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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Fix findability to expand streaming audiences

April 25, 2024 | By Matthew Keys – Independent Media Reporter @matthewkeyslive
The topline: Whether you call it search, discoverability or findability, audiences (particularly younger ones) want a better experience so that they can find something to watch on their streaming services.

Young streamers are more likely to gravitate to user-generated platforms like TikTok and YouTube for their entertainment needs over subscription-based products like Netflix and Max. Streaming services need to update their user experiences, particularly around findability and discoverability, to offer more-personalized content recommendations over generalized suggestions, according to the findings of a new report.

Deloitte’s “2024 Digital Media Trends” study found that 60% of Generation Z video consumers are more likely to watch user-generated content because they “don’t have time to spend searching for what they want to watch.” Half of all respondents say they “abandon an entertainment experience because they can’t find what they’re looking for.”

The findings are problematic for entertainment giants, which are committing large budgets toward the production of original content that aren’t attracting significant audiences. Deloitte says the top six subscription streaming platforms are likely to spend $100 billion on original content production and marketing in 2024 alone. Jeff Loucks, the Executive Director of the Deloitte Center for Technology, Media, and Telecommunications who co-authored the Digital Media Trends report, said that investment is likely to be wasted effort if streamers can’t easily connect to those shows and movies.

The discoverability dilemma

According to Loucks, one big reason why shows and movies aren’t being watched is because streaming platforms make it difficult for that content to be readily discovered, likening the experience of sifting through shows and movies on a streaming service to “the old days of Blockbuster.”

“You’re searching through a bunch of titles, and you can’t agree on what to watch. It’s going to take an hour and a half of your time,” Loucks said. “The content discovery has got to get better.”

Industry experts who spoke with Digital Content Next said they were largely unsurprised by Deloitte’s findings that streamers — particularly younger audiences — were increasingly turning to user-generated content platforms like TikTok and YouTube for their entertainment needs. One often overlooked reason is that platforms like YouTube and TikTok have made heavy investments in their search and discovery algorithms that identify what a person is watching on the regular, and then serve up more content that caters to their interests.

“YouTube and TikTok are scarily accurate and predictive and elemental, whether the content is large-scale or bite-sized,” said Tim Hanlon, the founder and CEO of the media consultancy firm Vertere Group. “Those are all independently describable and ascribable elements, data-rich elements that can be mixed and matched together.”

Loucks agrees that younger viewers are increasingly attracted to short-form content, which can be easily skipped for something new if it isn’t appealing. “Sometimes, people are telling us that they’ve got a lower attention span, and smaller, snackable content is something they’re willing to watch — it’s easier to consume,” Loucks said.

Addressing fragmentation

Embracing short form and the push-based UI of user-generated content platforms won’t serve as a silver bullet that will solve the complex challenges of streaming search and discoverability, however. There are still plenty of consumers who prefer to be entertained by watching feature-length films and episodic TV series — and they’re having the same challenges finding interesting things to watch across apps and platforms, too.

According to a report from Accenture, about 36% of people say they’re exhausted from having to constantly look across platforms and services to find something they want to watch. And 60% of consumers say they’ve churned out of a service because a movie or TV series was dropped, or they thought they’d watched everything there was to watch.

Fragmentation is accelerating these trends, because content that is relatable to a person is spread across different services. “The net impact of fragmentation is the fact that consumers can’t simply find content in consistent places where they want to spend their time,” pointed out Dallas Lawrence, a former communications executive for Roku’s platform.

Lawrence spent a lot of time thinking about this problem at Roku. He noticed that companies spend a lot of time and marketing money drawing customers into their streaming services only to “fail at the five-yard line.”

“They’ve failed to actually consumers with a piece of content they want to watch, and that’s probably one of the biggest challenges today, both from a streamer perspective — to keep people from cycling out — but also from a consumer perspective.”

Lawrence is now the chief strategy and communications officer for Telly, a startup that grabbed headlines last year after promising to offer a free, dual-screen smart TV. Telly packs a lot of features that are meant to entice consumer interest — from a premium screen to an integrated high-fidelity sound bar. They also promise to play nice with any streaming platform that a customer wants to use.

Telly is rooted in the idea that the TV will pay for itself over time through advertisements shown on a secondary screen that sits beneath the main display. Lawrence said Telly is uniquely positioned to help ease the challenges of streaming discovery for consumers and services alike because the device is able to evaluate what someone is watching across any service.

