Is Netflix secretly predicting the future of sales and marketing?

Our new series asks if your favourite shows are setting the sales and marketing agenda

March 13, 2019

Is Netflix secretly predicting the future of sales and marketing?

If you’re a smart marketer or salesperson with your ear to the ground, then you’ll already have read plenty of blog posts and heard plenty of speakers at conferences telling you about how Netflix is the future: of marketing, of sales, of media, of personalised communications. This isn’t one of those blog posts. Or at least, not in the way you might think.

It’s true that Netflix has become the benchmark for a data-driven, customer-centric business, one that amasses intelligence with real purpose, curates content that each audience member cares about, takes a data-led approach to commissioning shows, and delights almost everyone when it does so. It’s true that this is impressive, important and worth aspiring to. And yet our new Netflix-inspired content series isn’t about that.

It’s about how Netflix’s commissioning team seems to be secretly creating TV shows that are designed to predict the future of sales and marketing. It’s as if they’re sending subliminal messages to warn our professions about the trends we need to pay closest attention to, what happens when they’re used in the right way – and what happens when they go wrong. It’s not just the way you engage with Netflix that’s predicting the future. It’s what you watch on it too.

The subliminal sales and marketing messages on Netflix

Recently, our LinkedIn Sales and Marketing Solutions team compared notes about our favourite Netflix binge-watches. We found that every one of us seemed to have gravitated towards a show that offered up a new perspective on the sales and marketing zeitgeist. Our hours on the sofa weren’t just leisure time – they were a meditation on how we should be using data, what Artificial Intelligence (AI) is capable of, how brands and their customers think about privacy, and what influence really involves.

From the Fyre documentary to Black Mirror, the edge-of-your-seat viewing that is You to the group therapy that is Tidying up with Marie Kondo, we’ve developed a conspiracy theory of sorts that Netflix is secretly setting the agenda for sales and marketing. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be presenting the evidence. We’ll analyse the shows that we think throw up the most interesting ideas – and how we think marketing and sales teams should respond to them.

The Netflix use of data that sales and marketing don’t talk about

But before we dive into the lessons of Netflix shows, our group discussion of nights on the sofa threw up another interesting insight about how Netflix uses data. It’s not about the shows it commissions, and concepts like its House of Cards remake having their roots in data analysis. It’s not about the immensely personalised content curation that ensures there is really no single Netflix experience. This degree of personalised recommendation is something we’re getting used to from a business like this that has amassed a vast data lake of individuals’ preferences – and is smart and creative about using them.

What struck us about our Netflix experience was that even when two people are recommended the same film or show, they’re not recommended it in the same way. Netflix literally prompts you to see these shows differently to one another.

Seeing the same show differently

The thumbnails that appear to promote a classic film or a new series aren’t the same, unchanging image. They’re not based on something static like the official film poster. They are carefully chosen stills that reflect the aspect of the content that each person is likely to find most important. If the Netflix algorithms have identified you as romantic then you’re likely to be shown a still of the lead character with her or his love interest. If you prefer comedy, then you might see characters laughing – or an actor who appears in the film that is also a famous comedian. If you’re an action junkie then Netflix will find the most daring moment of the film to serve up for you.

The knee-jerk reaction when you realise that Netflix is promoting the same film as a different sort of experience to different people can be a bit intimidating. It’s easy to assume that this extra level of personalisation is only made possible because of the vast data lake and highly advanced machine learning systems that we know this company has. Where would most businesses find the data to start personalising their own audiences’ experiences to this degree? Would they need to build their own bespoke Artificial Intelligence (AI) platform in order to do so?

No they wouldn’t. The most shocking thing about the Netflix thumbnail trick is that it doesn’t require a Netflix-like depth of data in order to pull it off. It just requires the right level of confidence in the data that you have.

How to act like Netflix without Netflix’s data

Netflix feels like it’s creating an individualised experience right down to how you think about the content that you watch. What it’s really doing though, is leveraging a handful of personas that are broad enough to be manageable (romantics, comedians, action junkies and similar) but are relevant enough to make a difference to how people respond. The key thing with the changing thumbnails isn’t the granular nature of the personas. It’s the clarity that Netflix has about what they’re based on and how meaningful and reliable they are.

My colleague Jon Lombardo, LinkedIn’s Global Lead for Market Development and Strategy, is a huge Netflix fan (and an example of the comedic persona, by the way). He’s also someone who’s passionate about marketers taking the time to build personas that they have actual confidence acting on. Jon argues that the main reason why many brands don’t attempt to deliver more personalised experiences for their audiences isn’t because they have no data available. It’s because they haven’t linked that data to the personas that they build sales and marketing strategy around.

Personas can easily feel like an exercise in themselves. We lock a team in a room with an internet connection, give them a couple of days of desk research to find some relevant third-party surveys about their target audience, and then develop pen portraits with catchy names like Sally from Sales or Mark from Marketing. It feels more like the early stages of sketching characters for a pretty sub-standard novel than planning a personalised marketing campaign. Deep down, everyone in the sales and marketing organisation knows that these are idealised, hypothetical pictures that aren’t based on anybody real. We therefore don’t have the confidence to invite real people to see our content differently based on who we think they are.

Actionable personas through website demographics

You don’t need a vast data lake to have that confidence. You just need to know that the data you are using is robust, up-to-date and meaningful. That could be as simple as using the free LinkedIn Insight tag to call-up anonymised profile data on people who visit your website. Rather than guessing about who’s engaging with your content, you’d then be able to see exactly which roles and functions they have, which companies they work for, where they live and how senior and experienced they are. When distributing content on LinkedIn, you’d then be able to target these same personas with versions of the content personalised to what makes them tick.

When it comes down to it, that’s effectively what Netflix is doing with the magically changing thumbnails. The question of whether you see James Marsden or Thandie Newton representing Westworld is a case of a brand calling out a particular audience persona in the creative that it uses. That’s exactly the same tactic that many of the most effective Sponsored Content campaigns on LinkedIn leverage. It could be as simple as referencing your audience and their concerns in your headline and Sponsored Content copy – or it could be more sophisticated, right down to the version of an image or video that you use.

Knowing the relevance and value of data

There’s an impressive balancing act at work in how Netflix adapts its imagery to audience personas. It’s impressive because it reflects an understanding of the limits of different forms of data and the particular types of value that they can add. Netflix doesn’t use its broad-brush personas to decide what content to recommend to each subscriber. That would be far too restrictive. Nobody wants to exist solely on a diet of romantic comedies just because you’ve been pegged as that persona.

Recommendations use deeper learning algorithms to create genuinely individual experiences. However, personas colour those experiences and increase engagement with them by dropping in relevant triggers for your emotions and attention. Something very similar can happen in content marketing strategies. You may not have the resource to create wholly separate content streams for every persona that you create. However, you can certainly adjust the way that you present your content to bring out its relevance and value for each of those personas.

So next time you’re watching Netflix recommend Good Will Hunting and see either Minnie Driver and Matt Damon canoodling or Robin Williams looking good-natured and funny, remind yourself what’s really going on. And ask yourself whether this isn’t a degree of meaningful personalisation that you could apply to your own content.

We’ll be back with more marketing inspiration based on your favourite Netflix shows in the next couple of weeks.