When Netflix announced its first-ever interactive story for adults, taking the form of a “Black Mirror” episode called Bandersnatch, there was a healthy amount of skepticism. Do viewers actually want to engage with their stories in this way? Don’t interactive storytelling based on user decisions exist, and aren’t they called video games?
Regardless of the skepticism, Bandersnatch premiered late in December 2018 to much fanfare. Though Netflix keeps its exact viewership numbers hidden, it’s safe to say that millions watched the episode, buoyed by press coverage and organic promotion within Netflix.
The success has garnered a lot of think-pieces about the future of TV and content, but within the product management world, the success of Bandersnatch has two distinct implications:
- It transforms our current understanding of product engagement within a single user flow to engagement with multiple user flows and interactions along with those flows
- It necessitates new software tools as part of the core product management tech stack
Interactivity and Alternate Paths is the Next Evolution of Product Engagement
Many of heard the phrase “Netflix is a data company, not a media company,” and that philosophical framing works well to explain its overall popularity and continued success. Much has been written about how its data science teams analyze user behavior and preferences to predict what kinds of content to produce. This approach created House of Cards, a wild success at the time, and by 2019, a myriad of other shows and movies, like Altered Carbon, Chef’s Table, Tidying Up, BirdBox and more.
Two additional parts of Netflix’s data strategy hinges on its recommendation and personalization systems, both of which have also been covered at length. Wired wrote a great piece in 2017 describing the differences between explicit and implicit signals that users give Netflix to inform its recommendation engine.
For Netflix, personalization outside of recommendations means personalizing the artwork showcasing video content. Netflix’s own blog on Medium outlines how they leveraged user behavior to create alternate variants of artwork for different users for the same exact video.
Until now, all of this data science work was meant to achieve three goals:
- Create additional product offerings, e.g. video content
- Foster user engagement via personalization
- By doing the above two, delivering more value back to the customer
While they were innovations for Netflix at the time, these methods have become industry best practices for product management.
While product teams at various industries and product types may interpret these best practices differently, you can easily see evidence of them in the most popular products. Instagram learned that its users loved to interact with retail brands organically, so it recently created “Shopping on Instagram” to provide a method to actually transact on the platform.
In a classic example of personalization, the Pinterest onboarding experience requires users to select their interested topics so that it can recommend other imagery for your “Board.” Spotify’s “Discover Weekly” is an interesting hybrid of a new product offering and personalization.
The ultimate goal of these best practices and product innovations is to deliver more value back to the customer, which in turn gets the customer more engaged and willing to pay, creating a virtuous cycle of growth.
As Chief Product Officer of Netflix Greg Peters himself says,
“The model we’ve got is a fairly simplistic one, our job is to effectively invest the money that our subscribers give us every month so that we can give them incredible content in a better way and better product experience. And if we do that well, we create more value for our subscribers and then occasionally, we’ll come to them and we’ll ask for a little bit more money so that we can actually start that next cycle of investment.”
Yet, with Bandersnatch and other interactive content, Netflix has found an additional way to deliver customer value and boost engagement: leveraging product interactions to create multiple, alternate user flows within the core product itself. This new method is categorically different from previous methods and might represent a new best practice for product management.
If explicit interactivity and alternate user flows are indeed a new medium for delivering customer value, it has 2 challenges before product teams adopt it at scale.
First, and perhaps most obvious, product teams need to think about building alternate user pathways within their core product set. For the vast majority of digital products, there’s typically only one path to the desired goal, like search → results → product view → conversion. Any deviation from the desired user behavior results in users falling off the path and by definition ends in churn or a non-conversion. Most product teams only build products with this one defined path in mind. Some product teams might spend large amounts of financial and organizational resources to nudge and incentivize users back to this path, via email or push notifications.
Secondly, because of alternate pathways, it challenges our traditional understanding of user engagement metrics from binary to something more complex. Netflix’s first two optimization efforts (like data-driven content creation or personalization/recommendations) was all designed to drive user engagement of course, but it was measured in binary form: did the user click on this video after we recommended it to her, yes or no? We served up this variation of the artwork, did the user choose to play the video, yes or no?
To be clear, product teams do measure funnels and linear journeys within products, birthing practices such as “funnel analysis” and funnel optimization, but even they’re still binary in nature. If a user does X, does she do Y? If yes, does she do Z? So on and so forth. These practices measure “sets” of binary if, then statements.
Introducing alternate pathways means measuring choice variability: if a user does X, does she then choose A or B? If she chose A, does she then choose C or D? How many users who choose X ultimately choose C vs D? In the Bandersnatch example, how many users who chose the Frosted Flakes cereal ended up choosing to chop up the body? (Spoiler Alert, whoops. If you’re curious, 73% of viewers chose flakes over the puffy cereal. And if you already couldn’t guess, Netflix has of course stored all the choices you made in the show.)
Regardless of how product teams eventually build and measure these alternate pathways, it’s clear that by simply providing these pathways for users, Netflix gained a significant amount of overall, high-level engagement with Bandersnatch.
To recap, here’s what Netflix has done:
- Netflix used data to create content. Product Management used analytics to create the next set of features.
- Netflix used some of the implicit signals to determine what to show as recommendations. Product Management did the same thing with content personalization.
- Netflix has found a way to a more meaningful and colossally higher retention game – interaction paths. Can Product Management follow suit?
Alternate User Paths Mandates New Software for Product Teams
Netflix has a long history of building its own software to deliver new product innovations. They built their own recommendation system to power the aforementioned recommendation engine and built their own multi-arm bandit experimentation engine to test the video artwork.
To deliver Bandersnatch interactivity, Netflix built what they dubbed “Branch Manager.” The very first interactive videos on Netflix could be mapped on basic, “hand-drawn” flow charts, as evidenced a 2017 Verge article that actually showcases 2 flow charts for kids’ shows.
According to Variety Magazine,
“But while younger viewers may be fine with relatively simple choices, adult audiences clearly require more complexity, which can be a huge logistical challenge. That’s why Netflix engineers built the company’s very own script-writing tool for branched narratives, dubbed Branch Manager.”
What was different about Bandersnatch, and the other kinds of interactive content is Netflix has planned that certain choices in the story branch the user off to an entirely different path. These “pivotal moments” in the story add complexity, which is great for narrative depth, but also represent a significant software challenge to bring viewers back to that “pivotal” choice they decided.
Branch Manager allowed the Netflix product team to map out the multiple story pathways, but also to track the context of the viewer within the story, a feature Netflix is calling “state tracking.” State Tracking is what allowed users who reached “dead ends” to return back to these pivotal moments, instead of going back to the beginning of the story.
When we think about product teams who want to incorporate multiple user paths into their own products, it’s clear that simple, hand-drawn flowcharts won’t suffice. Even products that have seemingly few user choices, like Tinder or Bumble, can produce millions of possible variations of in-product user journeys.
More importantly, these kinds of user-flow software need to address user context. Insofar as a user has fallen out of key product funnels and flows, product teams need a method to map the most important moments of the user path and bring them back to that moment. Similar to narrative journeys like Bandersnatch, product journeys won’t spark much joy if users just get sent back to the beginning.
In conclusion, Netflix’s and Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch is a landmark in interactive storytelling, but also a key milestone for product teams who want an entirely new way to engage users and empower users to explore core products.
Our mission at Hansel.io is to deliver this level of interactivity and customization to all product teams. Our visual, no-code interface, much like Branch Manager, empowers product teams to map key product funnels and flows, and to address the issue of drop-offs by nudging users to the right action.