Why Facebook, Twitter, Netflix and Others Have Personalisation Wrong.

Today, it is hard to escape digital technology’s great promise of personalisation and customisation. Every company under the sun is touting tailored customer experiences. One based on learning about individual habits, preferences and interests; driven by our past behaviours, choices and actions.

Every advertiser and marketer swears the new ‘holy grail’ of connecting more intimately with customers, and they are racing to build algorithms and artificial intelligence that gets better, as it learns, at predicting future decisions based on past behaviours. They learn about our interests, hobbies and consumption habits in a bid to sell us more of what we ‘want’.

Amazon recommends products based on our purchase and browsing history. Netflix suggest movies based on our viewing history. Delta sends us special deals based on our travel history. The Wall Street Journal recommends news articles based on our reading history. Facebook shows us posts in our news feed based on our ‘likes’, and even the screensaver image on my PC asks me to like the pictures I want to see more of – well, you get the picture.

However, I believe every one of these companies has got it wrong. There exists a fundamental flaw in the way they are approaching personalisation, one that does not truly deliver on the greatest promise of the internet and digital technology.

The internet, beyond connecting the world, allowing us to share, engage, collaborate – is about discovery. The ability to discover new peoples, cultures, places and even points of view. It has the ability to open our minds, widen our worldview and expand our horizons through discovery; so why show us more of what we already know, like, see and do?

It is great that technology has allowed companies to peek into our daily lives (for those who opt-in), and digital tools in turn allows them to deliver experiences and messages uniquely tailored to us. But here is what I want them to do with this power – use it to deliver on the greater promise – one that opens each of us up to new ideas, enables us to experience new things, and even challenges conventional beliefs and viewpoints. Let’s use it to experiment with broadening our worldview; rather than limiting it based on what we already see and do.

Only by doing this can we begin to unlock the potential of the human mind and deliver what I believe to be the holy grail of technology.

Today, Facebook’s feed algorithm works to show us more of what we already like. The same holds true for Twitter or CNN’s article suggestions and the principles behind every other personalisation algorithms – they are designed to show us more of what find most agreeable.

As a result there is little debate and no authentic discussion because we are in essence talking to ourselves. More importantly we learn nothing new, if we don’t have the opportunity to experience views, ideas and thoughts that are very different from our own.

Currently, technology is only perpetuating our natural human instincts to find and then quickly form safe, secure and comfortable tribes and online havens. Yet, societies only make progress through discord, based on debating conflicting ideas and diametrically opposed views, before the majority can find common ground and reach consensus to move forward on the most contentious issues.

My challenge to every company is to start applying a different set of principles their algorithms and in doing so redefine the idea of ‘personalisation’ along the following lines:

40% what I already like
+ 40% things that are new and different (stretch my worldview)
+ 20% that I will dislike/disagree with (challenge my thinking)

Now imagine what your Facebook and Twitter feed, Netflix recommendations, Open Table picks and Fox News or CNN article suggestions will begin to look like. I guarantee they will be richer, more rewarding and in time will also help us bring back civil dialogue and respectful debate on both the most divisive political and social issues; not to mention that our minds and society will be richer for it.

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HBO Go or No Go?

HBO’s announcement about launching a streaming only version of their popular service has been received with great joy and serious apprehension depending on which side of the fence you sit. For many years now consumers, specifically people who have cut the cable cord (cord cutters) have been clamoring for services like HBO and ESPN to go rogue. Cord cutters have said that they are willing to pay a monthly fee for these premium services if they were stand-alone and not part of a cable bundle; one that includes hundreds of channels nobody wants to watch. So for cord cutters and consumers like me, who currently live in both worlds, this is a big win and giant step in the right direction towards a la carte programming.

However, on the other side of the fence sit the cable and broadband companies who have balked at HBO’s move because it will disrupt their lucrative and outdated business models and threaten the uncomfortable status quo. Incidentally, the business model the cable companies are trying to protect is akin to going to a restaurant and being told that in order to eat your favourite desert you will have to order, and pay for, all the deserts on the menu – I doubt you would be eating there again! Comcast’s CEO recently publicly rebuked the HBO announcement; “Mr. Burke warned that, whatever HBO’s intentions, ‘it’s going to be a challenge for them to not cannibalize what is already a really, really good business’.” (Source: Wall Street Journal). It is worth noting that if Comcast’s proposed merger with Time Warner Cable gets approved by regulators, they would control 70% of the broadband market; and interestingly HBO will need to rely on broadband providers like them for the high speeds and massive bandwidths they will need for this gamble to succeed.

