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Black Mirror: Bandersnatch could become Netflix’s secret marketing weapon

The interactive TV format could give Netflix a needed advantage in a crowded streaming market

Light spoilers for Black Mirror’s interactive episode Bandersnatch ahead.

On Friday, December 28th, after months of speculation, Netflix released Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, an interactive “choose your own adventure” film. Beginning in the early hours of the morning, fans got to work decoding its narrative branches, analyzing its symbolism, and hunting for its Easter eggs. That type of dedicated decoder fandom isn’t a new phenomenon, nor is the interactive Netflix episode, which the company has been experimenting with since early 2017. But Bandersnatch is Netflix’s first big success with the format, and this win has the potential to be more than just another buzzworthy title. It paves the way for a new revenue stream that could be a lifeline for the streaming giant and a natural extension of its existing infrastructure.

The interactive format offers Netflix some clear benefits: it’s more difficult to pirate than linear films or TV episodes, and its nature as a puzzle encourages more active fan engagement than most projects. But the greatest advantage lies in the data Netflix can gather from user participation and the ways that data could be used to create an internal programmatic marketing infrastructure.

Photo: Netflix

Big data

Netflix has been a data company longer than it has been a content producer. Its recommendations algorithm was one of its early value propositions, and later, it was a major aspect of its global expansion. It allowed Netflix to target tastes with “microgenres” and generate personalized feature art. Understanding these user preferences was instrumental in dominating the market it created, keeping subscribers within its ecosystem and guiding original programming slates.

By putting the same kinds of interconnected decision-making to work within one title, Bandersnatch can generate more robust pattern discovery and insights into trend analysis than traditional content can. Where the company previously focused its data gathering on the ways users engaged with its content — what they watched, when, and for how long — this new data is indicative of real-world decisions like product preference, musical taste, and engagement with human behavior.

In Bandersnatch, one of the most visceral decisions users make is whether games programmer Stefan (Fionn Whitehead) or his associate Colin (Will Poulter) will jump off a balcony. How users handle this decision — how long it takes them to click on one choice or the other, how often they return to (or avoid) a given option during replays — can be matrixed with the choices they make in resulting timelines. Those choices offer unprecedented insight about what Netflix’s subscribers want out of a story and what choices they most want to see characters take.

User-generated data has already guided Netflix’s creative decision-making when it comes to marketing original movies like Bright. Bandersnatch represents a new form of data mining that gives Netflix richer, more specific audience information than it’s ever had before. That could be used to steer choices in the writers’ room or even in discussions about what kind of projects Netflix greenlights in the first place.

Bandersnatch only presents users with two options at any given moment. In the future, Netflix could present scenarios with a greater number of choices, each tailor-made for data harvesting. Where sequencing is relative — such as the parallel branching storylines in Bandersnatch that portray different paths Stefan might take that have no bearing on each other — Netflix could position certain story beats before others, depending on who’s watching and what their past choices have said about what they want out of a story.

Photo: Netflix

Meaningful cereals

Interactivity establishes a direct pipeline between consumers and marketers. The more agency a movie grants its viewers, the more opportunities it has to serve up user-tailored content backed by ad dollars.

The first choice Bandersnatch presents is what cereal the protagonist should eat: Frosted Flakes or Sugar Puffs? That’s seemingly a red herring with minimal effect on the narrative. But it showcases the most blatant marketing technique Netflix can deploy with interactive content: programmatic product placement.

The choice to involve Sugar Puffs, a real cereal that rebranded as “Honey Monster Puffs” in 2014, seems engineered to deflect any accusations that Bandersnatch accepted ad money from real-world products. But the question still stands: would a backend marketing deal between Netflix and Kellogg’s or General Mills have made any difference to Bandersnatch viewers? Using real brands does not appear to have sparked outcry from viewers, even adding enjoyment with the callback(s) later on in the timeline when Stefan sees a commercial for the cereal that viewers chose.

These moments are opportunities for Netflix to market to its users while learning from them. Using the insights it gathers, Netflix will be able to associate products with content, microgenres, or specific demographics (e.g., Frosted Flakes with Dystopic Thrillers or with 18- to 24-year-old men). On the other hand, it will be able to directly test product designs (e.g., two different Frosted Flakes box covers), which is a service Netflix could sell to brands before production begins. Netflix will be able to erase marketers’ greatest obstacle by hand-holding them to their most receptive audiences.

Though Netflix has been famously guarded about releasing its viewership data (except in certain self-serving circumstances) recent Facebook and Google exposés reveal that tech companies are willing to cooperate with competitors if the deal is right. If Netflix enhances its understanding of its own base with interactive programming, it will be able to offer more cost-effective tie-ins with partner services. Even if it wants to continue keeping its data under lock and key, this information could be used to approach individual companies directly to craft content that will benefit all parties.

Another early decision in Bandersnatch calls on users to choose which cassette Stefan will listen to while traveling to the gaming company Tuckersoft: Thompson Twins or Now That’s What I Call Music, Vol. 2. The choice has no bearing on the plot, but it does dictate which soundtrack users hear during that sequence. Viewers are being asked to make an actual aesthetic choice — not just for Stefan, but for themselves. It’s the kind of choice that’s normally left to the director. By putting it in a consumer’s hand, Netflix is not just inviting viewers to participate in creating the tone of a scene; it’s asking viewers to pick one product over another.

In the process, those viewers are providing clear metrics about their music preferences. Even if they later go back and make a different choice to see whether that has an effect on the story, Netflix still knows the music they prefer. That could pave the way to data-mining deals with the likes of Spotify or Apple Music, which could be made during pre-production or even earlier. It’s not too far-fetched to imagine Netflix designing entire shows around a particularly useful or lucrative contract to determine, say, whether teenagers will be more engaged by music on “RapCaviar” or “Chips & Salsa” playlists.

Photo by Stuart Hendry / Netflix

Invisible interaction

The interactive structure doesn’t even need to be visible to viewers. The above examples of cereal and soundtrack choices could apply to content that appears static but incorporates different products or services depending on the individual watching. Just as Netflix has made marketing or art decisions based on subscribers’ past behavior, it could incorporate content decisions based on the choices audiences made across other content on the platform. One viewer might just see Frosted Flakes in a cereal scene, while another sees Sugar Puffs.

This kind of tailored product placement would have little bearing on a given title’s plot, making it easier to insert without necessitating complicated rewrites. From a logistical standpoint, the shots could be batched in VFX workflows or on set to minimize the costs of producing them. Meanwhile, it would effectively create a covert marketing infrastructure for a platform that needs new revenue streams to reignite the fervent investor confidence it has seen in the past.

This couldn’t come at a more crucial time for Netflix: its stock value has fallen 37 percent since its July 2018 peak, a trend some expect to continue with the arrival of Disney+ and with competitors like Amazon Prime establishing greater footholds in the streaming market.

Deepening interactivity establishes a powerful new circuit between users, content, platforms, and brands / marketers. This will only become truer as more voice, eye-tracking, and virtual reality enter the picture, with even greater potential for tracking how users react to objects in their created environments. Netflix has a head start on the technology, including proprietary “Branch Manager” software, and with Bandersnatch, it has viewers’ attention and engagement. By conditioning its user base to crave interactive content and equate it with Netflix, the company stands to get an early lead in the coming entertainment reality.

At its best, Black Mirror shows how emerging technologies are currently shaping society, and it offers nightmare versions of the ways they might shape it further. Even though Bandersnatch is set in the past, it may have just made the clearest case yet for the way technology could shape the future of entertainment.

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