Content Discovery Is Streaming’s Biggest Struggle

Illustration of binoculars with streaming play buttons in the lenses
Illustration: VIP+; Adobe Stock

Can’t decide what to watch on Netflix? Well, it’s not going to get any easier. 

The streamer has officially discontinued its “Surprise Me” button, the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday, which was designed to help indecisive viewers by playing a random piece of content on the service. A Netflix spokeswoman told the Journal that “Surprise Me” was phased out last month due to low usage, as consumers “tend to come to the service with a specific show, movie or genre in mind.”

But if Netflix or any other streaming service believes consumers easily find content they want to watch, recent data suggests otherwise. In an October-November survey by Accenture and Oxford Economics, 72% of streaming consumers reported becoming frustrated over finding something to watch, with more than a fourth saying it can take them more than 10 minutes to choose something.

Moreover, a Nielsen survey of streaming consumers last October found users over age 18 average more than 11 minutes when choosing something to watch, a 52% increase since March 2019, when the pool of available SVOD services was much smaller.

On the surface, this may not seem too concerning; after all, the breadth and depth of a streamer’s library is, in theory, a major selling point. But further data suggests that consumers’ frustrations with finding content they want to watch — a process known as content discovery — is an under-discussed driver of subscriber churn.

Analytics firm Samba TV, which draws data from a panel of 3 million smart TVs in the U.S., has found a strong correlation between content discovery and viewer retention. Samba data shows that SVOD and AVOD services with the highest shares of households that watched only one of the service’s top 50 programs were more likely to see households drop off of viewing after a single month.

Additional survey data from Samba, moreover, showed 55 percent of users who canceled a service after watching a single program cited lack of interest in other content on the service as their reason for canceling. It’s a fairly obvious point: Why would a consumer keep paying for a service they don’t use?

It may well be that the households in question were uninterested in any other content from the start, rather than deciding to cancel because they couldn’t find anything else that interested them. Either way, however, the fact remains that these viewers were not served any other content that compelled them to remain engaged. Given the massive sums companies have spent on streaming content to attract subscribers and rising churn levels across the board, both possibilities should be equally alarming to streamers.

And yet innovation on the content discovery front remains shockingly sparse. Besides the infamous recommendation algorithm, banners promoting in-demand content and the “collections” and categories that populate every service’s landing page, there’s precious little that most streaming apps are currently doing to steer users toward content that interests them.

Netflix, for one, has experimented with other tactics in addition to the now-defunct “Surprise Me” button; for example, the Netflix app promotes other content “you might like” as a movie or show’s end credits roll. (The streamer “will continue to explore other ways to give members more options and ways to explore and discover content they want to watch,” a spokeswoman told the Journal.)

But these are, frankly, rudimentary techniques when considering the vast array of possibilities available with streaming technology. And as AI tech becomes cheaper and more widely accessible, it would be extremely foolish for streamers not to leverage this to help their users find the perfect piece of content.

It is easy, perhaps, to neglect the user experience factor in the focus on revenues, subscriber scale and original content slates. But in the cutthroat direct-to-consumer market, the leaders of streaming companies turn a blind eye to customer satisfaction at their own peril.