12 ways to win over the whimsical content consumer

Frank Delmelle

Frank Delmelle

How do you market Content – with an entertaining capital C – in times of almighty artists and splintered audiences?

These Days Research dug up a dozen interesting approaches and arranged them into an epic essay: the entertainment industry’s quest – in XII Herculean Labours – for Content market control.

 – By @FrankDelmelle, These Days’ Senior Content Strategist

1. “Send in the suits”

Could consultants or academics – ‘suits’ as Kevin Spacey calls them  – be of help to reconquer Content market control?

Perhaps they could. PwC recently stated: “People don’t want schedules — they want it on demand.” ‘Suits’ at Nielsen, on the other hand, remain convinced that “people still want to have a selection of channels.” Scholarly ‘suits’, for their part, c.q. Harvard Business School’s Anita Elberse, beware of announcing anything that might resemble ‘a new (entertainment market) equilibrium’. Even the brightest minds at McKinsey, Accenture, Bain&Co, PwC, Nielsen, HBS et al. struggle, in sum, to make sense of today’s hopelessly splintered media UX.

“Who are all these guys standing around the cameras in suits?” Kevin Spacey wondered early on in his career. Many years later, Spacey’s brother in crime during the House of Cards Netflix deal, Modi Wiczyk, co-chairman and co-chief executive officer at MRC, draws this lucid conclusion: “With too many cooks in the kitchen, ideas get watered down.”

‘Suits’ tend to dislike conflict, that must-carry ingredient of any successful epic narrative. “Our lives are messy,” teaches Sandy Thompson, global planning director at Y&R. “Yet depth of character remains counterintuitive for brands, which usually champion one or two attributes and miss out on chances to humanize themselves and captivate consumers.” (…)

2. Repremiumize”

Could premium content quality convince more content consumers to become subscribers?

Netflix is not winning people over with B-list acting or low-budget shooting.” Ditto at HBO: “HBO is exacting in its quality control, and while you may not personally like all of their programs, it is hard to argue with the fact that Veep and True Detective and Boardwalk Empire are at the very least professionally written and well-acted, that they are both original and compelling. There is no substitute for quality content, whether you’re trying to run a TV network or a content marketing campaign.”

Hence the industry’s new darling: premium — and ad-free — subscription video on demand (SVOD), delivered by a.o. Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus. The good news, with a number borrowed from Netflix: “51% of people ages 13 to 34 consider Netflix subscriptions “very valuable” compared to 42% for broadcast channels and 36% for cable subscriptions.” High-quality original content drives new sign ups for the SVOD services. (As of Q2 2013,) Netflix’s contribution profit per domestic streaming subscriber month was up 40% YOY. Conclusion drawn at Bain & Company: “Repremiumization is Key.” Or: “Content Needs a Capital C.”

Still, “churn continues to be a concern.” E.g.: the year HBO won 25 Emmys, about ten million U.S. households dropped the service each month, while another ten million subscribers signed up each month. Baekdal’s conclusion: “People are obviously not going to just switch to buying subscriptions (even though it would be nice if they did).”

3. “Total it up”

Could there still be a way to ‘total up’ the splintered audience anyway?

“Total (audience) fragmentation is the new norm.” “The problem is that the industry is driven by the whims of consumers.” “The audience doesn’t care about the platform, they care about the content.” Or: “Audiences are no longer making those kinds of distinctions,” to once more quote Spacey’s MacTaggart Lecture.

Symptomatic when it comes to the splintered content audience: Nielsen’s call to action “Total It Up”, a co-creative attempt to map “the reality of how people are actually consuming video content today.”

Meanwhile, fragmentation feeds ‘analytic cacophony’, see such dissonances as “Video Killed The Television Star” vs. “Television will take over”, a statement — irony — sponsored by YouTube, by the way, or even: “Television is the new television.” To somethe real winner is digital video in all its forms .” Others defend the 180° exact opposite trend

4. “Waterproof the pitch process”

Could pilots (make the big creative bets safer and) improve content market control?

They might, but… “Each year, ‘the studios’ pitch hundreds of ideas for new shows to broadcast and cable networks. (…) Only a small fraction of ideas pitched makes it through the entire process; one industry estimate put it at 1%.”

Awakening: “The cost of these pilots, is (was) somewhere around 400 million dollars a year.” Even worse: in the entertainment industry, ‘managing for margins’ strategies systematically fail miserably. Or vice versa: “the surest path to long-term content success, is building a business around blockbuster products .” In the content business “safe”, as it turns out, is “the risky route.”

5. “Embrace the new trend(s)”

Could the ultimate future-proof content platform be just waiting to be discovered?

Have a look at some recent headlines: “AMC’s Shudder Dubbed ‘a Netflix for the Poor’” (Sahil Patel, on Digiday). “Comcast to launch YouTube rival called ‘Watchable’” (Engadget). “Apple having trouble pulling TV service together” (The Verge). “No One Can Make the Perfect TV, Not Even Apple” (David Pierce, Wired). “Twitter launches Periscope, Social Noise Reaches Crescendo” (Kaspersky). “Will the Next Generation Watch TV on Periscope?”.

