Looking back from this era of lockdown binge-watching and couchification, it is easy to forget that there existed a time when streaming behemoth Netflix didn’t make its own programmes. A time before Stranger Things, Ozark and Cobra Kai. A time in which the company’s business model, from its inception in 1997, was solely based on streaming content licenced from other networks. All of that changed in 2013 with House of Cards. The star-studded political drama, based on Michael Dobbs’ bestselling novel, was Netflix’s very first foray into showrunning; it immediately became the company’s most viewed piece of content, was nominated for a slew of prestigious awards and has so far run for six successive seasons.
The meteoric success of the first Netflix Original surprised everyone but Netflix itself. The board was so confident of the success of House of Cards that it actually commissioned it for a full two seasons straight away, flying in the face of the industry standard of commissioning a pilot and then testing repeatedly with audiences, before making a call on producing a full series or consigning to the showbiz scrapheap. But House of Cards wasn’t a stab in the dark. In fact, it was the considered product of mining a decade and a half’s worth of incredibly rich, deep customer data. Marketing and Analytics were confident enough, after delving into subscribers’ viewing profiles and habits, that Netflix could attract and retain a substantial number of viewers for their new, big-budget political drama over two seasons at the very least. As a Netflix spokesman said at the time: “Because we have a direct relationship with consumers, we know what people like to watch and that helps us understand how big the interest is going to be for a given show.” Since then, Netflix hasn’t looked back.
An evolving discipline
House of Cards is a brilliant example of how data-driven marketing can aid in product development within the entertainment sector. And, in demonstrating how marketing is not something that just needs happens after the commissioning process, it is a salutary one for book marketers. Marketing as a discipline has undergone more changes than other functions in the publishing industry. In recent times, it has struggled to find its raison d’etre in a rapidly evolving landscape. This speaks to inherent insecurities about the state of the industry at large, ranging from the ability to command meaningful campaign budgets, to shrinking workforces, to a proliferation of digital channels. Marketers have had to get used to being comfortable feeling uncomfortable – and we have learnt to be responsive to new opportunities.
This has resulted in various pivots within the last decade as marketers ensure they find relevant footholds within their organisations in order to make a meaningful contribution to the consumer. A key pivot has been to bring the marketing function forward in the supply chain to influence product development. We can see this shift across the industry, where the marketing input isn’t simply to ask a few questions at launch or contribute ideas to a pitch but is far more integrated into commissioning and developing new titles. This development is most evident in the number of senior marketing and publicity professionals who have been moving into commissioning or straight-up editorial roles across the industry, utilising their knowledge of the media and of the consumer in order to aid in publishing books that will capture imaginations and sell.
This may have had the effect of bringing publishing more in line with other consumer products businesses, but surely there is more we can do to make Marketing a core function within product development. Certainly, we can’t yet commission a debut author, or break a brand-new series, and be completely confident of the audience response. Indeed, indicative of this is the disparity we sometimes see between titles going for mega-bucks at auction and then not performing as anticipated in the market; or instances when big-budget campaigns do not see return of investment; or in the value gap between what a title is sold in as and what it ends up being.
Asking the right questions
This is where we can do more as marketers, armed with the necessary information and tools – and it is a fantastic opportunity for us to demonstrate tangible value for our organisations. And there are some really important questions that we can ask ourselves in order to create meaningful systems change in this arena:
- Know the consumer: what methods can we use to get up close and personal with the people who consume our products?
- Ask the right questions: what consumer interactions will result in the most effective data sets for influencing future product development?
- Reporting: how can this data be stored, shaped and shared in a way to be of most value to the organisation?
- Trust data over comping: how can we initiate a data-driven approach that replaces the more speculative approach of comping – comparing books to others that are considered similar in order to develop products, predict audience and sales?
- Personalisation: what can our experiences with data allow us to do in order to personalise our offerings to best service customer needs?
Companies like Netflix and many others have demonstrated how integral data-driven marketing can be in creating and developing new products – and it’s doubtful that any existing publisher will ever get close to the amount of data that streaming services hold – the lessons are loud and clear. Marketers are skilled to harness the right data in order to see where future value lies.
These are my takeaways – but what are yours? For example, how involved in Marketing in commissioning within your organisation? Have you had any experiences of how Marketing has led on developing new products or revenue streams? Do let us know by putting your thoughts in the comments below.
Rik Ubhi, the BookMachine Editorial Board member for Marketing and Publicity, has over a decade’s experience of building brands, marketing bestsellers and promoting agenda-setting voices across an array of media. He has worked at Tindal Street Press, Simon & Schuster and most as recently co-owner and Director at Zed Books. @rik_hi