How Netflix Games Its Images To Keep Your Attention

When you're browsing Netflix, if your attention isn't grabbed by a program within 90 seconds, you're statistically likely to do something else instead. So from Netflix's perspective, how do you work out how to best keep the attention of 81.5 million subscribers all around the world? We are all different, after all.

You need to figure out a way to tell the story of the program in a single image.

"Imagine having to tell your friend about the last movie you watched through a single drawing on the back of a playing card," says Nick Nelson, Global Manager of Creative Services at Netflix. "If you had to encapsulate the entire movie into a few inches to convince your friend they’d love the movie, what would it look like?"

As the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Neuroscientists have discovered that the human brain can process an image in as little as 13 milliseconds, and that across the board, it takes much longer to process text compared to visual information.

In early 2014, netflix conducted some consumer research studies that indicated artwork was not only the biggest influencer to a member's decision to watch content, but it also constituted over 82 per cent of their focus while browsing Netflix.

Netflix also saw that users spent an average of 1.8 seconds considering each title they were presented with while on Netflix. "We were surprised by how much impact an image had on a member finding great content, and how little time we had to capture their interest," Nelson says.

Around the same time, Netflix launched an original documentary called "The Short Game" and wanted to do everything possible to help that title find its audience.

To see if Netflix could improve the click-through rate on images it sought the support of its Creative Services team, who work on creating compelling pieces of artwork that aim to convey the emotion of the entire title in a single image, while staying true to the spirit. The Creative Services team worked with Netflix's studio partners and at times with the internal design team to create multiple artwork variants.

Historically, this was a largely unexplored area at Netflix and in the industry in general. Netflix would get title images from studio partners that were originally created for a variety of purposes. Some were intended for roadside billboards where they don't live alongside other titles. Other images were sourced from DVD cover art which don't work well in a grid layout in multiple form factors (TV, mobile, etc.).

Knowing that, Netflix set out to develop "a data driven framework" through which it can find the best artwork for each video, both in the context of the "Netflix experience" and with the goal of increasing overall engagement -- not just move engagement from one title to another. Gopal goes into more detail here on this title and how we have approached testing imagery. In the end, we saw one clear thing -- using better images to represent content significantly increased overall streaming hours and engagement from viewers.

Since then, Netflix has built a system that tests a set of images for many titles on the service -- helping display a compelling image to drive engagement. In developing this system, Netflix says it learned many interesting things around imagery and what actually compels a member to watch a title. Here are some of the biggest trends:

Emotions are an efficient way of conveying complex nuances

It's well known that humans are hardwired to respond to faces. But it is important to note that faces with complex emotions outperform stoic or benign expressions -- seeing a range of emotions actually compels people to watch a story more.

This is likely due to the fact that complex emotions convey a wealth of information to viewers regarding the tone or feel of the content, but it is interesting to see how much viewers actually respond this way in testing. An example of this is seen in the recent winning image ("winning" means it drove the most engagement) for the second season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt below:

Great stories travel, but regional nuances can be powerful

"While we are becoming more connected across cultures," Nelson adds "We have seen that regional differences still exist and are important for some titles and imagery".

A good example of this is Sense8, a Netflix series in which eight people can telepathically experience each other's lives. Sense8 has diverse appeal given its many international actors and storylines, and it is a story that resonates with many different types of people.

When it came to the artwork for this title, this diversity was reflected in the winning images and how much they varied between different countries and cultures: Examining regional differences helped Netflix see that while great stories transcend borders, it is important to understand how presenting each story in different regions impacts how quickly members from around the world actually discover that story through artwork.

Nice Guys Often Finish Last

"Throughout our research, we have seen that using visible, recognisable characters (and especially polarising ones) results in more engagement," Nelson says. Viewers respond to villainous characters surprisingly well in both kids and action genres in particular.

For Dragons: Race to the Edge, the two images of villainous characters seen below significantly outperformed all others:

Less is more when it comes to cast size

"One of the earliest trends we saw was an image's tendency to win dramatically dropped when it contained more than 3 people," Nelson reveals.

This directly informed Netflix's creative decisions for Orange in the New Black, as is evident when you look at the main creative for each season side by side:

"This can feel counter-intuitive," Nelson says. "Particularly with shows that have an eclectic mix of talented lead characters".

But while ensemble casts are fantastic for a huge billboard on the side of a highway, the research shows they are too complex at small sizes and ultimately, not as effective at helping Netflix viewers decide if the title is right for them on smaller screens.

"Imagery is a powerful thing -- it has the ability to move people in so many different ways," Nelson says. "Over the last few years, we have worked hard to learn how a winning combination of technology and creative helps members discover stories they will enjoy faster and ultimately, have a better Netflix experience."

Netflix says that while the results from its research were often surprising, it is clear that an image can move people in powerful ways and done right, pictures can help people find the stories that they will love even faster.