Engaging viewers is a win-win for OTT players, but content discovery still suffers 'massive gap'


How do millennials find and watch video content? That's a question nagging both media and entertainment industry players and brand advertisers hoping to reach this coveted demographic. And there doesn't seem to be a true solution to content discovery yet.

The OTT Video Executive Summit has never failed to deliver at least a few sit-up-and-take-notice moments to the online video execs in attendance. Its panel sessions, typically made up of executives and industry experts alongside consumers (called "Trenders") representing several U.S. demographic groups, feature candid discussions of what consumers actually watch, and what they want from OTT video services.

What was notable at this year's event, held in New York City, was how--interwoven through debate about what kind of content to serve viewers and how much to charge--those consumers are still having trouble finding the movies and TV series they're looking for.

When asked how they found new shows, either broadcast or online, no one on the panel titled "The Top OTT Technology Trends in 2015" mentioned EPGs (electronic program guides) as a discovery method. Older Trenders--who tended to prefer a cable subscription to watching over-the-top video--said that they generally found out about new shows from friends. Younger members of the panel, who were more likely to be either cord-nevers or hybrid users (viewing content both on their parents' pay-TV service and online), said they found out about new content either from friends or by viewing ads on the OTT services they used.

Then came one of those sit-up moments. An HBO executive in the audience asked the Trender panel for a show of hands. "How many of you are familiar with the Amazon series Transparent?" she asked. A couple of hands fluttered up from the consumer panel. "How many of you are familiar with Grumpy Cat?" she asked--referring to the popular meme featuring mixed-breed cat Tardar Sauce. Every Trender under 30 raised their hand, while older panelists--and many of the attendees--stared around at each other.

"How did you find out about Grumpy Cat?" the executive asked over the sudden chatter from the audience.

The reply: word of mouth, and social media. To some of the millennials on the panel, social media and word of mouth were considered one and the same.

Chris Walters, CEO of Encompass Digital Media, agreed, pointing out that Facebook was the discovery method "for content from all over the place."

Fair enough. But the entire industry has been trying to crack that social media nut for at least a couple years now.

Facebook itself, not surprisingly, is closely monitoring how its subscribers engage with video content on the social media site. The company said Monday that it will now take into account how users are interacting with videos: whether they turn on or mute the audio, make it full screen, view it in high definition and other behaviors. That goes well beyond the "likes" and "shares" that have played a big role in quantifying a video's popularity.

"We have learned that certain actions people take on a video, such as choosing to turn on sound or making the video full screen, are good signs they wanted to see that video, even if they didn't want to like it," Facebook engineers Meihong Wang and Yue Zhou said on the website's blog. The measurements are being incorporated into Facebook's latest algorithm. "So if you turn the volume up or make the video full screen, we have updated News Feed to infer you liked the video and will show you similar videos higher up in your News Feed," they added.

Meanwhile, Twitter continues to be an important barometer of a broadcast TV program's popularity. It's a key metric for Nielsen Social, the new unit of one of the granddaddies of television ratings. For example, this week's top broadcast event, based on the number of tweets and unique authors (among other things) was the 2015 BET Awards. With 7.38 million tweets, engagement far outstripped that of the second- and third-place programs, The Bachelorette and Pretty Little Liars. It also stayed ahead of tweets about the top sporting event for the week, the FIFA Women's World Cup.

The opportunity to inform online viewers about new content through ads or sponsored video on various social media platforms is increasing, with Twitter and Facebook adding sponsor opportunities to their video services, and Yahoo Screen implementing coordinated brand campaigns across its websites. But advertising may be a limited option, because not every consumer is thrilled with the idea of facing more ads trying to drive them toward content.

Among the panel, opinions about advertising attached to their content was split clearly between millennials (from middle school to young adult) and older consumers (from over-30 to retirement age). Millennials were much more willing to sit through ads if it meant they could watch the content they wanted for free. Older panelists were almost unanimous in saying that they would rather pay a subscription fee to avoid ads, saying that they were a waste of time.

And what about exploring different business models, such as Verizon's planned hybrid approach to its mobile-first OTT service in which viewers will watch ads to subsidize their data use? A number of ideas are emerging there as well, and many tie into content discovery.

"The more long tail or niche specific content you have, the better," Bonnie Optekman, an NBCU veteran and head of a startup called Theater Streams, said in a panel on monetizing OTT content. "Content discovery is very important, but there is still no complete solution to it. [Viewers need] something that doesn't force you to leave the walled garden you're in, but lets you know what is out there."

For smaller providers, content discovery is often a secondary part of their offering, sometimes built into the third-party platform they're using. For example, Freecast CEO Bill Mobley said that content recommendations are "essentially coming from our providers on the outside."

"There's a massive gap in the discovery and recommendation field," said Daniel Webster, managing director of strategic services for Kaltura, in the monetizing OTT panel session. "Most people are talking about pipes, but the user experience is important, too."

A couple of months ago I chatted with Kannuu CEO Todd Viegut about this ongoing problem of finding content. Kannuu develops program guides for a major IPTV provider, and improving search and recommendation is one of its priorities.

Viegut said that in the past, consumers had "always taken everything at face value" when it came to program guides and the way content was displayed. "But I think what we're seeing here in the industry over the last year, I'd say, is a bit of a shift in culture from the consumer standpoint. They're starting to become more knowledgeable about the different types of content, about the different sources of content," such as Hulu and Netflix. "And where historically they might not have been frustrated, per se, they're starting to become a bit more frustrated. Just because they know there's good content out there. They go find something, they run through a series and say, 'hey that was pretty good. Now what?'"

He added that 86 percent of Netflix content in the U.S. is also found in the VOD catalogs of major MSOs. "Consumers don't really understand that. So something has to shift in the discovery paradigm to let consumers see that."

For every player in the media and entertainment ecosystem, figuring out how to get the right content to the right viewer is still a puzzle. Engaging those viewers, through both social media and in-platform measurement, may be the only way to close the gap between searching for and finding that content. --Sam

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