21/03/2016 08:33 GMT | Updated 17/03/2017 05:12 GMT

Meerkat's Back in the Market

A year ago, Meerkat was the breakout hit of SXSW, the annual festival in Austin focusing on the latest trends in media, music and film. Executives were lining up to broadcast live streams via the app and many were touting it as the next big thing. It was seen as the future of how content would be consumed and how brands would interact with their target audiences.

Twelve months on and Meerkat's CEO has just announced that the service is to undergo a dramatic shift in identity to position itself as video-oriented social platform. As comprehensive falls from grace go, that surely puts it alongside Ello - the ad-free network once considered as a potential 'Facebook killer' but which has now faded into obscurity. So, what went wrong for last year's hottest-app-in-town?

Our data shows that the writing had been on the wall for Meerkat for some time; despite capturing the industry's imagination, it was fewer than 1% of our 200,000 annual research respondents who said they were using Meerkat. Yet this lack of uptake was not because the proposition of live streaming is unpopular with consumers. Rather, the critical problem for Meerkat was that over 90% of its users had an account on Facebook and that three quarters were on Twitter. With the latter having already closed its doors to Meerkat by acquiring rival live-streaming service Periscope, Meerkat's best chance of success lay in it forging an association with Facebook. So, when the development of Facebook Live removed that possibility, Meerkat was in an almost unwinnable situation: it was operating in a zeitgeist space but had no way to reach the masses. After all, which brand would consider streaming or sponsoring content on Meerkat when there were much, much bigger audiences available via the two leading social networks?

Certainly, a bit of caution is sensible here. Live streaming is still a highly niche proposition at the moment and neither Facebook Live nor Twitter's Periscope has yet transformed the social media landscape. Even so, our data shows that over three quarters of current Periscope and Meerkat users are under 35, making them both young and content-hungry. What's more, the sheer numbers of consumers who were willing to watch a live stream of people navigating their way past a large puddle early in 2016 is testament to the appeal of original, here-and-now content.

All of this needs to be viewed against the context of ad-blocking continuing to rise. Last quarter, our data showed a 10-point rise in the numbers who are employing these tools, with the global figure now standing at almost 4 in 10 internet users. Desktop blocking peaks in North America, whereas mobile ad-blocking is most popular in APAC (where some browsers have ad-blockers as a built-in feature). But the most important factor here is that this is a truly global trend, and one which puts the future of banner ads in serious doubt.

As advertising-weary consumers take steps to prevent their web experience from being interrupted, we'll undoubtedly see more emphasis on less overt forms of advertising where the consumer experience moves far beyond simply hearing about a brand or its latest product. As a result, the smart money is on live streaming having a particularly strong role to play here.

Look specifically at young mobile users at the moment and 40% of them say they are watching native forms of video on their smartphone more frequently than they were a year ago. But it's their preferences when it comes to live broadcasts which offer particularly fertile ground for brands and advertisers. Most popular of all are broadcasts of funny/entertaining content, which over half of mobile users aged 16-34 say they are interested in watching. Following behind are live broadcasts of breaking news stories on just over 40% and music concerts on 38%. Smaller but still important groups express interest in watching videos broadcast by brands (26%), celebrities (21%) or vloggers (19%).

It's among these mobile-centric audiences in particular that brands could hope to carve out an important presence on smartphones despite the inevitable rise of mobile ad-blockers. The numbers might be relatively modest at the moment but they do represent a point of refuge amidst the growing anti-advertising tide. Rather than relying on traditional forms of advertising which simply haven't evolved well enough to find their place on mobile, this means brands could look to native content on mobile as the better way to engage audiences. Meerkat might not have been able to make it work, but there's little doubt that the demand and potential for live streaming are both there.