The reality is that when most established and entrenched companies make proclamations about changing their business model or radically disrupting the status quo, it is often a knee-jerk reaction to competitive pressures and therefore rarely ever thought through. Take for example CBS’s announcement, on the heels of HBO’s, about launching their own streaming service for $5.99 per month. CBS like other broadcast networks is free-to-air. This means that unlike cable channels all you need is to buy is an over-the-air-antenna and plug it into your TV and you can watch all the networks, as well as numerous local channels and public broadcasting stations like PBS; all in HD and all for free (Source: Lifehacker).

CBS also makes a lot of money by negotiating hefty “re-transmission” fees from cable providers, which form part of our monthly monster cable bills. So the first question is why would the cable companies continue to pay these hefty fees when CBS is making the same content available through other means? Additionally, from a customer standpoint, live sports like NFL games are not included in the streaming service. Let’s face it, CBS hardly has a reputation for stellar and premium content that people are willing to pay extra for; not sure many people are doing high fives about the fact that “Two Broke Girls” will be available to watch via streaming. Also, if I want to watch the first six seasons of the Good Wife, I can do this for free as an Amazon Prime member, or see them on HuluPlus under my current subscription (where I can watch many other shows), or simply download 2 seasons at a time from iTunes for roughly $65-$70; which is still cheaper than paying for one year of CBS’s ‘All Access’ streaming service  — you do the math.

HBO on the other hand is not like a CBS (other than the misfortune of having Time Warner as it’s parent company). It has always been an entrepreneurial company with innovation as part of its core DNA. It single-handedly changed the television industry; lifting the quality of content and thus saving us all from a TV-hell filled with nothing but the Kardashians. However, the quality of content that forged HBO’s brand reputation also forced the rest of the industry to raise its game, and many have followed-suit by creating their own original and award winning programming. AMC has had huge ratings and critical success with “Mad Men”, “Breaking Bad” and “Walking Dead,” while Showtime has given us “Dexter”, “Nurse Jackie” and “Weeds”. Even Netflix has gotten into the content game with “House of Card” and is now stepping fearlessly into the feature film business with a recent four movie deal with Adam Sandler (Read my take here: “Netflix, Data, Drunkard’s and Adam Sandler”).

So unlike CBS, I believe HBO is doing this for the right reasons and more likely to think it through and get it right, now that they have woken up to and accepted the new consumer realities. This I suspect also led to their decision to go ahead and piss on their powerful cable partners whom they did not care to inform ahead of making their announcement.

HBO knows that they can no longer distinguish themselves on quality of content alone. As a result they would be competing (with the likes of Netflix) with one hand tied behind their back as long they are relegated to being stuck as part of the traditional cable bundle.

Second, they have read and accepted the tea leaves on the changing pattern of television consumption. Online video has been growing for some years but the acceleration has been marked in the last year. An Adobe study shows that for the first time online video viewing habits are going mainstream and no longer relegated to tech savvy early adopters and cord cutters; “Researchers tracked 165 online video views and 1.53 billion logins over a year, and they found that total TV viewing over the internet grew by 388 percent in mid-2014 compared to the same time a year earlier — a near-quintupling.” (Source: Wired Magazine). This means that even people who have regular cable subscriptions are choosing to watch more of their TV and movies online via internet connected devices.

Most importantly, HBO is clearly paying attention to their customers changing viewing habits that have decimated the old Nielsen TV rating system. People no longer want to watch shows based on a Fixed Point Chart (industry jargon for the TV schedule published by a channel). Instead, they prefer to watch it a few days later or simply binge watch an entire show or season during a weekend or long haul flight.

