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How Netflix and Epic Games discover new audiences through social insights

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The online entertainment industry has recently become a lifeline for overworked parents, bored children, and locked-in couples. At a time when broadcasters and TV networks struggle with a lack of advertising funds and their key attraction, live sports, forward-thinking brands like Netflix and Epic Games report healthy financial growth and increase in demand.

Due in part to these encouraging results, the sector has seen a number of new players enter the space. From the likes of Disney and NBCUniversal, who now offer subscription services, to entirely new concepts like the short-form streaming platform Quibi - many are trying to steal market share, consumer attention, and a rare opportunity to dominate a growing market.  

Is there a winning formula that makes businesses like Epic Games or Netflix stand out when others struggle? Their success is not mere coincidence, nor is it a convenient outcome of changing consumer behavior driven by the pandemic. Rather, it’s a result of a well-structured, fast, and integrated approach to insights to stay relevant and move quickly. Here are the key success factors to strengthen your brand’s purpose and increase market share.

Respond to context and behavior changes as they happen

Before highlighting these companies’ success, it’s worth exploring why things go wrong. Quibi, a short-form streaming platform founded by Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman, collapsed just six months after launching. Despite substantial financial backing and experienced investors, the startup faced an uphill battle since inception. The Covid-19 outbreak has been quoted by analysts as one of the key reasons for their failure. 

While this was definitely a factor, can the fiasco be solely attributed to the virus? Katzenberg seems to think so, but others disagree. After all, the volume of consumers streaming content after lockdowns were announced drastically increased. While other major platforms continued to grow, Quibi lost 90 percent of its subscribers after free trials expired. A not so subtle hint about consumer preferences, particularly when it comes to spending money. 

Although the company could not have predicted a global pandemic, a deeper understanding of what makes people stream and engage with online content would have been instructive in avoiding collapse. Most brands are willing to spend significantly to test ahead of launch, but not many see the urgency to continue with research once the service is up and running, and this is where things go wrong. 

An always-on approach to consumer insights means businesses have an opportunity to adjust and respond to circumstances they weren’t able to predict ahead of a release. Streaming on mobile phones might have been the preferable way to consume content when Quibi was born, but not following its release. Was the concept doomed from the beginning, failing to claim an uncomfortable space between two extremes: short form, free content from the likes of Snapchat on one end, and binge-worthy productions from Netflix, on the other? Or did they fail to recognize an overnight shift in consumption behaviors caused by the virus? 

Clearly, consumers were no longer on-the-go due to pandemic related lockdowns. This meant they could watch premium content on larger screens at home. Something Quibi didn’t support in April when they first launched. What’s less obvious, but clear from social intelligence analysis, is that Quibi failed to harness the growing role online tribes have in sharing content, boosting engagement, and ultimately, driving adoption. The app blocked social sharing on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and Reddit - a move contradicting the natural behaviors reflected online.

Compared to content like Disney's The Mandalorian, with screenshots of Baby Yoda going viral minutes after the first episode aired, and creating more than 2 million tweets within weeks, Quibi content was not able to benefit from being contextualized and shared within online tribes.

Additionally, mobile phone streaming conversations have been rather flat throughout the year, with an even bigger dip in May and the following months of lockdown. This doesn’t have to mean no consumer interest. What it might indicate though, is a niche community with specific needs that should be catered to. A closer look at streaming conversations reveals that the majority of buzz generated in relation to mobile devices past April 2020 stems from esports and podcasts, categories not included in Quibi’s premium subscription model.

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Source Radarly: sample of social conversation relating to "mobile AND streaming", and "TV AND streaming"

It’s worth highlighting that the pandemic didn’t entirely change behaviors. Free, organic, and short-form content available through platforms like TikTok continues to be a winner for consumers forced to stay at home or simply commute less. Quibi’s subscription presented the opposite: a variety and alternative to users who crave fewer filters and more premium post-production. But it didn’t work. Did the company misjudge motivations for using streaming platforms, and offer people a fraction of features available from other services? 

