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Honey I shrunk the vids

(Image credit: Image Credit: Flickr / Sourav Biswas)

This year, while Ralph breaks the Internet, his paymasters at Disney are preparing to break into OTT. The media monolith’s plan to launch its own streaming service is the latest example of a developing trend with Time Warner and NCBU also announcing new OTT services for 2020. As modern-day viewing habits pivot to video on demand, service providers and channels are increasingly looking to stream their content directly to the consumer. Traditional players are re-evaluating their business models and eyeing transformative acquisitions to extend their capabilities. Across the industry, Subscription Video on Demand (SVoD) has replaced orange as the new black. The goal is simple: everyone wants to beat Netflix.

The journey, however, is less straightforward. Recent entrants to the SVoD arena highlight challenges in the leap from old-school delivery. New services are often variable, inconsistent and over-bloated with features, with customer star ratings revealing widespread dissatisfaction. It’s a risky business. In a fickle consumer marketplace, user experience is everything. If you don’t get it right, you won’t break the internet – but you might just break your brand. 

Failing to prepare for the complexities of OTT can permanently scar the user experience. Common repercussions like sluggish playback, choppy video or lingering log-in processes can undermine your efforts and prompt customers to bin you for rival brands that won’t buffer them into the middle of next week. It’s the ultimate rejection, the Disney sequel that no-one wants to see: Honey, I Junked the Vids.  So how can you avoid it?

Beauty and the beast

A strong brand will provide great content, great utility and ultimately a great user experience. Getting there begins by setting the right objectives; understanding your model and your market, and establishing a roadmap that targets clearly defined, customer-centred goals. Don’t set out to rival Netflix. Inevitable differences in your business model mean they’re unlikely to be your competitor, so don’t waste time convincing yourself otherwise. It’s a misplaced aspiration.

That’s not to say the streaming giant should be ignored. Quite the opposite, we should be learning from the best. Netflix’s user experience sets the industry benchmark that all other streaming services are measured against. Creating a comparable experience that reflects the needs of your audience must therefore be your primary goal. But how do you do it? It’s a classic tale of Beauty and Beast.  The much-envied beauty of the Netflix interface masks the beast of engineering that’s required to deliver it. It’s a beast that, one way or another, shows its teeth in the user experience.

Tangled

The aching simplicity of the Netflix model is fundamental to its success; subscribers simply buy a package then log-in to access all their content. When they do, irrespective of device, it’s easy to find stuff and everything (generally) works. That’s it.

Unfortunately, such simplicity is rarely evident in other brands. In the race to ‘compete’, providers too often try to be all things to all people. Products are loaded with features – like Chromecasting, favourites, personalisation and social interaction – and offer multiple packages and transaction services. It’s the antithesis of a clear model; the commercial equivalent of throwing spaghetti at a wall to see what sticks. More often than not it’s the services themselves that get stuck.

Building vast walls of features presents significant technical demands. Configuring functionality so that everything runs smoothly is a complex engineering challenge that often requires multiple different vendors to resolve. It’s a management headache. Worse still, if you fall short, your platform architecture will become tangled and your service will simply stop working. Invariably, the user experience will take the biggest hit.

Is feature-bloat really necessary? Probably not. The trick is to find out what your customers want; it’s unlikely to be as much as you think. It’s important to adopt a customer-focused approach right from the outset. Because it’s only by defining and understanding your core users that you can build a model and service that best meets their needs. For example, if you’re targeting an older demographic, will your customers really want social interaction? Or will they just be happy if their content simply works? Success is about being selective. Don’t get Tangled; simplify your model, pick the right functionality and the right benchmarks. And make the relentless pursuit of quality your guiding objective.

A bug’s life

The fundamentals of OTT architecture are themselves tricky. Variability in devices, screen sizes, bitrates and regions makes delivering high-quality video – at scale – a complex task. Though companies’ approaches are steadily maturing, key aspects of OTT engineering still get overlooked. This typically leads to bugs in the system that disrupt the viewer experience and test subscribers’ resolve to remain.

One good example is device management. It’s a popular misconception that device management is controlled by set top boxes on managed networks. However, you can – indeed must – implement device management capabilities in OTT. Controlling the way old devices access services and features is key to the user experience. Too often, roadmaps make provisions to support new hardware but overlook legacy devices. It’s quite a gamble. When a customer attempts to use new functionality only for their iPhone 6 to become Frozen, they might reconsider your subscription and decide to ‘Let it Go’.

Regionalisation is another consideration that sometimes falls between the cracks. It’s eminently possible to customise a UI to reflect regional nuances; error messaging, navigation and general copy can all be tweaked, while location services can help you do more with your data than just geo-blocking at the CDN. Yet some services fail to maximise it. Absence of regionalised capabilities can also have a more destructive impact. It’s an all-too-common experience for users to load catalogues or applications – or, worse still, sign-up for subscriptions – only to find that at the point of playback chosen content isn’t available in their region. It’s a major source of irritation, guaranteed to drive customers away.

These deficiencies, along with common glitches in the Control Plane and CDN, can quietly kill the user experience and cost you customers. With the right guidance they’re all avoidable. But where do you look?

Tomorrowland

To avoid succumbing to the 101 Damnations of suboptimal user experience, it makes sense to partner with video experts who understand best practice in OTT. The smartest partners will take your roadmaps and requirements and translate them into solid technical architectures that are scalable, resilient and high-performing. Success is not about trying to become Netflix. Or striving to be all things to all people. It’s about developing a simple business model based on a clear understanding of your target audience – and focusing on delivering a quality experience in the areas that matter most.

So if, like Disney, you want to give your customers a fairy-tale OTT experience, the message is very simple: don’t think Netflix-first, think customer-first. Otherwise, they might just junk the vids.

John Griffiths, VP Marketing, Spicy Mango
Image Credit: Flickr / Sourav Biswas