Twitter to fix streaming lag as focus sharpens on live events

Arvind Hickman
By Arvind Hickman | 3 December 2016
Twitter's Jonno Simpson.

Twitter is working on a solution to live sports streaming lags as “one of our biggest priorities”, admitting the 30-60 second delay is frustrating fans and could undermine efforts to grow live event streaming to mass audiences.

The social media platform, which has struggled to grow its user base and meet revenue targets in recent times, is focusing on the massive pulling power of live sport and event streaming to attract new users and advertisers to the platform.

This year, Twitter secured streaming rights to 10 NFL games, Wimbledon matches and PGA golf, with content deals also in place with the NBA, MLB and the NHL. In Australia, it recently streamed the Melbourne Cup in a deal with the Victorian Racing Club (VRC), and has been in discussions with various sports codes about content partnerships in the future.

Twitter is a popular platform for sports fans because of its immediacy, speed and the ease in which fans can interact with one another. It's immediacy and reach makes streaming delays less forgivable as fans watching the action on broadcast television can tweet about key moments only seconds later.

“There’s going to have to be a solution or it won’t work. We are trialling and testing; this is the first year we’ve really done [live streaming],” Twitter’s head of partnerships – sport and food Jonno Simpson said.

“Twitter owns the live experience and there’s nothing worse than waiting for a penalty to be scored, you are looking at Twitter while watching the game and you see a tweet going ‘goal’ when you haven’t seen it on the screen. There’s nothing worse than that, it’s one of our biggest priorities and we have to fix it.”

Simpson said the lags, which are known to vary from 20 seconds to a minute, have caused “a little bit” of a backlash, “but there’s been less (complaints) than I expected”.

“It all depends how you consume it,” he added. “One of the good things we’ve been able to provide is choice. If you want to you can still consume it on Twitter (using the full screen option) without seeing any of the tweets.”

Streaming lags can be caused by several factors, such as ISP bandwith, internet traffic and the encoding of data between formats.

Twitter’s problems with live streaming are by no means unique, all streaming video players encounter a delay. Optus Sport’s coverage of the English Premier League is distributed to most of its subscribers via internet streaming and has also encountered similar delays and viewer unrest.

The importance of offline

Simpson, who was speaking at a Going to Gemba event about Twitter’s live partnership with the NFL, also stressed the importance of promoting games outside the Twittersphere to make it more “discoverable”.

“In Australia, the only way we’ve promoted our live stream is pretty much on Twitter…but you need to take a digital strategy offline. You need to put it in print, radio, TV – everywhere so that people know to go online to find it,” he said.

“Personalisation is another area. The tweets we are serving in the game are not always relevant to me. They’re relevant about the game because they are using a hashtag or handle, but I want to see what my mates are talking about during the game.”

While Twitter is in conversations with “the main big sports” in Australia, Simpson also sees a role for the platform to live stream lower profile sports as well as grassroots level.

“[We want to work out] the strategy for us to get mass audience with little incremental deals,” he added.

Revenue sharing

Twitter makes money on live sports broadcasts by selling advertising spots during matches and shoulder programs. In Australia, the social media company is hoping to structure revenue sharing deals similar to the one with the VRC.

“We figure out what advertising revenue is there for that, what is the audience size we will get and how can we share the revenue based on engagements and around that,” Simpson explained.

Most of the spots are pre-roll with Twitter looking to sell ad slots over the TV host broadcaster’s video feed.

“The NFL have it better than anyone, or worse depending on your perspective, because there’s so many ads during their game,” Simpson added. “We then figure out how can we get access to some of those ad slots and deliver Twitter only ads in that space. So there’s incremental value for the new ads instead of just the TV ads.”

NFL on Twitter

Early results from Twitter's NFL coverage indicates the platform's audience is dwarfed by TV.

In the first four NFL games on Twitter, the largest audience for a game was 398,000. This figure is about 2% of the 17.5 million people who watched the game on US TV (on CBS and NBC). Regardless, games on Twitter have attracted solid demand from advertisers.

Aside from size, the other major difference between the two audiences was age with Twitter's skewing young – 83% aged 34 years or younger, compared to 27% on TV. 

Big event sport has long been a ratings breadwinner for TV networks. This year, the five highest-rating programs on Australian TV were sport.

The popularity of Seven's Rio Olympics app suggests that large sports events on TV can also drive traffic and commercial interest to digital assets if executed properly. At the very least, social media and digital has a role to play as consumers increasingly incorporate social media as part of their sports watching experience.

It's unlikely digital media companies will make major inroads into TV's dominance of live sports broadcasting without major improvements to streaming technology, but watch this space in 2017.


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