We need to talk about Kevin – Netflix and Smart Data


Big data has been the buzzword of many an agency in recent times. Using online data and analytics to inform business decisions is now considered standard practice, which is good news for anyone involved in marketing.

Encouragingly, more strategic decisions are being made on behavioural data. Digital channels in particular, are a rich source of this data. The more reliant we are on this to inform business decisions, the more effective we’ll be in achieving marketing objectives.

That said, there still exists a misconception that data is the territory of the analytics specialist, that you require a specific skillset or qualification to be able to assess and draw value from data. This is not necessarily the case and no business better illustrates what it entails to be data driven than film streaming behemoth Netflix.

kevinIn March 2011, Netflix outbid heavyweights HBO (The Sopranos, Game of Thrones) and AMC (The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad) to the rights to what we now know as hit show House of Cards. The political drama was to be directed by David Fincher and star Kevin Spacey (who also executive produced).

In the world of pilots and one season runs, Netflix took the unprecedented step of committing to two seasons over 26 episodes. At $4-$6 million an episode, this equated to an investment of over $100 million. They then further disrupted the natural order of things by premiering the entire season (13 episodes) to stream on the platform.

Season 1 went on to win 3 Emmys and Netflix made history as the first non-TV network to do so. Season 2 aired in its entirety on Netflix on 14 February to rave reviews, and the show has forever changed the way in which TV is produced and consumed. It also serves as a shining example of how simple data can be used to make business decisions and importantly, how accessible this data is to digital marketers.

Before Netflix took what many industry analysts viewed as a $100 million punt on House of Cards, they did their homework. As an online business, they have access to ridiculous amounts of data on their customers. All 44 million of them.

The gang at Netflix trawled through reams of data on the viewing habits of their subscribers. They worked out how many of them liked Kevin Spacey, how many watched films directed by David Fincher. How many may have watched political shows such as Veep or The West Wing. They assessed how many users watched the original British version of the show and of these, how many went on to watch political dramas and/or films starring Kevin Spacey.

They might have looked at whether subscribers who watched The West Wing (written by Aron Sorokin who also wrote Fincher’s The Social Network) also watched films starring Kevin Spacey. They might have looked at which genres fans of Robin Wright (she plays Spacey’s wife in the show) prefer and if any of these include political drama or thrillers. The list of permutations is endless and Netflix looked at all of them.

If we move beyond genre and the show’s stars/director, there is still a considerable amount of behavioural data that Netflix had access to. For every single one of their 40+ million subscribers, they could look at:

  • When they pause content, rewind, or fast forward
  • The time of day that they watch content
  • The date that they watch
  • Where they watch content (down to the post code)
  • The device on which you watch content
  • When you pause and leave content (and if you ever come back)
  • The ratings given (about 4 billion per day)
  • Searches for titles/stars within Netflix

You don’t need a qualification in data analysis to appreciate the story one could tell with this. Netflix did their research and used the data above to validate the fact that there was a demand for a show of this nature. Analysis of their digital data helped them to recognise that House of Cards had a very good chance of being a hit. They found an audience and structured the content to meet the demands of this audience.

But it didn’t end there. They then proceeded to shoot a series of unique trailers to promote the show. Each trailer was tailored to a specific audience, based on Netflix user data. The version of the trailer that was served to a subscriber was dependant on previous viewing habits. If you had recently watched American Beauty, The Usual Suspects or Seven-you’d see the trailer that features Kevin Spacey. In essence, the data was used to help Netflix promote the show in a ruthlessly efficient manner. Based on behaviour, they presented the promotional content to the audience that was most predisposed to consuming it. Big data becomes smart data.

If we learn one thing from Netflix, it is that the digital data is available and accessible. The behavioural data that informed a $100 million decision, is not dissimilar to that of any business with a digital footprint.  Regardless of the channel or the platform, we have data and insights that provide us a window into the mind of our consumer.

As with Netflix, we should draw behavioural insights from data; and position this at the forefront the decision making process. The businesses that get that in 2014 will comprise the best, those that don’t will make up the rest.

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