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Live streaming

What is live streaming?

Streaming is transmitting video via the internet. It’s delivering one little bit of the video file at a time so that the viewer doesn’t have to download the entire video before they can start playing it. Live streaming is the same process, but the source video is recorded and sent in real time, without being stored first. Examples of live video are TV broadcasts, video game streams and social media videos. 

Streaming usually refers to watching videos that are pre-recorded, edited and uploaded to a streaming platform, like Netflix or Hulu. Live streaming differs because the creator does not pre-record or edit the video before the viewer sees it — the footage is captured and uploaded to the internet at the same moment the viewer watches it

Live streaming is also different from videoconferencing because live streaming usually refers to one creator with many viewers watching; the viewers usually can’t communicate with the streamer or each other via video, but only via messages in the chat. Whereas videoconferencing services like Skype, Zoom and Microsoft Teams connect multiple people. 

How does live streaming work?

Live streaming relies on streaming protocols, which deliver video over the internet in real time. The most popular protocols are HLS, WebRTC and RTMP. 

For a video to get from someone’s webcam to a YouTube Live stream, for example, it must go through several processes:

  1. Compression: The raw video file from the webcam and microphone is too large to be sent over the internet, so it must be compressed.
  2. Encoding: Encoding and compression happen at the same time, usually with the same software or piece of hardware. After it’s compressed, the video data must be converted into a digital format that YouTube (or another online platform) can play. Usually, those formats are H.264, H.265, VP9 or AV1.
  3. Distribution and caching: Once a video is compressed and encoded, it’s ready to be distributed and cached on a content delivery network (CDN). CDNs save each segment of a live stream temporarily (known as caching) and then distribute to viewers from their own servers. That way, viewers don’t have to wait for the stream to come from the origin server, making the content delivery faster.
  4. Decoding and playback: The live video gets sent from the CDN to the viewer’s device, which receives, decodes and decompresses the video data. Then, a video player on the device interprets the data and plays the video.

In the entire live streaming process outlined above, streamers should be most concerned with encoding — and possibly choosing a CDN if you don’t want to stream directly to social media websites like Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn and Twitch. 

The benefits of live streaming

Live streaming is a powerful way to connect to your audience. It doesn’t matter if you’re a single content creator tapping into an online community around your niche hobby, a small business looking to connect with a bigger audience and expand operations, or a large company trying to humanize your brand. Live streaming can help you reach the people you want to reach. Here’s why:

  • Live streaming doesn’t require many resources. You don’t need specialized equipment or software to start streaming, just a smartphone or laptop. Preparing content for a live stream also takes much less time than creating a pre-recorded video or blog post.
  • You can reach niche audiences. People who take the time to tune into live videos when they’re actually live are pretty committed to watching you. If your content focuses on a niche topic or community, those people are more likely to watch your broadcasts.
  • Live videos are perfect for content repurposing. Once you’ve finished your broadcast, you can download the recording and turn it into several other types of content. You can edit it into small clips for YouTube or social media, transcribe it and write a blog post, edit the audio file into a podcast, and so much more.
  • You can connect with people in real time. The biggest benefit of live streaming is the connections it brings. Your viewers can ask you questions instantly and you can have a conversation on your stream with people from all over the world. 

What do you need to start live streaming?

It doesn’t take much to start streaming live video online. If you want to stream to one of your social channels, like a Facebook profile, you can pick up your phone, open your Facebook app and go live instantly. If you want your stream to be a little more involved than that, you’ll need your basic streaming setup, which includes a streaming platform and basic streaming equipment.

Choose your live streaming platform

To choose the best live streaming platform, you should consider where your audience is. If you’re a gamer, then your viewers are most likely on Twitch or Facebook Gaming. If you’re a small business, you might be better off live streaming to a Facebook group. Thought leaders and large brands might consider LinkedIn as the best platform for live broadcasts and virtual events. Instagram and TikTok are good live video platforms for influencers and small content creators. YouTube is a good place for virtual events, interviews, live vlogs, gaming, tutorials, or just about any niche, really. If you already have a sizable social media presence, live stream to those platforms. 

Another option is embedding live video to your website. You could go this route if you know most members of your target audience don’t have social media accounts or don’t use social media often. It’s also a good choice for live streaming events, as most virtual and hybrid events have their own websites.

Live streaming software and equipment

You usually need some kind of streaming software or hardware to go live.

  1. Live streaming software: Streaming software helps you control most aspects of your stream. A popular choice is OBS Studio, which is free and open-source.
  2. Hardware encoder: You can get a separate piece of equipment to encode your live video for you. Hardware encoders are more reliable than software but they’re also pricier. Read our guide to see if you’re better off with software or hardware encoding.
  3. Web browser: If you don’t want to install any programs or plop another piece of gear on your desk, you can opt for a cloud-based streaming solution, like Restream Studio. You can go live directly from your web browser and all of the encoding happens online, freeing up your PC resources (and desk space).

Basic streaming equipment

This list of gear is the minimum required equipment for producing a decent live stream. If you want more advanced options, read our full guide to live streaming equipment.

  • Camera: You can use the built-in webcam on your laptop or upgrade to something more powerful like the Logitech C922 Pro. Check out our list of best webcams for streaming.
  • Microphone: You can get away with using a built-in webcam at first, but using the built-in mic is not a good idea. Investing in a standing or shotgun mic like the Blue Yeti can make your audio sound better without stretching your budget.
  • Lighting: Lighting isn’t absolutely necessary, but it’s not that expensive either. Just a few well-placed clamp lamps or setting up a lamp behind your camera to light up your face will do wonders for your video quality.
  • Computer: You’ll need a computer that’s powerful enough to handle streaming. If you’re planning to stream video games, you’ll need something even more powerful, and possibly a second computer. 

More live streaming tips

Keep these streaming tips in mind as you plan your content and engage with your viewers:

  • Define your streaming goal. Whether you want to get more viewers, stream on a regular schedule, or try to earn money from streaming, figure out what your big goal is and work toward it.
  • Choose what kind of live videos you’ll produce. Live streams come in all shapes and sizes. Some examples are interviews and Q&As, storytelling, educational videos, product launches, gaming, contests and webinars.
  • Always test everything. Run tests of your equipment, streaming software and internet speed. Use these test runs to make adjustments to audio or video quality, change resolution or frame rate settings and anything else to ensure your stream goes off without a hitch.
  • Value quality engagement over quantity. Engaging with your viewers during a live stream is essential — interactivity is the main goal of live video! Instead of focusing heavily on getting tons of viewers, aim to have meaningful and genuine conversations with the few viewers who do show up. Five highly engaged viewers are worth more than 100 bored viewers.
  • Promote your streams on other platforms. Stream on more than one platform to increase the chances your broadcasts will be seen. Also, be active on social media platforms and try to engage with your community in more than one place online.
  • Look at your streaming data. Most streaming platforms will provide you with basic metrics about your streaming time, viewers and other aspects. Dig into this data to see what potentially draws more people to your stream, or if there are certain elements of your broadcast that people might find more engaging.