While I do not have a crystal ball and cannot predict the success of HBO’s standalone service, I do know a couple of things. It is certain that they, like Netflix, will face tremendous opposition and hurdles from movie studios, cable operators and broadband providers; all interested in preserving their lucrative status quo. However, HBO will also have the wind in their sales based on the fact that customers are demanding a breakdown of the straight-jacketed cable model and getting more used to consuming content in an a la carte, anytime, anywhere, pay as you watch model.

My money is always on companies that try to deliver on their customers’ needs and focus on making life easier for them, rather than try to force customers down a path driven by the company’s myopic goals and bottom-line greed.

Netflix, Data, Drunkard’s and Adam Sandler

There has been much discussion about Netflix’ recent announcement signing Adam Sandler for an exclusive four movie deal to be premiered on Netflix. It has also generated talk of the beginning of the end of the traditional Hollywood studio model as well as praise for Netflix use of data to make a content investment decision; albeit, this particular decision has left many people scratching their heads.

Let’s start with the fact that it has been a while since Mr. Sandler made a commercially successful or comedically substantive film; while Grown Ups fared better, he did not carry that movie. If you ask people to name their favourite Adam Sandler movie, most say Wedding Singer and movie buffs will add Punch-Drunk Love. His last few films, ‘That’s My Boy’ and ‘Blended’ have been critically panned and box office duds. In fact, the last movie, Blended, might have had a longer advertising campaign preceding the release, than the actual run it had in theaters!

On the lack of critical and commercial success, Netflix’s content chief has a data counterpoint: “Very uniquely, he stands out for his global appeal to Netflix subscribers. Even movies that were soft in the U.S. [theatrically] outperformed dramatically on Netflix in the U.S. and around the world.” (Source: Hollywood Reporter).

Don’t get me wrong, I love data and am a big advocate for using it to make better and more informed business decisions. However, I am also against over-reliance on data and using it without the benefit of judgement to accompany the decision-making process. My thinking is best explained by David Ogilvy who once exclaimed about the ad industry’s over-reliance on research – “I notice increasing reluctance on the part of marketing executives to use judgment; they are coming to rely too much on research, and they use it as a drunkard uses a lamp post for support, rather than for illumination.”

If one were to take a closer look at Netflix catalogue you will find that of the twelve highest rated comedy films, currently available in USA (as of October 2014); 2 are foreign (The Intoucahbles and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara), 8 were made between 1953 and 1987 (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Roman Holiday, Sabrina, The Graduate, Charade, White Christmas, MASH and Good Morning Vietnam), only 2 are from this century – Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) and Silver Linings Playbook (2012).

Additionally, their top comedy recommendations for me include ‘Maz Jobrani: I come in Peace’, ‘Tortilla Soup’ and ‘Welcome to Dongmakgol’; each movie gets 4.5 / 5; stars as personalised recommendations for me. No doubt you are also scratching your head and asking “Max who?” and what the %$%^*$%* a Dongmakgol and can it be eaten?

Then there is also the fact that Netflix continues to have a large selection of Mr. Sandler’s movies in both the US and abroad; “We had almost all of Adam’s movies in the first pay window in the U.S. Today, we continue to have those movies in the first pay window in Canada. And then, through various windows that follow the pay window all the way to the deep catalog, we’ve licensed Adam’s movies in all of our territories.” (Source: Hollywood Reporter). Considering these two data points one could surmise that Netflix has a pretty poor selection of comedy films in their library but a wide selection of Mr. Sandler’s movies.

If you are like most people, who sign-up for a monthly subscription service, you only feel you are getting value for your money if you are able to watch movies frequently. You start by looking for recent comedy films, finding none you tend to default to one with a recognisable actor. On both these counts your Netflix search will deliver an abundance of Mr. Sandler’s titles because of the limitation of their current comedy catalogue. I have no doubt that their viewing data is accurate, and many subscribers are watching Mr. Sandler’s films, even repeatedly; but if I were to add a dose of judgement I would also guess that this is has less to do with his popularity or the quality of the films, and all to do with the fact that there is really nothing else worthwhile to watch…

Then there was also the bizarre press release issued by Mr. Sandler saying he signed this deal because “Netflix rhymed with wet chicks.” Hopefully, this is not an early indication of the substance of each of the $40 million a film that Netflix is reportedly paying him. (Source: Reuters).

