You watched Stranger Things, right? So did 8 million other people in the first 16 days. That’s a half a million people a day. How did Netflix pull this off? Were they advertising the show everywhere? Or is this just one of those breakout hits that go viral?
Neither, as it turns out. Stranger Things succeeded because Netflix leveraged the power of data science. If you’ve heard the term ‘big data’, this is exactly what people are talking about.
Every minute of every show that you watch on Netflix is logged. Netflix knows the exact moment you stop watching that B movie. They know how many episodes of Breaking Bad you binge watched last Saturday.
This is immensely powerful, and it goes way beyond tracking ‘men aged 18 to 24’. Netflix has 75 million subscribers, and has been streaming since 2007. For nearly a decade it has quietly studied us, learning what people from every walk of life enjoy watching.
That much data exposes patterns, which data scientists leverage using a series of interrelated algorithms called a neural network. That Star Trek-y term is basically an A.I. that learns, constantly. Learns about you. Let’s call this A.I. NetlfixBot, or NBot for short.
NBot knows that people in there 30s and 40s who’ve watched Firefly, Star Trek the Next Generation, and Battlestar Galactica will very likely love Killjoys. It knows how many hours a week you normally watch, and which shows got you to skip sleep to binge a few more episodes.
NBot knows which parts of the world are more likely to watch certain content. They know how an entire demographic’s preferences can change over a period of years. Every day, NBot gets smarter.
So what does NBot have to do with Stranger Things? NBot drove everything from its creation to its marketing.
Stranger Things has immensely broad appeal. If you’re 40 (like me), then this captured your childhood perfectly. They got every detail right, from the bikes to the clothing, to the staying out after dark (be home in time for dinner).
If you’re 60, this show was about your kids. You might have been Joyce Beyer (Winona Ryder), or Sheriff Hopper. You identified with them, with how hard parenting can be even without the crazy supernatural mucking it up.
If you’re a kid, this is a cool scary retro show. Netflix covered all the bases, and they made sure the show had amazing characters. Characters they knew would resonate with people. Because NBot knows what people love.
NBot drove the launch of the show. You didn’t see commercials for it. You didn’t see billboards, or signs on buses. The show didn’t take off because of advertising. It took off because of data driven marketing.
How many times did you watch Netflix in the last week? How about your immediate circle of friends and family? Odds are good at least two or three people you know spent a few evenings watching something.
When you and your friends logged on, NBot knew instantly if you’d be interested in Stranger Things. If you were, it was the very first thing you saw when you launched Netflix. If NBot thought they’d be really interested, then it may have even sent them an email to announce the show.
It didn’t show Stranger Things to the guy in Alaska who only watches gold mining and fishing shows. But NBot did show it to just about everyone else. Millions of people were exposed on the same day, and because Netflix puts out consistently great shows people are willing to take a chance.
In my household it went something like this. My fiancée started watching a new TV show, which I could hear from the other side of the room. I finished my lunch break and went out to my office. Slack (instant messenger) chimed. It was a message from my V.A. asking if I’d seen Stranger Things.
So I watched an episode. It. Was. Awesome. Guess what I did next? I told my friends, who told their friends. But wait a sec. That sounds a whole lot like this show going viral, and earlier I said that wasn’t the case.
This didn’t go viral. It was planned virally. Netflix knew it had a very, very good chance of this show being a massive hit. NBot had already told them it would be.
Nor is Stranger Things an isolated incident. Netflix is releasing a steady stream of content, content we all enjoy immensely. I watch everything from Orange is the New Black to Daredevil, binging the second they release a new season.
And you know what? That’s the best possible state of affairs, both for Netflix and for us as consumers. No longer do we wade through crappy commercials. No longer do we need to wait 10 weeks to watch an entire season.
NBot knows that we want to binge awesome shows, and I’m sure Netflix will happily keep pumping them out.