I recently spoke with someone whose job was to visit far-flung stores for a big retailer and examine the operation from top to bottom. If this guy showed up, your store was likely already failing to miss sales and performance targets and his job was to figure out why. And he told me that one thing nearly all of the troubled stores had in common was a lack of attention to details. Sale signage wasn't posted on timely basis or left up long past the expiration date. In an effort to cut costs in the face of flagging sales, store managers would be forced to cut staff and one of the first places they cut was the floor sales staff. Which solved the short-term problem. But it also meant that when customers came into the store, there was no one available to answer questions or point people in the right direction. It was a short-term solution that ensured the problems facing the store would only get worse.
"No business ever has enough money," he explained. "But what separates success and failure is being willing to endure short-term pain in order to make long term success possible."
In other words, all businesses engage in their own version of "Moneyball." How can use data and strategic decisionmaking be used in a way that will maximize every dollar I have to spend?
Streaming video platforms are no different than any other business. There is never enough money to get everything done to the level that you would like to accomplish in a perfect world. So every production is an endless round of triage decisions, based on what you hope will lead to the best outcome. Every dollar put into the star's trailer means one less dollar for costumes. Every penny you save scrimping on the writing staff budget gets spent somewhere else. It always comes down to priorities and where you choose to spend the money.
It's no secret that content discovery is one of the core challenges of the streaming video business. Even people who work in the business complain they can't find what they're looking for. Or they argue the industry is making too many new titles, because so many shows surface without being noticed by the industry or the public.
There are a lot of reasons for that, but one of the primary problems revolves around publicity efforts. Publicity is one of the first things to be cut in tough financial times and like the floor sales people of the retail world, it makes sense at first glance. You can cut a certain number of publicists at a streamer and still deliver somewhat useful publicity efforts. But it's a fine line and once you've crossed it, you're saving money in the short term but hurting yourself with subscriber growth and retention.
Every streaming service has their own specific publicity challenges, but if you talk to journalists who cover the streaming industry on a regular basis, unhappiness with Netflix dwarfs the complaints about any other service. And there's no way to adequately describe the problem without getting into whatever the streaming industry's equivalent of inside baseball might be.
Despite the fact that Netflix releases more originals by far than any other streaming video service, trying to sort out which publicist handles a specific project can feel as complicated as trying to determine who killed JFK. You're sent from person to person, sometimes a half dozen times before you find the correct contact. And probably half the time, you just end up smacking your keyboard against your head until you move on to the next show.
Let me give you a small example. Netflix has an email list that distributes premiere date announcements, etc. As lists go, this is a pretty important on for an independent journalist like myself. It's not just the heads-up about upcoming projects, the emails also include contact info and other useful coverage ideas.
For whatever reason, I dropped off the list at one point. I suspect because my email was a bit hinky for a day or two during a change of servers. Asking someone to add me to the list again would be easy at any other streaming service. But Netflix doesn't have a master list of publicists that the media can access. I have no clue who handles the list and have been randomly emailing individual show publicists for help. Often they have no idea who is handling it. Or they pass me off to someone else. And so begins the Netflix PR circle of life.
The Netflix media website does include publicist contacts for their higher profile originals. But many originals only include a generic email address. Or just as often, there is no information at all. The situation is even more challenging with global originals, which are often listed without even a bare minimum of information. Much less a press contact.
I have collected a list of some Netflix PR contacts in other territories and when I am stumped, I will blindly email them with a request to help point me in the right direction.
As I said, this sounds like inside baseball, but it's a symptom of one of Netflix's biggest problems. After all of these years, the company still hasn't figured out how to best maximize their PR assets. I wrote about this problem three years ago and not much has changed in the interim:
But I WANT to promote these shows. I want to highlight the best of them and surface some great smaller projects. And oftentimes it's a near-impossible task. My inconvenience is real, but that's not the real issue. Netflix often seems to have more faith in its internal ability to push programs over most external promotion. And we have no metrics from the outside that would support or disprove that theory.
What is true is that an increasing number of producers and outside studios feel as if they have to hire outside promotional help when their show launches. Probably 75% of the Netflix shows I've covered in the past few months have hired outside PR help. And I frequently hear from those publicists that their efforts to work with Netflix publicists on their show is beyond frustrating.
But to be clear, I don't have anger or ill will towards Netflix publicists. When I've worked with them, I have generally found them helpful and informative. But they are also overworked and the structure Netflix has built to promote their original shows is arguably the worst in the business.
And all of this confusion is not helped by the fact that Netflix believes in promoting shows at the very last minute. Which means that nearly all of the PR efforts for a project take place in a small window ahead of the premiere. And that almost guarantees that a number of worthwhile projects won't receive the PR attention they deserve:
Making matters more frustrating for creators are a set of imposed corporate guidelines that dictate, with Draconian exactness, the marketing and distribution of the series. Promotion doesn’t typically begin until a month before the shows premiere. (Sometimes they haven’t even been announced before then.) This leaves a very small window to build awareness and anticipation, much less cultivate genuine excitement. And once the show debuts on the platform, it can often get lost in the shuffle (how many times have you ever seen an animated series “above the fold” on the homepage?), leading many creators to become their own hype machines via various social media platforms.
All of these problems are magnified by a very real belief inside Netflix that most press coverage is of marginal value, aside from being an effective way of letting subscribers know a series or movie is set to premiere. I've been told by more than one executive in recent years that their internal data shows the best method of content discovery is through Netflix - whether that is through outreach such as emails or content pushes inside the Netflix app itself.
The end result is that Netflix is failing the Moneyball test. It's failing to execute an optimal PR strategy because of what seems to be a combination of lack of focus and a belief that old school PR efforts aren't as effective as some pop-up store in Santa Monica or a one week activation in Manhattan.
And while it's true that more effective PR effort won't deliver massive improvements, even small changes can have a outsized impact. I once spoke with Jimmy Donaldson, better known as MrBeast, who has built a multi-platform media empire off of being incredibly successful on YouTube. He has a following of more than 140 million subscribers and used that success to launch complementary businesses such as a delivery-first restaurant brand with over 1600 delivery locations. He explained to me that much of his initial success came from being hyper-focused on the execution of simple things such as finding the perfect video thumbnail for a video. "You can improve click-through maybe 10 percent, but what I've found is that the 10 percent translates to maybe 40 percent more viewing. People are more engaged and more trusting of your brand. So making a small change and focusing on every little detail is the difference between myself and a lot of other people."
That's a lesson Netflix should take to heart. It's spending billions of dollars a year on original content. But what's the point if not enough people realize it's there?
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