“Last month, longtime news anchor Jon Erlichman launched ParachuteTV, a television channel with scheduled programming that ranges from comedy showcases to cooking shows. What’s unusual is that the channel is not on broadcast TV, or even YouTube. It’s on live streaming app Periscope.”

Significant? “The race between MeerKat, Periscope and likely Google to dominate the latest trend in video consumption is significant but must be chalked up to a bigger trend that’s been in the making for the past decade at minimum. (…) Live streaming is the latest trend to accelerate the splintering.” And: “By no means is live streaming going to kill or even revolutionize traditional media. (…)

6. “Forget the where, focus on the how”

If “the audience doesn’t care about the platform”…, shall we agree UX is key?

“Consumers will migrate to those offerings that combine an outstanding user experience (…) and access across devices,” according to research by PwC. The catch? The whimsical Content consumer’s priorities seem to point in a different direction: “Device, length etc. are all less important than the story.” (…)

“It’s increasingly clear that consumers see no significant divide between digital and traditional media: what they want is more flexibility, freedom and convenience in when and how they consume any kind of content.”

— PwC

7. “Plan, plan, plan”

Could Content marketing success be a matter of meticulous planning?

Case in point: AMY (the Winehouse doc), the UK’s (most beautifully planned and) “fastest-grossing home-grown documentary of all time.” The marketing strategy for AMY included… “the creation of a teaser campaign — unique for a feature documentary — that made headlines around the world, to a broad-reaching publicity campaign that engaged music, film, news and lifestyle media.” Campaign materials were created “that would force people to reassess Amy. (…) Every decision made was mindful of making Amy feel like a film that everyone is talking about, one you simply must see in the cinema…”

What actually got “everyone talking about” AMY, however, wasn’t outlined in the plan: it was only when Amy’s father said that the film was misleading and contained basic untruths, that all heads turned accordingly (i.e. away from the docu’s meticulously planned distribution effort.)

Even more extreme example: Twin Peaks’ entire content plan (new season due 2016 — or 2017?) is fan-owned de facto.

8. “Slice it up”

Could (social) content snacks be the answer to “dramatically shortening attention spans”?

“Movie trailer views on mobile on YouTube increased by 88% YOY,” according to Google, underlining the importance of “The Micro-Moments Before Showtime.” Netflix, most notoriously, saw these micro-moments coming: the official trailer for season 3, for example, already has more than 5 million views, “which is a viral feat that most content marketers will only dream of achieving in their careers.”

It seems to make good sense, in sum, to ‘slice up’ the Content and serve ‘snackable’ trailers, gifs, cinemagraphs, snaps, …, fit for the audience’s slippery social streams and alleged ‘shortening attention spans’.

Flipside: the social platforms — content distribution oligopolists in their own right — where these content snacks seem to thrive, change their algorithms every other week. E.g.: until recently, media brands / entertainment brands were favorited by Facebook. The blue giant’s newest newsfeed algorithm, however, leaves media brands at the mercy of the user once more…

As even the algorithms seem saturated, “our feeling is that the world is not asking for more content. There’s enough content out there. (…) What you need, is elite storytellers,” says Sebastian Tomich, Head of The NYT’s T Brand Studio.

Finally, Netflix, Spacey et al. question the audiences’ alleged ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), as they see dramatically lengthening attention spans a.k.a. binge-watching. Dixit Spacey: “(…) say nothing of the audiences’ attention span. For years, particularly with the advent of the internet, people have been griping about lessening attention spans. But if someone can watch an entire season of a TV series in one day, doesn’t that show an incredible attention span?”

Google's "Micro-Moments Before Showtime"

Google’s “Micro-Moments Before Showtime”

9. “Stick to the schedule(s)”

If “linear is still very much alive”, could we not just stay focused on the schedules?

There’s still a taste for watching television as it’s broadcast,” some analysts still like to stress. More recently, however, data point at a ‘cord cutting triumph’: “the traditional pay TV bundle is slowly dying. (…) Q2 2015 pay TV services suffered the largest quarterly loss of subscribers in the industry’s history.” Expert explanation: “This big subscriber loss is just one more data point showing that pay TV services are getting significantly disrupted by online content streaming.”

“Media stocks have been slammed following the accelerated decline in pay-TV subscribers,” Bloomberg signalled at the end of the Summer of 2015. “Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Todd Juenger and his team have a big message for the media industry: Everything has changed. Juenger not only downgrades Disney and Time Warner; he also says analysts need to change the way they think about valuing this industry all together, as both of the industry’s major revenue streams — pay subscribers and advertisers — are in jeopardy.” (…)

10. “Dive into the data”

Could recommendation engines keep viewers hooked?

