By Jason Ziemianski, CSO & Co-Founder of Ripple Entertainment
I have spent most of my career preaching the virtue of focus. As content providers continued to go too broad and fail, I persisted to proselytize the need for a clear value proposition to a hyper-engaged niche. “Being niche no longer means being small!” I would profess. It’s no secret that Netflix, Hulu and Amazon are winning or have won the general entertainment race (Apple may still have a seat at that table). The point is, these companies are huge (Hulu being the exception both size-wise and strategically) with mega budgets and services with a clear purpose. I have previously discussed why Facebook and YouTube are losers in the general entertainment game but will still spend a ton more money before they pivot or kill RED and WATCH.
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Contradictory to my theory, a myriad of niche SVODs surfaced but none have seemed to prove the model or, they’re being really quiet about it. So, what’s the problem? Is my niche theory wrong, are these companies strategically flawed or are they just missing on execution? The answer is somewhere in the middle where a company that has the scale of Netflix may be better-positioned to go niche than a pure niche play from the bottom up.
Subjective views on programming choices notwithstanding, one of my examples of a good niche product is Shudder. I’m a horror fan and I tell everyone I’d rather get my horror from an experience customized for the genre than by clicking on the horror link inside Netflix or Amazon. I mean, you can filter by monster! As time passed, so did my desire to silo my viewing inside Shudder. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. Interestingly, this did not result in me viewing more horror content on Netflix. My consumption of horror content simply stopped or at least pulled WAY back. This is where I had the idea that if NETFLIX were to offer some premium experience around genres it may change my behavior and I may even be willing to pay incrementally more for this feature.
One thing almost everyone can agree on is that finding something inside Netflix is like looking for a grain of sand at the beach. They must find a balance between algorithmic recommendations and empowering people with an efficient bin-sifting experience. One way they could do this is to embrace their genres as standalone products with a customized UX for super-fans of that corresponding niche. There’s no reason Netflix couldn’t launch a Shudder, Qello or LOL inside the core product or at arms-length. This would solve some key problems for Netflix and their subscribers.
First, genre-specific experiences would help Netflix parse the crazy volume of releases so they’re actually discoverable by their subscribers. I can’t even guess how many releases I will miss from an $8B programming budget. When I go between the homepage and a genre I glaze over as I’m pummeled with line after line of meaningless thumbnails and, frequently, I just give up after a minute or two of scrolling. I don’t unsubscribe so maybe there’s an evil hybrid approach they have devised where I’m not disgruntled enough to unsubscribe but I’m not gruntled enough to eat up more bandwidth by streaming an awesome show they helped me find. Sinister!
Treating genres like standalone products will also help Netflix create inventory to market their shows. Currently, there is no path for the viewer to make consistent connections between messages in the market (paid or earned) with finding a show (huge shows like Stranger Things are an exception). It’s all just noise.
Another possibility is that Netflix could actually bundle these genre products as standalone subscriptions or they could offer an incremental up-sell to the existing base for a premium experience. I don’t watch rom-coms so would I pay for horror, action and documentaries as a tiny bundle to avoid the confusion of the rest of the catalog? Definitely maybe. Netflix has even explicitly stated there are diminishing returns on a catalog that is bloated so why wouldn’t they give me an opportunity to trim what, to me, is fat?
An important theme in this discussion is not just a restructuring of the product but it is also the reinstatement of human editorial into the sacred world of the algorithm. Long form content like movies and TVs needs human recommendations for context and validation. Don’t get me wrong, I love the voodoo that Spotify is using in their weekly recommendations but there is a massive difference between sampling a song and sampling an episode or a movie. Ain’t nobody got time for that! I’ve even discussed this in relation to how YouTube can help nurture high-quality channels that have value for the platform and the audience by integrating editorial discovery.
Netflix could easily test this theory by rolling out a toggle feature for users that want to sample it or by creating a sample population that is vetted for a specific niche. Whatever they decide, the product experience is not great. Fragmenting it into owned but competing media brands may not be the best approach but there has to be some innovation from the product team. I say this not only from a UX standpoint but also from the standpoint of someone who once revered Netflix as a special brand but now I see no difference between it and Prime Video. In fact, lately, I’ve spent more time with Prime Video (shout out to Goliath). Maybe they don’t care and they believe that it’s ok for their subscribers to watch/pay for Prime Video, Hulu and a few others but I think that is short-sighted. Innovating on the product front may be where the real value is created and new avenues to leverage content are revealed. This could shift the consumer discussion away from hit show vs hit show to a relationship with a real lifestyle brand and, in this case, one brand that could cater to multiple lifestyles in a way that feels unique to each user.