may have been affected by it. What “compensation” means depends on your business or organisation. Maybe it means they can have access to the video longer than usual, maybe it means a discount coupon of some sort, or perhaps even a refund if it was a pay per view video.

It may be counterintuitive to offer compensation, especially if you’re a for-profit business. But doing the right thing can earn you loyalty and glowing referrals. A short personal example is the difference I experienced between Netflix and Amazon. I recently rented a movie from Amazon. My daughter and I were watching and enjoying it until about three quarters of the way through. At that point the stream kept stopping and buffering. Eventually the buffering was so long we gave up for a bit. When we returned to the video about 15 minutes later it was doing the same thing, but not as bad. We finished the show and I thought nothing more of it. Today I received two emails from Amazon. The first one let me know they noticed I had trouble and offered a refund. The second email let me know the refund had been processed. I never even asked for it, but there it was.

On the other hand, all I’ve ever gotten from Netflix is the pleasant message that I’m experiencing difficulty playing the movie and I should try again later. That’s it.

Obviously a one-time rental from Amazon is a different price structure than Netflix. But that isn’t the point. Guess who I’d recommend to the next person who asks me about who they should use for a streaming service? Yes, that’s the point.

Oliver Burt

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