“Similar to the NSA, Netflix tracks every action you take while watching
and browsing anything on Netflix. (…) They know what keywords you’ve searched for, what movies you’ve walked away from, when you’ve pressed pause, and what shows you’ve watched for an entire day straight. Netflix is a research and data driven company that leverages these data to distribute and develop content that resonates with their audience.”

Netflix does what a.o. Google, Spotify and Amazon do: their “recommendation algorithms model our browsing and purchasing behaviour in comparison to PLUs (People Like Us), and direct us to content they calculate we will enjoy.”

“You do need to have access to and understand an ocean of information in order to properly evaluate content,” MRC’s co-CEO Modi Wiczyk agrees (adding that “in the entertainment business, numbers can lie.”)

Chances are data-enabled tailored Content experiences do induce some degree of loyalty. Two footnotes, however. 1) Data ownership remains problematic: “to what degree should consumer data live with marketers versus the media properties and social networks that aggregate audiences for them versus their agencies?” And 2) ‘bright data’ seems to outperform mere ‘big data’. Example: data say 82% of U.S. adults binge-watch television. The genius is not in that statistic, it’s in what Netflix did, based on that number, c.q. release their original series in one swoop, allowing viewers to binge watch.

11. “Get the transactions right”

Could short-term results perhaps be achieved by optimizing Content customer transactions?

Today’s winners, it turns out, “build relationships instead of creating purely transactional moments.” Look at Netflix once again: “Rather than continue to promote its content through traditional direct response advertising, Netflix has moved to a more narrative storytelling approach — a key component to creating content marketing videos.” “(…) Netflix has built a model that rewards hyper engaged viewers while fostering both short-term buzz and long-term connections. (…) they will be more likely to become advocates and continue membership once they have a great experience.”

“The days of advertising about 30 days before the premiere are gone,” confirms Michael Engleman, head of marketing at Syfy. “Long-lead is now our priority.” Summed up in a recent AdAge headline: “Creating and retaining (content) audiences takes long-term strategy.”

12. “Abandon the artists”

Could Content market control ultimately be a matter of an artists-first philosophy?

“TV’s first golden age, back in the fifties, was a time of ‘total abandon’: artists enjoyed an enormous amount of freedom.” Today, at MRC a.o., “artists get paid to develop the idea on their own, so they can budget and cast it themselves. Then when it’s time for the idea to be realized, they can control it, and they can much more carefully dictate the terms of how it gets made. Giving artists a great deal of creative freedom is part of the philosophy.”

It is the art (sic) of complex, ‘conflictuous’ narrative that helps explaining why — to a substantial extent at the expense of Hollywood — cable television drama has emerged as the signature art form of the twenty-first century: “No longer necessarily concerned with creating always-likable characters, plots that wrapped up neatly every episode, or subjects that were deemed safe and appropriate, shows such as The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men, Deadwood, The Shield, and more tackled issues of life and death, love and sexuality, addiction, race, violence, and existential boredom.”

Conflict, by the way, also helps to earn media in today’s ‘Content Shock’ era. How does HBO, for example, pull off such spectacular word of mouth? HBO is courting controversy. Fans, for their part, clearly appreciate stories for taking a stand, which sparks online discussions or even fan art galore. Twin Peaks’ content marketing, as mentioned above, is fan-owned de facto. Semi-controlled, hybrid strategies naturally remain available for those who “can’t leave content discovery to chance”. A&E, for example, launched “Bates Motel,” the “Psycho” prequel, with extra content — such as a Tumblr by Norman Bates — so fans could stay engaged even when the show wasn’t on. The show drew 4.6 million viewers on its first night, including a later replay.”

Finally, a culture of creative freedom — and the conflict / controversy that comes with it — facilitates Partnerships (with a capital P). “Good artists attract good artists” and ‘snowballing’ content success. Example: as soon as MRC “had become an entitity that could produce movies in an atmosphere that was friendly to filmmakers”, “investments from Goldman Sachs, AT&T, WPP and ABRY Partners gave MRC the ability to spend $500 million on new content.”

Abandoned artists a.k.a. creative freedom might not be such a bad place to start a quest for ‘content market control’.

“You’ve got to realize,” HBS’ Anita Elberse stresses in her book ‘Blockbusters. Why Big Hits — and Big Risks — are the Future of the Entertainment Business’, “that someone walked into somebody’s office at Pixar one day, saying they had an idea for an eighty-year-old man and a ten-year-old kid to take off in a house fueled by a balloon. You can see people go ‘Wait a minute…’. But they made it anyway, and it (the movie Up) was a tremendous success (grossing well over $700 million at the box office).”

House of Cards’ Francis Underwood strangles a dog in the series’ first minutes. That’s how vital ‘abandoned artists’ or creative freedom — and the conflictuous narratives, the messy characters, the controversy that come with it — is to the/any content business.

More? Read the original – five-part – version of this post on and/or follow These Days on Medium.

The Content Sandwich

The Content Sandwich