SVG Europe Sit-Down: Ostmodern’s Thomas Williams on meeting regional OTT needs, plus 360 video

For more than ten years, and operating from offices in London and New York, Ostmodern has worked with key media, broadcast and sport brands to define product strategies, develop innovative solutions and build services that deliver tangible advantages with real commercial returns, whether on desktop, mobile, tablet or TV. Alongside building products for other people, Ostmodern also creates its own. For instance, Skylark is a rock-solid back-end and CMS framework that is used to power clients’ products. Cirkus is a video-on-demand service providing British content to Scandinavia. CEO, Thomas Williams, started our Sit Down by reflecting on the changes the company had seen in those ten years.

Ostmodern’s Thomas Williams

You have been around for about 10 years. What have been the most significant changes in the solutions you provide during that time?

Three changes, which have affected how we develop products, stand out. First, the competition for audiences has intensified over the past decade, resulting in audiences today having much more choice over which services and programmes to watch, and how to watch them.

Second, many audiences have stopped viewing the linear TV of traditional broadcasters to switch to Video on demand (VoD) or to spend time on other forms of digital entertainment, such as gaming or social media. Before, a broadcaster might have been able to launch a VoD service as a supplement to its linear service, but now, all are having to shift to thinking as VoD-first publishers.

The third is device proliferation. When we started 10 years ago digital products were unresponsive websites; now they are on 10+ devices and multiple screen sizes. This has changed the economics of delivering these services, particularly for a company such as ours that actively avoids engagements where the client is looking for derivative or ‘me too’ solutions.

In responding to these changes, it is important to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each device or platform – to see them as parts of a cohesive ecosystem. It demands knowing how to launch a new or updated service: products should be built to evolve because audience behaviours, business goals and technical capabilities invariably change over time. It means appreciating that audiences enjoy unique products. This requires careful visual design, together with the right technology stack, that can deliver relevant content to users in unobtrusive, but compelling, ways. The other crucial area is providing the right tools for editors to enable them to know when, and how, to publish content.

Your research identified that in the UK and the Nordic territories, pay TV subscriptions are being eroded as viewers supplement or replace their established provider with an OTT SVoD service. How have you met these developing needs?

An ultimate goal with any service is to try to make it as easy as turning on the television. As an aside, TVoD has suffered not only because of audiences baulking at prices for buying content, but because of the complex interactions needed. The erosion of these subscriptions comes in the context of what we described above in terms of how the industry is changing and how viewers are adapting the way they watch video. Meeting these developing needs is about creating better, individual products to which audiences will want to keep coming back.

To do this, we always propose building an MVP with a coherent feature set based on viewers’ needs, then iterating on that MVP with a view to how the market and audience behaviours are changing. We prefer to develop custom experiences, as these are usually the best – and often the most cost effective – way to deliver a service that is strong enough to retain audiences and ensure sustained growth.

Do you find that OTT demands vary across Europe?

We have found that, despite OTT use increasing across all of Europe, there is a difference in the pace of adoption. There is a correlation between internet connectivity and OTT use, with Scandinavia, the Netherlands and the UK having the highest rates. We notice some behavioural differences, too. For example, in Italy, where people spend more time in front of the TV than any other country in western Europe, OTT adoption lags behind. In certain eastern European countries, such as Croatia and Lithuania, there are reduced subscriptions to OTT services – we suspect because these services do not adapt their content to meet local tastes.

Although use varies, it is striking how several of the same demands keep coming up. For example, the need for original, high quality programming or ‘headline’ shows is everywhere. Those companies who are becoming good at producing more original content that people want to watch are really challenging the incumbent market leaders.

What are your solutions that involve visual storytelling?

For us, visual storytelling is about creating products with richness and depth yet simplicity. There are two main aspects to this.

One is about creating snippets or excerpts that enhance the main narrative. For example, enriching a drama with character profiles, or a sports site with analysis. The main content is supported by deeper stories and data, becoming important to the overall digital experience, not just an afterthought.

The other is about examining how the user interface can become part of the content itself rather than purely a mechanism to deliver that content.

In exploring these two areas and the questions that come from them, we created a new component in our Skylark CMS platform which allows editors to publish stories alongside the main content. Those editors can create a simple article or produce a fully rounded visual story. We also enabled editors to publish these stories with ease and speed for an entire product.

How do you see 360 developing? And what are the challenges of storage?

There has been a surge of interest in 360 video and VR over the past couple of years. A problem for viewers is simply cost. Devices today are expensive, but prices will invariably fall as production increases to meet heightening demand.

Another challenge is that, because of the devices needed, it is difficult to share the experience of VR with friends or family who are in the same room. There is, though, a significant opportunity for VR to connect people across different locations and time zones.

We have been working in the 360 environment. Our innovations here have been about bringing together disparate elements such as images and text, which would normally be ‘baked’ into a video, so that we can control them directly in VR 360 spaces. For us, the primary focus is about developing an editorial framework for storytelling in VR, rather than creating bespoke video.

In terms of storage for 360, providers have to double up on the space they have, which invariably increases costs.

How is your Venue solution creating a revolutionary approach to PPV?

We developed Venue after recognising that far too many PPV products have been built by being shoehorned into existing VoD catalogues. It is often harder to build relationships with audiences for PPV experiences because those audiences usually watch for one event only without any strong reason to come back. Also, catalogue VoD products lack the features built in to create anticipation for a main event, such as short form, highlights and trailers.

From our work on visual storytelling we have built Venue based on learnings about how best to include these features and develop a narrative for the content.

Our focus has been on customer journeys and improving audience engagement.

Have you a European sports related case study you can share with us?

We have been working with Arsenal for the past seven years to design or enhance their digital properties. From our work with them, we have come to understand how European sports organisations have changed in OTT. In particular, most have had to adapt their mindset to become more like broadcasters.

Recently, they asked us to redesign their website to make it bolder yet easier to use. We drew on the relationship we had with their in-house editorial team to understand how they produce content. We researched how Arsenal fans from across the world use the website. We then collaborated with them to create a website that works well with Arsenal’s offline branding with its stylistically light, crisp and clear typography, and graphics.

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