Business Technology

Tuesday 16 January 2018

Netflix does psychological experiments on you to make you watch more

Kevin Spacey in House of Cards
Kevin Spacey in House of Cards

Cara McGoogan

Netflix uses psychological experiments to draw viewers into its shows, the TV streaming company has confirmed. 

When viewers sit down to choose what show to watch on the service they are being used as test subjects to help Netflix understand which images make viewers pick a show and actually watch it.

Netflix uses this data to get more people to watch its shows, and to strategise for future launches. 

"There are people in Hollywood and Bollywood who are experts and brilliant at picking the perfect image. They've had a century to perfect it," Todd Yellin, head of product innovation at Netflix told the Telegraph. "But at Netflix we're skeptical."

For every title on Netflix, be it an original series or licensed film, the company has tested six different lead images.

The A/B test involves showing sets of 100,000 viewers six different images and seeing which one attracts the most people. In its testing, Netflix pits the official image released by the film and TV makers against five other varied ones to answer the question, "Can we get more people to connect with this TV series with a more compelling image?" 

Netflix has found that if users don't start watching something within 90 seconds they're likely to leave the app. So its imperative that the images entice viewers to hit play.

Which pictures work?

With Fuller House, the Netflix original sequel to the late 1980s show Full House, the company tested images with the three heroines, a shot of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, the house they lived in, and a picture of the children. They also tried different colours for the title text and background. 

"People don't know they're in a test," said Yellin. "A few 100,000 get one image, and another 100,000 get a different on the day it launches." 

A surprise to Yellin, the Golden Gate Bridge test had five per cent more viewers than the image of the family. And on some shows that difference has climbed as high as 30 per cent. 

"It may sound small, but when you have millions of people watching a TV series that means hundreds of thousands more hours are watched," he said. 

The company is now looking at whether it should personalise the images based on country. 

Technology companies are known for carrying out beta tests on users to find what engages them most.

Facebook, for example, has conducted tests designed to emotionally manipulate users by highlighting positive and negative emotions. 

OK Cupid meanwhile has admitted that it deliberately matched incompatible people to see the results.

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