What Streaming Services Can Do To Up Their Game

As streaming services seize the day, their shortcomings become clear.

There are any number of streaming services – though notably not the big three or four – offering extended free trials or other incentives right now, hoping to capture the attention of people who are locked at home at the moment. Those audiences aren’t going to the theater anytime soon, so may as well try to hook them.

Most all of these services will make much the same pitch they’ve been making for a while now, one that’s based around their own selection of content, especially whatever originals and exclusives they’ve managed to produce or acquire. They will hope people find the balance of content and price point attractive enough to continue on for a while, occupying the rotating fourth “Other” position alongside mainstays including Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and Disney+.

Most of the streamers feature roughly the same functionality, including search and various forms of recommendations, often based on a combination of what you’ve watched previously and what the company is working to promote at the moment. They also have at least a handful of shortcomings in common.

First, Lack of Context

A big, consistent problem with streaming offerings is that the content available is almost always presented as a one-off. Here’s Raiders of the Lost Ark followed by a handful of random 80s films and then Temple of Doom. That they are part of a series or have any other connective material is completely missing from the presentation.

In other words, there’s no context.

When I look up a particular Coen Brothers film what I’m presented isn’t whatever portion of their filmography is available but a selection of what the algorithm feels is “similar” to what I’m looking for. And when I finish watching one, I’m more likely to get a recommendation for whatever the corporate priority is at that time, not another movie from the same filmmakers or with the same stars.

Part of this is due to the ever-changing nature of the lineup on these services. The Bond movies bounce around from one to the other every few months, as does the Star Trek franchise. Why bother building a hub for these films when they’re just going to be gone soon?

Disney+ does the best job of solving this problem, mostly because they have such strong brands. All the Star Wars, Pixar etc material is helpfully grouped, and watching one leads to a logical and contextual suggestion for what to watch next.

As additional media companies repatriate their content under their own banner, it will be interesting to see how they handle this issue. But Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and others that still rely to a great extent on licensed material could do much better with the original content they *do* own.

Second, Lack of Peer Recommendations

Given how big a role recommendations play in the business model of most every streaming service, you’d think that they’d approach the issue from all angles. Instead they’ve focused almost exclusively on their own systems, completely missing out on the word of mouth that many other businesses of all types rely on.

To be clear, the specific problem is on-platform recommendations, which even filmmakers acknowledge is lacking. Off-site recommendations, especially those happening on social media, are still a thing but there’s no peer voice coming at you at the moment you’re in the app or on the site, just when you’re elsewhere.

This is part of a bigger problem, which is a lack of social features on many of these sites, but while I don’t necessarily need to see everything my friends are watching on Hulu, I would sometimes like to see what they’ve been watching. More accurately, I’d like to know if something I’m *considering* watching is something they would recommend. Make it a toggle switch, maybe, a feature to turn on and off when I want that extra level of insight.

Third, A Feed

Good Lord it can be maddening trying to navigate some of these sites looking for the most recent additions to the catalog. Some have sections called “New Releases” but those looking shockingly similar to what’s displayed in the “Featured” section more often than not.

It’s become common to see news stories toward the end of the month with lists of what’s coming to Amazon, Netflix and more in the next month, but actually adding them to your list is cumbersome. You need to go to the app *after* that date and either search for it or hope that it happens to appear on the front page.

There are a few options on how to get around this. First would be to just offer a straight RSS-type feed of new releases, both as a firehose and by category/genre. No, it doesn’t actually have to be RSS-based (though making one available would be great) but could be a Twitter-type page of updates showing what’s new.

On Spotify this would be even easier, and the foundation for it is already baked in. Spotify lets you “follow” artists and bands, yet there’s no subsequent section or feed of new additions by those artists and bands.

These are just a few of the areas where significant improvements could be made. As more and more players come on the scene, the existing powerhouses may find they have to up their game and overcome some of these shortcomings, all of which could make them stickier and improve subscriber retention.

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