A few words about Netflix’s success: Vivid. The flamboyant one. tag.

A few words about Netflix's success: Vivid.  The flamboyant one.  tag.


“Grey’s Anatomy” is “soapy” and “emotional”. “Emily in Paris” is “charming” and “weird”. “Our Planet II” is “relaxing” and “captivating”, while “Gravity” is “mysterious” and “visually arresting”.

Such words – displayed near the summaries and movie-poster-style tiles for each of the thousands of titles on Netflix – appear to have been plucked from a grab bag.

In fact, they are a vital tool in motivating viewers to click play, and are the key to Netflix’s dominance.

The company says two- or three-word tags, which convey the vibe of a show or movie, regularly help viewers choose a show from the service’s nearly endless library. The words are selected by about 30 employees – so-called taggers.

“Imagine magazines that had no cover lines and just had pictures on them,” said Alan Donald, director of product for Netflix. “The tag makes as much of a difference as the cover line in that snap ‘this is for me’ decision.”

As Netflix flexes its Secretariat-like lead in the so-called streaming wars, descriptive, if sometimes banal, tags stand out as an example of how the company stays ahead of the curve. Most rival streaming services don’t bother to display tags, or they don’t have the same financial resources to support a group of employees doing all the work behind them.

Netflix made nearly $4.5 billion in profit over the last four quarters, while most of its competitors lost money in streaming. It has 247 million subscribers worldwide, more than double that of many other streaming services. According to Nielsen, it accounted for 7.4 percent of total television usage in the United States in November, far more than Amazon Prime Video (3.4 percent), Hulu (2.7 percent) and Disney+ (1.9 percent).

One reason Netflix engagement is so high is that it uses multiple tools to motivate viewers to watch. And this is no small matter. There are over 10,000 titles on Netflix and thousands more on other streaming services. Choosing a show or movie is often tedious and frustrating.

Through years of testing, Netflix executives know that the tools — which they call “promotional assets” — essentially take less than a minute to work. Eunice Kim, Netflix’s chief product officer, said, “On average, if you haven’t called someone to hit play within 53 seconds, the chances diminish exponentially” that that person will watch anything.

The assets include movie poster-style tiles, as well as trailers and summaries. The tag is second, providing the audience with a mini-preview. Netflix also uses them to help populate the theme lines of titles on the service such as “Goofy TV Show” and “Girls Night In”. Like image tiles, the three tags shown to a subscriber – one of a handful responsible for each show – are based on the person’s viewing history.

Officials said each time the company has removed the tags experimentally, engagement has dropped.

“It’s going to take a lot longer for people to choose,” Mr Donald said. “They’ll walk out of a title because they didn’t like it very much or because they didn’t know what they were getting.”

Julia Alexander, director of strategy at research firm Parrot Analytics, said the tags probably work at a micro level. As a potential audience, “when we see the word ‘gritty’ or we see the word ‘cerebral,’ we internalize what that means,” she said.

All of Netflix’s efforts to help customers find content aren’t working. In 2021, the company introduced a “Surprise Me” button, similar to the “I’m Feeling Lucky” search button on Google. Clicking it gave viewers something that Netflix’s algorithms were certain they would like.

Even though executives felt “incredibly confident” that the algorithm was correct, audiences rejected it. Apparently they wanted more options, and the button was abandoned early last year.

The company now offers a “Match” button, which gives customers some idea of ​​how likely a show will be to their liking. That tool is obviously a little confusing for most members, and it’s probably about to go away.

But the tags have persisted since Netflix’s DVD days. Ms Kim diplomatically said its rivals had often chosen a more “minimalist” approach to artwork.

“We’ve been here a longer time, so we’ve probably done more experiments to figure out what works for our members,” he said.

There are over 3,000 tags, and their selection and creation is the subject of vigorous debate. The most commonly used tags are “romantic,” “exciting” and “suspenseful.” Least used? “Occupation: Farmhand.”

At a recent meeting with 14 taggers – some with backgrounds in librarianship or information science – there was a discussion about whether they should try to eliminate some of the tags whose definitions seemed to overlap.

“Let’s start with something that’s emerging from all of our tagging analysts,” said Sherry Gulmahamed, a senior tagger, at a meeting held on the 10th floor of one of Netflix’s Sunset Boulevard offices in Hollywood. “We have to ‘fall in love’ versus ‘find love,’ and we also ‘look for love.’ Do we think we need to collapse these into one tag? Or do we think they are subtle and there are differences?”

This sparked a debate, including how the change would affect scripted series, reality shows, and international markets. After a 10-minute conversation, it was decided that the three tags were different enough and should be left alone.

Similarly, there was also discussion about whether tags such as “casual” and “villain crush” should be introduced. Some taggers thought that “comfortable” was too subjective, and were concerned that describing a villain as crush-worthy was a bit much editorializing. The final decision was tabled for a future meeting.

Mr. Donald said that when he interviewed potential taggers, he gave them the “cocktail party test.” How would they describe the film to someone they just met at a cocktail party? He made a suggestion: “Oh my god, I saw this movie, you must watch it, you’ll love this kind of slick, cyberpunk thriller.'”

In Mr Donald’s view, that brief – a slick, cyberpunk thriller – could provide a make-it-or-break moment for a viewer at home.

“If you’re on the fence about a title and you say, ‘Well, the box art looks cute, and it’s popular, so everyone’s looking at it — but is it for me?'” he said. “And then you say, ‘Well, that’s mysterious — yes, it is to me.’ That’s what made you click.”



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