For OTT video providers, the challenge moves from getting viewers to keeping them

During a Tuesday morning panel at the Stream TV Growth Summit, MIDiA Research's Tim Mulligan asked “How do you retain engagement when you have such overlap between the weekly active users across the different platforms?”(Rob Pegoraro)

The novel-coronavirus pandemic gave video content providers the dubious benefit of a lot more idle time for viewers cooped up at home and now desperate for distraction.

“Suddenly, we've got an extra 12% of free time available for entertainment,” said Tim Mulligan, research director and video analyst at MIDiA Research. He spoke at the start of the “OTT Distribution and Partnerships: A Deep Dive” panel at FierceVideo’s online Stream TV Growth Summit Tuesday.

But for companies not named “Netflix,” that opportunity is only good for a limited time. As widespread vaccination pushes the pandemic towards an end, those other firms will need to keep those viewers around and paying, either with money or with advertising-monetizable attention.

As Mulligan put it: “How do you retain engagement when you have such overlap between the weekly active users across the different platforms?”

The panelists who spoke after him agreed on one thing: something for nothing for now still works as an opening offer.

“When stay-at-home went into effect late March, early April, we partnered, I think, with pretty much every major distributor […] on free previews and free trials,” said Courtney Menzel, co-general manager at Epix. “We did see a tremendous bump in usage and subscriptions.”

That MGM-owned service launched its $5.99/month streaming service Epix Now in February of 2019 to complement traditional pay-TV carriage and video-on-demand access through cable and satellite boxes.

But the pressure of a pandemic that has to date killed almost half a million Americans and left millions more unemployed meant the service could not rely on the typical conversion playbook.

“You didn’t want to feel too overly opportunistic,” she said, noting such soft-landing offers as a 50% discount for three months.

A similar dynamic played out across one of the more popular content-discovery interfaces in OTT video.

“We worked with about 20 content providers to create 30-day free trials within the Roku Channel,” said Regina Breslin, director of content acquisition and business development at Roku. One upside for Roku beyond that short-term boost in engagement: wider acceptance that cord cutting doesn’t mean a life of boredom at home.

”Folks are realizing there is this breath of content that is available,” she said. “Previously I think they felt they were looking at it and saying, geez I don't know if I can actually cut the cord.”

Live sports, she added, are a big part of that. “We did see a 44% increase in streaming hours with those apps that did carry the Super Bowl,” Breslin noted.

But although panelists agreed on streaming apps’ sports potential—“a phenomenal, first-class viewer experience,” said Nick Febrizio, vice president of sales at Float Left Interactive, a Juno Beach, Fla., developer—they did not get into such lingering issues with live sports as their lag behind live TV.

(As if to dramatize that risk of technical glitches, moderator Gary Schanman, president and founder of the consultancy GB Monday, began dropping offline with increasing frequency.)

FAST—free, ad-supported television—got considerable support as a business model from Breslin and fellow panelist Jeremy Strauss, global head of business development at Tastemade.

“We have to meet those consumers where they are,” said Strauss. As a result, that lifestyle firm’s content has shown up on free, ad-supported streaming services from Redbox and Plex. but also the subscription-based FuboTV.

He added that while Tastemade did have to struggle to move production from studios to the homes of its creators, it doesn’t have the costs of many of its competitors: “We don’t have a $6 billion a year content budget.”

It does, however, have the luxury of a wide-open line of communication with viewers independent of TV providers and OTT distributors.

“We reach a massive audience on social,” Strauss said. “Over 300 million people engage with our brand every month.”

Epix found a different way to reach viewers outside of its traditional distributors, Menzel noted: a “pizza and a movie” campaign with Domino’s, in which ordering a pizza from that chain would get you a code for a 30-day free trial. She said that worked both for brand awareness and as a way to collect email addresses for later retargeting.

Febrizio’s comment early on still stood at the end of the panel: “This is really the new world of distribution.”