“If I’m watching Bridgerton on the top screen of my Telly, the device is recognizing that, and we’re going to say, hey, maybe you’d like to watch Gilded Age on Max as well,” Lawrence said. “We can throw that ad on the second screen, and when you’re done watching Bridgerton, you just pick up your remote and click into Gilded Age. The ability for us to recognize what someone is watching now, and then pull them into new content with a single click before they’ve turned off the TV or cycled out, that will have huge benefits.”

Streaming discoverability beyond the EPG

For now, Telly is the only dual-screen device on the market that can seamlessly pull off this experience.  However, the idea of using viewing habits to deliver personalized results and improve streaming discoverability is not unique and can be franchised by other services.

Instead, streaming services seem to be defaulting to antiquated ways of browsing across content, complains former CBS executive Adam Wiener, who now operates his own media consulting firm Continuous Media.

Wiener says that subscription-based platforms have adopted the “endless scroll,” which allows consumers to quickly flip through movies and TV shows. Often, however, this approach fails offer personalized content recommendations the way user-generated platforms like TikTok and YouTube do. Free, ad-supported platforms and some premium pay TV services that deliver linear content are even worse, Wiener notes. That’s because they’ve embraced the grid-style electronic program guide (EPG) that was used by cable and satellite platforms for decades, but hasn’t kept up with the times.

“The problem with the EPG is that it’s the clunky thing of yesteryear, and it also doesn’t include all the things that you may be interested in,” Wiener opined. “An EPG should know that I never, ever watch reality shows, and it should never show those things to me.”

Endless scrolling and EPGs also reveal another problem: There is a lot of stuff to watch. According to Nielsen’s State of Play report, there are now more than 2.7 million unique titles across hundreds of streaming services, and the sheer volume of content libraries can leave consumers feeling extremely overwhelmed and make finding something to watch seem impossible.

“It’s the paradox of choice,” Wiener says. “The age-old discussion that it becomes tiring to scroll through a screen, the thought that maybe if I continue scrolling right, I might find something more interesting…and then it feels like you can’t choose, like you have to settle for something, and you just hope that it’s good.”

Hanlon agrees: “When everything is a choice, there’s a paralysis that occurs when you either revert to something you know from the past, or you’re looking for signals to grasp,” Hanlon said. “What services wind up having to do is dumb things down and simplify it to the point where it becomes pages and pages of tiles or, worse, a search box.”

AI leads the way for streaming discoverability

Wiener and Hanlon both point to generative artificial intelligence (AI) as a solution that can help ease a lot of the pain points associated with streaming search and discovery. At least one company is already embracing the idea: Earlier this month, Cineverse said it was working on a new AI-powered content recommendation engine called cineSearch.

Using metadata provided by Nielsen’s Gracenote and an AI platform powered by Google’s Gemini language model, cineSearch will power a forthcoming consumer chatbot called Ava that aims to offer personalized TV shows and movies across apps and services — even if the content isn’t offered by Cineverse itself.

“Our partnership with Gracenote increases the number of films and TV shows that are discoverable by users and allows us to offer cineSearch users the highest-quality title information with intensity rankings – when paired with a user’s viewing history, streaming service filters and content preferences – will help solve a major consumer issue and the leading cause of viewer frustration,” Tony Huidor, the Chief Technical Officer at Cineverse, said in a statement.

Deloitte’s Media Trends report suggests companies like Cineverse are on the right track. According to the report “streaming services should look to the engagement models of social media services to improve their own content delivery strategies, making a more concerted effort to leverage user data and AI technologies to target content toward individual viewers.” Loucks affirms that video platforms should want to embrace generative AI solutions to improve their content recommendation engines.

“Each service is going to have to work on having a user interface that is good and that works better, and I think generative AI is going to be a big part of that,” Loucks said.

Discoverability delivers streaming audiences

Audiences expect personalized experiences. According to a November 2023 report by Google Cloud, 81% of streaming video viewers “expect streaming services to provide highly personalized experiences,” and 31% will switch out of a service if they can’t find something they want to watch. Worse, nearly half of respondents say they’ve canceled a service in the past “if they couldn’t find something to watch,” Google Cloud revealed. Clearly improving streaming content discoverability is critical for success.

The experts and the data reveal common themes: Streamers don’t want to spend a lot of time trying to find something to watch. And if a video platform makes an investment in personalized search and discovery, that is where audiences — especially younger viewers — will spend their time.

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