Meerkat currently finds itself stuck in startup purgatory — a place where a company will either grow after its initial public exposure, or be relegated to the dustbin of failed contenders for the crown of next big thing.
This week, the company added one of its first new features to its live feed app since launching: a “next-step” tool that gives users the ability to customize a marketing button that appears at the end of a feed. That allows them to use live streams to drive traffic to their social media accounts, blogs, iTunes, YouTube, or any other site where items can be purchased or new users can be acquired.
The question is, will the new feature help Meerkat avoid the fate of other hot applications that had fleeting moments in the sun like Chatroulette, allowing it to grow a community of engaged users after the fires of its initial popularity have cooled?
In a Medium post on April 8, the company said that the rationale behind the update was to make it possible for Meerkat-ers to continue to engage with followers after a feed ends. As an example of how it can be used, the company cited a recent feed by Madonna. Beta-testing the new feature, Madonna (or whoever is running her social media, I’d imagine) used the button to give anyone who watched the “mad mad world premiere” of the video for her song “Ghosttown” on Meerkat the opportunity to buy the Material Girl’s new album on iTunes.
While I’m not exactly sure what made the event a mad mad world premiere (other than it not going quite as planned a couple of times), I do see the value in creating a “can’t miss,” exclusive live event, and then adding a link to purchase music, give to a charity, or sign up for a newsletter once a live feed ends. Imagine how many Duke fans would have immediately purchased a “2015 National Champions” t-shirt after the team had won Monday’s NCAA championship game if a button appeared giving them the opportunity to do so.
Josh Elman, who led Greylock Partners’ recent investment in the company, said that the next-step button will give users the “tools to earn value for the things that they create.”
“I think there is some antipathy among creators towards social platforms, in that they have grown so big, they are hard to find value in,” he said. “With Meerkat we want people to have value. In the end, whoever is creating the content should give the user an action of what they should do next.”
While the new feature is cool and does give Meerkat some flexibility to expand beyond the Twittersphere where it first gained popularity, the company is currently at a crucial inflection point in its short existence. With Twitter’s Periscope launched on the same day that it announced its first funding round, some are already proclaiming that Meerkat’s moment has passed and is gone forever.
But this latest attempt to improve upon its original idea with new features, along with others the company has said it is working on, show that the Meerkat team isn’t giving up the ship quite yet.
Elman certainly doesn’t see the current moment as the dying days of Meerkat.
During our recent interview the Greylock partner excitedly related a recent Meerkat experience that shows the app’s potential.
Over the weekend, he watched in real-time as someone in Vancouver used the app to capture the controlled explosion of a decommissioned naval ship, the HMCS Annapolis, which was sunk to create an artificial reef in Howe Sound. As Elman explained, there were hundreds of people watching live, and as the moment of the anticipated explosion approached, the tension of the live feed increased because the person filming was close to having his cell phone battery die. Many of the people watching through the app were chatting with the person filming, relating their hopes that the phone would last long enough to catch the explosion, and asking questions about the scene in real time, adding to excitement of the live event.
“It was pretty cool to be part of this live moment of entertainment with other people commenting through the app,” Elman said. “What excites me about Meerkat, is that from the ground up, we are trying to create a company that helps people who enjoy creating content and broadcasters, whether they are celebrities, whether they are current artists, whether they are just people who are doing awesome things in the world.”
When I asked about the shift in Meerkat’s media coverage from favorable before the launch of Periscope to somewhat skeptical afterwards, Elman said, “There is a tendency with technology to build things up and then tear them down before they are even out of infancy. I think that it’s awesome that everyone had a moment when they said, ‘This thing is really cool and interesting and relevant,’ but at some point, users start asking, ‘Why should I use this everyday? And some people, a smaller number than those from that first moment, start actually using it every day, or a few times a day. And then, more and more people do it, until it becomes a thing.”
Elman added, “That’s how Twitter worked, that’s how Facebook worked, that’s how Snapchat worked, that’s how Instagram worked, and I think that’s what will happen over time for Meerkat.”
It may be a bit too early to decide the fate of Meerkat – the app did only pop onto the scene about a month ago at SXSW.
One thing that it may have in its favor is the large number of investors with direct links to the entertainment industry, which may view Meerkat as an investment in a new marketing platform. Another is that the popularity of the app among political operatives who saw an opportunity to create live, event-like connections between candidates and potential voters. With the 2016 election cycle about to reach full steam, politicos could hold the key to achieving prolonged success.
But first Meerkat may remain in startup limbo just a bit longer, atoning for the original sin of extraordinary hype.