“Content customers are unpredictable”: Former executive talks about Netflix’s phenomenal success

There is hardly a single person on the planet who has not finished watching “all” Netflix content recently, especially in an era when the world has stopped reigning. The past two years, accompanied by a long stay at home, have made Netflix streaming services a must-have commodity almost like a mask.

About two weeks ago, a service and customer experience conference was held in Israel by the Israeli Center for Management (MAIL), and one of the most respected lecturers who participated and came to Israel specifically for this purpose is Gibson Biddle, former VP of Product at Netflix, who provided the audience And to the secrets of his success.

Gibson Biddle (Photo: PR)

We caught up with him about the unique customer experience offered by Netflix, the “customer science” data and the question of whether other commercial companies can learn anything from Netflix’s experience regarding service, data and personalization. “It’s not that there were no setbacks along the way,” says Biddle when I wonder if Netflix is ​​a great test case for customer service and “science” wherever it is. “I think the process that Netflix went through when it came to precise personalization, while not simple, certainly taught a lot about customer attitude and the need for a precise strategy and not just trial and error.”

Changes in consumer science

Biddle began working on Netflix in its early days, in 2005, when there was still only an online video library. No one was talking about streaming at the time, but the product had a long-term vision. “20 years ago no one recognized the Netflix logo, today customers immediately recognize and trust the company with their credit cards,” he says.

But that was not always the case, when Netflix announced its intention to split its streaming and DVD service in 2011, 800,000 customers canceled their subscription. “Customers didn’t really understand at the time what the word ‘streaming’ meant,” says Biddle, “they thought you were referring to efficiency, and efficiency is a word that somehow always sounds bad.”

Biddle, who developed in the field of marketing and moved to product branding, saw Netflix as an opportunity: “I wanted to do more in the field of product. When I joined the company, my goal was to help a young company establish a world-class brand. The brand, the product breathes life into a brand, and together they have a good foundation for creating a world-class brand and product. ”

Biddle’s model for a successful product strategy consists of three parameters: positioning, customer benefit and personality. The brand pyramid adds the two remaining elements: emotion and foresight. “Even though we live in a world where we always talk about the here and now,” says Biddle, “one of the main reasons for accurate success is thinking about the distant future, five or ten years ahead. Even 20. Early in my career as a product manager I learned to act fast. I was able to build software. “Learning for children in a short period of time, which strengthened the value of strategic thinking for me,” he explains. “I learned to accelerate progress by strategically thinking about building software for children. I signed long-term exclusivity in many of them, but here for example we were unable to build long-term and lasting value because we had no non-copyable uniqueness. At Netflix the story was completely different.”

And where is the difficulty? “The hard thing is that content customers can not be expected, and we never know what will work with them and what will not. That means you have to experiment a lot, but not give up on strategy, and that’s the advice I give to companies and startups I work with.” Netflix grew into a market with almost no major competitors. Was it difficult even then?

“It was not easy at all for the simple reason that we, in the world of marketing, call what we do ‘consumer science’, but unlike science, it is not mathematics at all. The wisdom is to create an environment where you can test a lot of ideas – and quickly. “Faster, so you can learn what works for your business and improve over time. You need to understand that when it comes to personalization and content characterization, there is no one truth, there is one truth that changes.”

This algorithm is a fairly common word in the Hebrew language, and almost every child knows that there are algorithms whose job is to test his consumer preferences and tailor the content he likes. “We collected billions of ratings at the time, which we organized on a scale from 0 to 5. Do you like certain content or did you start watching a loop and leave after one episode? Does that mean it’s content you do not like? – It was completely like an experiment.”

And what did you find out? “We assumed it would be helpful to know a person’s age and gender. However, we found that it was impossible to predict people’s taste by age and gender, and certainly not by watching four or five movies. It’s a much more complex matter.” During the conversation, Biddle and I discover, regardless of Netflix, that we have a pretty similar viewing taste: “Seinfeld,” “Calm Down,” and “Bugek Horsman.” He’s less surprised I’m. “We like to watch almost the same things, even though you live in Israel and I live in San Francisco and there are some age differences between us. The geography itself does not affect either.”

My next question is whether Netflix’s strategy varies from country to country.

“As mentioned, no, except for the fact that Netflix brought it to everyone by quickly translating most of the TV shows and movies into 40 different languages ​​to reach 190 countries around the world.
Although Biddle admits that personalization is difficult, he adds that this is just a great example of how Netflix puts its customers at the center and thinks about how it can make them happy every year.

“What, for example, do you dislike about Netflix?” He asks suddenly and I hesitate for a moment, answering that my only frustration is waiting for my series to come back.
Biddle says that the ratings of the movies and series and the percentage of adjustments have also changed over time. “The stars that Netflix gives are a rating tailored to you personally, not a quality review of a particular movie or series.”

It took me a while to figure it out. But that sounds logical. I also tend to watch alongside the quality series in films that are pure Guilty Pleasure and their names cannot be quoted in the article. “I’m glad you shared the secret with me. And that’s exactly why the rating system has changed over time,” he says and smiles.

Organizational culture and creative freedom

Biddle talks a lot about the corporate culture, which often defines not only the nature of the company but also its chances of success. “One of the big challenges in companies is that growth is usually rapid and it creates a need for rules, rules and a kind of routine that seemingly hinders the rapid development of the company, but ultimately has to find the way that will allow the company to be interesting and innovative.”

There is no single formula for success, it is impossible to take the corporate culture of a company like Netflix or Amazon and copy it. it will not work. “Corporate culture defines how employees conduct themselves when no one is watching, who is recruited, promoted or fired, what behaviors are sought in employees and what are the common values ​​that are understood by everyone. In Netflix, for example, the corporate culture To work to test exact fit.

This is far beyond the procedures of how to work, when there is a meeting, what the dismissal procedure is and what happens when an employee uses too much paper in the printer. This is for example feedback given in real time and allows decisions to be made quickly and more priest and priest nuances that are part of the corporate culture, but directly contribute to progress and creativity. I currently help companies with so-called ‘consumer science experiments’, but it’s not enough to try a lot of things and see what works like throwing spaghetti on the wall and see what gets caught. A company needs a plan, a very clear product strategy that is unique to the various companies. You mentioned Amazon, and in this context I will note that Amazon is very unique and different from any other company in the world in its strategy and its corporate culture. ”

What tip can you give to beginning companies, building on a path of trial and error, strategy and organizational culture? “In the first stage, companies need to define who they are trying to make and who they want to be. Different companies have years of cultures. Amazon, for example, has 12 different leadership principles than anything I knew. At Netflix, during my tenure, To make them happy, to make the product difficult to copy, to rejuvenate in the future, identity focus is very important.

And something else that might be learned from my life experience: At the beginning of my career I was too competitive. I know it sounds weird, but I was more focused on my competitors, product managers in other companies, what they do and how. In the second phase of my career I started to focus much less on competitors and more on the customer. I stopped looking at what others were doing and kept asking myself how I make my customer happy, and if I could both make him happy and do it in a way that my competitors could not copy from me, I would not have to worry too much about the competition. ”

By Editor

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