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The Netflix Secret Weapon Driving Engagement

ted sarandos
Netflix launched autoplay trailers way back in 2016 and now has live previews for nearly all its titles. Photo: Lionel Hahn/Getty Images
Matthew Belloni
May 22, 2024

During last week’s MoffettNathanson conference, Bob Iger teased one of the ways that Disney plans to succeed at streaming: “Every time they open the app it has to be something different—this is where A.I. will just be a huge, huge, important tool to do all this.” No disrespect to Iger; he’s talking about A.I. personalization and password-sharing crackdowns and integrating Hulu into Disney+—all fine initiatives, and all being adopted across the industry. But Disney’s streaming services are so far behind Netflix on pretty basic tech issues. They don’t even do the one thing that could instantly increase engagement and reduce churn: video previews.

This isn’t a novel gripe. When I open up the Hulu app and click on, say, Dune: Part One, a slick-looking content page with Timothée Chalamet’s pretty face appears. What doesn’t appear immediately is a trailer, or a curated video clip, or anything vibrant or dynamic that might suck me in (besides Timmy’s flowing locks and soulful eyes, of course). Same is true for Dune on Max, whose sister company actually distributed the movie. Max offers a static, quiet experience, unless you affirmatively choose to click on trailers. Even the Max page specifically set up to show the trailer for Dune: Prophecy, an upcoming TV show, doesn’t automatically play that trailer. You need to click again.

Now flash back to a couple months ago, when Dune was available on Netflix in the run-up to Dune: Part Two hitting theaters. There, I was greeted automatically with a video preview. It was fast and urgent—and, yes, slightly annoying—but it was curated and had been A/B tested to ensure it was very good at convincing me to watch. That’s what leads to maximum engagement.

Same movie, different interfaces, and a metaphor for how far behind Disney and Warner Discovery are here. Both spent millions of dollars to sell advertisers on their streaming ambitions at last week’s upfronts, yet they said almost nothing about the tech delivering all that content. On the other hand, Netflix has superior recommendation algorithms, personalized tile images, and the Open Connect content-delivery system, which engineers seamless viewing across thousands of devices and platforms and has cost the company billions of dollars to deploy. And yes, those aggressive video teasers. These tools have proven that the difference between popular and unpopular has way more to do with technology than name-brand showrunners or third-act twists.

Netflix launched autoplay trailers way back in 2016 and now has live previews for nearly all its titles. “We know we have less than 90 seconds to capture someone’s attention and get them excited about a title,” the company’s product innovation leaders said at the time. Some people bitch about the videos, which can be disabled in settings, but at this point consumers have been trained to expect video previews via YouTube and their social feeds. Plus, argued Stephen Garcia, one of those leaders, “Television has decades’ worth of expectation that when you turn it on, the video and audio play. So it’s actually quite strange to have a silent experience.”

Exactly. When Netflix executives talk about its technology advantage, about its superior user interface, this is what they mean. Amazon Prime Video and Peacock have both adopted video play recently, though theirs are far more annoying and often blurry. Apple TV+ has them too. But Max, Paramount+, and the Disney services don’t even bother with auto-videos—or with personalized tile images, another big engagement driver. Why? Because it’s expensive, the kind of thing that tech natives and otherwise healthy businesses invest in.

Iger knows this. “We need to be at their level in terms of technology capability,” he said about Netflix in March. When Disney+ launched in 2019, “What we didn’t have was the technology that we needed to basically lower customer acquisition and retention cost, to increase engagement, to essentially grow our margins by reducing marketing expenses.” But, he continued, “We’re now in the process of creating and developing all of that technology, and obviously the gold standard there is Netflix.”

He hopes. Someday soon, hovering over a tile for The Acolyte should generate a lightsaber battle from the trailer. The Wish page should give kids a snippet of that catchy song—Disney’s version of maximum engagement. Then we’ll know Iger is at least really trying to compete.