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What Netflix Has Learned About How Viewers Respond to Images [Study]

What Netflix Has Learned About How Viewers Respond to Images [Study] | Social Media TodayNetflix’s focus on data-driven marketing has been well documented over the years. Through your every selection and every search on the platform, Netflix is learning what you like, cross-referencing your preferences against the same actions from its 81 million member strong userbase to come up with more intelligent, more focused recommendations to keep you watching and coming back for more.

The most famous example of this is the Netflix original series ‘House of Cards’, which was acquired by Netflix largely based upon the preferences which had highlighted in their user data – as per The New York Post:

“[Netflix] already knew that a healthy share had streamed the work of [David] Fincher, the director of “The Social Network,” from beginning to end. And films featuring [Kevin] Spacey had always done well, as had the British version of “House of Cards”. With those three circles of interest, Netflix was able to find a Venn diagram intersection that suggested that buying the series would be a very good bet on original programming.”

Netflix has made such insights a key element in their decision-making process, regularly conducting research and surveys to make better use of their audience inputs in order to refine and improve their offering. And recently, Netflix conducted a study that has some interesting implications beyond just movies and TV shows alone. Netflix sought to get a better understanding of how the images they use in their listings impact user behavior, finding that the thumbnails displayed are one of the biggest focal points for those searching through their system. In fact, they found that the accompanying artwork “constituted over 82% of people’s focus while browsing”, making it a hugely influential factor in what people chose to watch.

Given this, Netflix is obviously very keen to ensure they’re using the right images when promoting their content, so they conducted a series of experiments on some of their current programming in order to get an idea of the key image factors that lead to better response.

Here’s what they found.

Capturing Emotion is Important

Using images with faces is an effective strategy – through facial expressions, we can get a better sense of the emotion involved, enabling us to better connect with the human element of the concept being presented. This is why so many movie posters focus on character faces, which you can see in practice in the Netflix thumbnail above. 

What Netflix found, however, was that complex emotions outperform ‘stoic or benign’ expressions. Or, more effectively, “seeing a range of emotions actually compels people to watch a story more”.

As an example, Netflix tested variations of the main image used to promote the latest series of ‘The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’

What Netflix Has Learned About How Viewers Respond to Images [Study] | Social Media TodayThe image marked with a green arrow was the one that generated the most engagement, and as you can see, the winning picture expresses more complex emotion and provides more insight into the 'feel' of the program, driving more engagement by giving you more to interpret. This type of image has proven more likely to make Netflix users pause their browsing behavior and take notice.

Bad Guys Win Out

Netflix’s research team also found that focusing on the bad guys can also drive more engagement.

In the below example, Netflix found that using images of villainous characters worked better than those that highlighted the hero.

What Netflix Has Learned About How Viewers Respond to Images [Study] | Social Media TodayInteresting to note, also, that both those images include fire, which implies action and conflict, which can also inspire interest.

More Than Three’s a Crowd

Netflix also found that images that contain more than three people lead to a significant drop in user engagement. This finding changed the way they approached the promotions of one of their most popular programs, ‘Orange is the New Black’.

What Netflix Has Learned About How Viewers Respond to Images [Study] | Social Media TodayNetflix’s interpretation of this was that while ensemble casts are fantastic for a huge billboard on the side of a highway, they’re too complex at small sizes and ultimately, not as effective at helping our members decide if the title is right for them on smaller screens.”

It’s an interesting consideration, that too many people in frame can make it harder for the viewer to focus and get a real feel for the emotion or essence of the story. Using a single image, with, as you can see, more expressive emotion, has proven to perform much better in getting people to click-through.

While the findings here are obviously focused on movies, they do offer some interesting lessons in what types of images generate beter engagement, particularly when displayed on a smaller scale, as they are in the Netflix browser screen. Such findings could directly translate to mobile screens, on which you have much less space to capture audience attention with your visual content - and while you won’t necessarily have ‘bad guys’ to highlight in your own pictures, by limiting the amount of people you have in your photos, and looking to use more complex emotions, you may be able to generate better engagement and get more people to click through and read your posts.

It’s an interesting study, and one which raises various considerations to take into account next time you go to attach an image to your content.

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