While I laud Netflix use of data (House of Cards is a brilliant case in point) and for continually breaking ground in entertainment and forcing studios and TV networks to think in a more customer-centric manner; I am not sure I agree with their choice of Mr. Sandler. I wonder if this is an instance of using data for illumination, rather than support; but either way it will be interesting to see who has the last laugh.

#Netflix and the New Red: Act 2

In July I wrote about Netflix poor handling of their recent price hikes and the seemingly callous and arrogant manner in which they made the announcement and dealt with the subsequent customer outcry. Read here: https://brandsandbottomlines.wordpress.com/2011/07/13/netflix-and-the-new-red/

Since the price hike took effect Netflix has lowered its estimates by at least one million subscribers and its share price has dropped about 25%. Sadly, they did not heed the warning of thousands of negative comments or customer threats to close their accounts. It was not until their share price started to drop that Reed Hastings mea culpa surfaced.

Today, they took their recent actions to an even more confusing level when Reed Hastings offered an apology for the way in which the earlier changes were handled.

“In hindsight, I slid into arrogance based upon past success,” Hastings said. “We have done very well for a long time by steadily improving our service, without doing much CEO communication.”

But then rather than offer an olive branch to customers lost or currently on the fence, which would have been the most logical thing to do, it seems they completely panicked and lost the plot. Hastings  went on to announce that he was breaking Netflix into two companies; renaming the DVD-by-mail service to Qwikster and keeping Netflix for online streaming and gaming.

This change will further inconvenience customers, who will now have to sign up for two different accounts, create two queues and pay two companies on their credit cards each month and not be able to avail of both streaming and mail service from a single provider. Even more embarrassing for Netflix, the Twitter handle for @Qwikster is already being used someone who has a pot smoking Elmo as his photo, and tweets stuff like “Don’t believe that nigga that sed the bought my shyt cuz it aint tru.”

Hastings ended the blog post by saying, “Both the Qwikster and Netflix teams will work hard to regain your trust. We know it will not be overnight. Actions speak louder than words.”  I believe that Netflix’s latest actions just made this task twice as hard.

#Netflix and the New Red…

Yesterday customers received an email from Netflix, and in one fell swoop this much loved company, one that was a darling of its customers, had put that strong equity on the line. It is ironic that they were thanking customers for their business, in this email, even as they were clearly holding a gun to their heads with another price hike.

Netflix succeeded in pummeling Blockbuster by re-inventing the movie rental category with an innovative business model, high customer satisfaction and a low cost service that was based on giving customers flexibility and not forcing them to adhere to policies designed to make the company lots of money.

I understand that Netflix’s runaway success propelled then into a space filled with deep pocketed competitors in the form of cable providers, telecoms, Google, Apple, Amazon, movie studios, TV networks and a slew of other companies all vying for a  piece of the pie.  I also realize that the company desperately needs cash to pay for the rising cost of content, and has to lower its costs (example postage) to survive and compete.

Steve Swasey, VP Corporate Communications said today, to MSNBC:

“We anticipated some folks were not going be happy with the change. It didn’t surprise us. 30,000 or so is a sub set of 23 million subscribers. They’re not speaking for the majority. We would like those members to stay with Netflix, but the reality is people will leave. We’ll make it up over time and the service will continue to grow. I don’t want to sugarcoat this. We do expect a certain amount of people to leave the service. Besides, Netflix members already go to Redbox, order cable, go to theater and Amazon.”

Barely a few months ago Netflix changed its plans raising their prices and forcing everyone to add a streaming option. So it seemed like they were gently moving their customer base into a streaming only world; gently being the keyword because new releases are currently not available for streaming and will not be for the foreseeable future and the streaming quality is still mediocre, at best.

Netflix has a customer base that is has been the envy of every company; staunchly loyal and fiercely evangelist; and many would have followed the company to the ends of the rental earth. But large numbers are now seeing a very different kind of red. And somehow I don’t think Mr. Swasey’s words are going to placate them.

This customer outrage is picking up steam. It remains to be seen how many of their        23 million customers will cancel their subscription, rather than pay the 60% increase being demanded, and how many will stay to help Netflix truly stay out of the red…