According to Leichtman Research Group, 78 percent of all US households subscribe to at least one video-on-demand service, such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu. This is up from 69% in 2018, and the numbers continue to grow. Each of these products offer huge libraries of content, on multiple devices, to all household members. Social media reflects this need for variety. According to Radarly, the most popular topics and conversation drivers in relation to Netflix today include politics, environment, entertainment (which includes art and music), and of course, movies. Understanding when and why viewers consume each category means brands can broaden their offering, without a risk of alienating or losing out on personalization. 

Recognize diversity in culture

In all the turbulences of this year, the number of organizations which finally recognized the importance of diversity is encouraging. Not every consumer wants or needs the same experience. This helps Netflix stay current, while others struggle with relevancy. What do they do differently?

Netflix took an opportunity to dive into subsets of its core audience on social media and the key platforms they use - Twitter, Instagram, Twitch, and Reddit. Going beyond a generic understanding of a “typical Netflix user”, the company took the opportunity to mine the data and discover online tribes valuable to the business. The approach, listening to the consumers in environments which are organic and spontaneous to them, allows Netflix to gather insights about topics not directly relating to its products. Going beyond film or even broader entertainment conversation means the brand continues to discover the unknown. The approach enables the team to understand what themes, values, and beliefs subscribers talk about when not streaming, in their own time and on their own terms - unprompted.

As a result of this strategy, Netflix launched bespoke, niche, and targeted accounts which serve as a space for like-minded individuals to connect. Channels like  @strongblacklead, @netflix_lgbt, @contodonetflix, and @nxonnetflix cater to subsections of Netflix’s wider audience and, at the same time, give the company the perspective it needs to target well. In effect, they always start with the consumer and the understanding of what a specific show means to them. The same goes to prioritizing promos, bringing shows back, or acquiring new ones - if not directly from the audience, where should this intel come from?

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Social media enables brands to achieve consumer centricity. Users continue to be open and opinionated, using online platforms for reaching their own audience. The organically created networks and data they generate are an invaluable asset to organizations who understand the power of consumer insight. Through an informed and transparent approach, they can continue to improve their offer and respond to the audiences’ cries for authentic, selected, and curated content.  

Uncover new brand territories and partnership opportunities 

Tim Sweeney, the mastermind behind Epic Games, spoke years ago about virtual reality and its potential to transform how we go about our day. He always believed that the virtual realm is going to provide a space where people make friends, conduct business, shop, and do everything else. Today Fortnite is the place to be for many; it’s a space to hang out, buy your favorite sneakers, meet new friends, and discover music.

The company has bridged the gap between hardcore gamers and the community of casual players who seek a different type of thrill. Yes, Fortnite metaverse is a space to have fun, but it’s also a place to compete at the highest level - a perfect combination that doesn’t exclude anyone. This means that the  Fortnite universe is not only attractive to the consumer but also brands indirectly linked with the world of gaming. By understanding what the audience really wants but also what it won’t stand for, Epic enables collaborations previously not thought of in the realm of gaming. 

Thanks to associations with popular culture, their influence on how consumers chose to connect and experience the world is enormous. In fact, their successful partnership with Marvel made Fortnite one of the most rapidly growing games of all time. Building on this, the company has now hinted at yet another significant collaboration, this time with Ghostbusters.

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Over the last few years, Epic enabled brands outside of gaming to broaden their audience or connect with consumers they wouldn’t previously consider. Due to the popularity of Esports in China, luxury fashion brands like Louis Vitton, Gucci, and Burberry were the first to capitalize on opportunities. Today, we see those collaborations growing, with beauty and makeup brands like Mac Cosmetics launching exclusive collections targeted at casual gamers who form a rapidly growing gaming tribe. Or beverage giants like Red Bull leveraging the esports universe for charity purposes.

In order for these to work, collaborations must resonate with consumers through an authentic voice. It can be tempting to enter a space just because others have, but doing so without relevant consumer insights risks backlash. 

Integrate consumer insights in your brand cycle

The biggest lesson for businesses is to ensure they don’t ignore the real-time value of AI-enabled consumer insights. Particularly today, when the world moves fast and consumers demonstrate agility like never before, the proactivity of social intelligence must replace reactive methods of both classical research and basic social listening. It is crucial to understand that consumer insight plays an important role throughout a product’s cycle and that instant and constant optimization is at the heart of staying relevant and consumer-centric. For some, this realization represents a difference between success and failure.


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