By Rick Allen, CEO, ViewLift
When I think about how media and entertainment once worked, I recall Henry Ford’s famous words. “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants, so long as it is black.” That is exactly how things used to be when TV was the only significant source of entertainment.
In 1953, for example, 44 million viewers watched an I Love Lucy episode called “Lucy Goes to the Hospital,”. That was approximately 72% of American households that owned a TV. So, you could say that most of America was glued to their screens, watching the same content at the exact same time.
At the time, Henry Ford’s statement made sense, both for automotive companies and broadcasters. Like early automobile manufacturing lines, content providers needed limited production capabilities to catch the largest possible audience, because distribution was limited to the big three networks. Today, in contrast, OTT platforms rule the roost and are only getting bigger. American viewers are watching digital media 470 minutes a day in 2022, up from just 214 in 2011. Globally, nearly half of the world’s population will be on OTT platforms by 2027 as the user penetration hits 44.1%.
Going beyond a handful of sitcoms back in the day, viewers are now spoilt for choice. Whatever be your interest, no matter how niche, you’ll find an OTT provider that offers the content you want to watch. This, in turn, has meant fragmented and fickle audiences, ready to switch platforms if they don’t get what they want.
Viewer Engagement – The Hunt for OTT’s Holy Grail
Irrespective of your business model – SVOD, TVOD, or AVOD, how can you as a content owner attract and retain viewers in this vast market? Here are insights that we’ve gathered in our over 14 years’ experience building, operating, and evolving streaming services of all sizes.
Get your viewing experience right
No matter how big or small your platform is, it will always be compared to the best in the business. Viewers have a choice, and have already experienced great user experiences on global OTT platforms. If they don’t get the experience they want from your platform, off they go to your competition. Content not loading, latency, poor audio or video quality are all game-killers that no OTT company can afford to allow. Ensure that your user experience is top-quality, and you’re ready to take on the best in the business.
Personalize from the word go
At the core of viewer engagement is the ability of an OTT platform to offer viewers content that is specific to them. 80% of Netflix’s stream time, for example, comes from personalized recommendations. It’s a continuous feedback loop – the better the personalization of content, the longer a viewer will stay, and the longer they stay, the sharper will be the personalization. That’s why we’ve consistently seen that successful platforms start the personalization process the moment a new user signs up.
This takes two forms. The first is to have a well-designed sign-up screen – ideally on the home screen – that encourages viewers to share their preferences. We’ve found that clearly communicating the benefits of sharing their preferences makes new users happy to provide this information. The second is to have technology at the back end to capture every relevant viewer metric and behaviour. If the technology is in place before a new viewer signs up, the platform never misses even the tiniest detail about the viewer’s likes, dislikes and viewing patterns.
Go beyond push notifications
Once a viewer is signed up, your platform’s real engagement begins. While hyper-personalized content recommendations are essential, how you serve them up is equally crucial. Constant prompts may sound like a good idea, but in my personal and professional experience, they can also be an off-putting irritant.
One solution to this is to make personalized notifications a managed process, where key metrics can inform you about, say, when a viewer tends to watch a particular piece of content. So, for example, you are in the habit of watching a movie every weekend, or support Liverpool in the EPL. It would then be relevant to send you movie notifications on Fridays, or match notifications a day before Liverpool plays.
But, more than this, technology exists that can help you personalize the viewer engagement more meaningfully. Wish lists, for example, prompt viewers to line up content that they would like to watch later, giving you an accurate idea of their preferences. And you should offer viewers the convenience of being able to resume watching something that they had stopped midway. If they do, it’s an indication of what they consider a ‘must watch’. Same with enabling users to share their must-watch recommendations with family and friends without having to leave your platform.
Interactivity: Make them lean forward
OTT platforms have the potential to encourage viewers to interact with content beyond passive watching. My mantra is, “The more you make them lean forward, the longer they’ll stay.” Watch parties, for example, create a community experience akin to going to a movie with friends. By creating an interactive experience between users, the OTT platform enhances its ‘stickiness’. The community becomes as crucial as the content, engaging viewers and keeping them hooked to your platform. Last year, 25 million US adults watched synced, on-demand videos with remote companions on OTT platforms. Clearly, there is immense potential in community viewing.
Polls, quizzes and trivia are also an effective way to improve interactivity on your OTT platform. This is especially important when these capabilities can be gamified by offering viewers rewards beyond simple watching. So, for example, a sports channel can ask fans to predict half-time and full-time scores, with prizes for the correct score. Or you could run a trivia quiz during a movie. All these techniques make the experience more engrossing, increasing the time a viewer stays on your platform.
Go beyond one screen
OTT technology has taken interactivity beyond what can be offered on the same screen where your user is viewing the content. The increasing popularity of smartphones drives a large part of this phenomenon. We’ve all seen (if not done it ourselves) people checking their phones while watching OTT content on another screen. According to Mark Proulx, co-author of the book ‘Social TV’ “between 60-70% of people, when they’re watching TV, also have a second screen device, such as a laptop, an iPad, or a mobile device.” This was in 2012. Today, the average viewer consumes OTT content on three different devices, making a multi-screen experience an exciting way to engage viewers more meaningfully.
Multi-screen usage creates several possibilities to engage with viewers interactively. As far back as 2000, American Idol created a live audience poll, where users could vote using text messages. Smartphones have only increased the possibilities of immersive viewing experiences. So, if you’re a movie platform, you could push notifications with trivia about the plot or the actors while the movie is on. Similarly, a sports platform could try a gamified poll on viewers’ phones without interrupting the game. Or, send updates if another game you’re interested in is being played at the same time.
Going multi-screen also helps platforms monetize their content through e-commerce, offering them an additional revenue stream. So, before a sports match, you could send viewers a link to the teams’ merchandise store. Or, during a movie, you can offer them posters and memorabilia that they can purchase online.
Get yourself the right technology partner
All these use cases I’ve cited have one thing in common – robust technology working at the back-end. When choosing a technology provider, three factors will help you make the right choice.
First, the company should have past expertise in providing solutions to OTT platforms of different sizes. This is important as there is no one-size-fits-all solution in the OTT space. Your needs are unique, and your solutions provider should be capable of fulfilling them.
Besides experience, your tech partner should also be able to deliver out-of-the-box functionality. Want to offer, say, a watch party? Your partner should have a module that supports text messages and streams without latency. Can your platform make key viewing moments shoppable by seamlessly connecting with e-commerce sites?
Lastly, your tech partner should be able to efficiently harvest your most precious commodity – viewer data. A comprehensive and intuitive metrics package will take into account every nuance of user behaviour and preferences. A good tech stack partner who understands the evolution of data and platforms as well as that of consumers will allow you to achieve every last bit of actionable insight from your data.
OTT viewers have gotten used to personalized, high-quality user experiences from global OTT giants. Getting the content strategy right is only the tip of the iceberg. OTT brands then need robust technology to build their capabilities and grow their business while keeping their users engaged, interested, and curious.
We’ve come a long way since that I Love Lucy episode, and I believe this evolution is not about to stop any time soon. Are you ready to make the most of it?