Netflix has a huge trove of data on your viewing habits — not just what TV shows and movies you watch but when you watch them, how quickly you watch them, and how long you watch them for. It also knows what makes you choose one show over another — including which thumbnail you'll like more, based on what other shows you've already seen.
Netflix's personalisation with its original content takes everything a step further than all the other TV shows and movies it has available for viewing. Using the data at its disposal generated by 300 million viewers across over 100 million accounts, Netflix has created thousands of different user segments — what it calls "taste communities" — that like different TV series.
Stranger Things is the most popular show among many of these communities simultaneously, of course, but what's interesting is how diverse the communities that flock to Stranger Things are. A taste community that likes Dirk Gently and A Series Of Unfortunate Events likes Stranger Things a lot, but so does one that watches Scream and Bates Motel.
And Netflix uses that data to alter the images that these thousands of communities see when they stumble on to Stranger Things. Images — almost always small thumbnails — are hugely important for Netflix to catch the eye of viewers scrolling through their personalised home screens. Placement is a straightforward one — the higher in the screen the better, of course — but it turns out different viewers like different images.
The image takes a huge amount of effort from Netflix's end to optimise the number of viewers it draws in — it's the same process that goes into making a blockbuster movie poster, but a hundred times over. As it turns out, blockbuster movie posters are not especially good at doing that job. "There are top level creative agencies who are amazing at designing movie posters/box shots — use the actor's left profile, change that red Ferrari to pink, remove a palm tree... but we've tested images that have been subjectively chosen, and nobody actually knows."
What Netflix does with its images is a different approach. "[We] pick a diversity of images for a Netflix title, and show the right image to the right person. We used to do image by country — but [now we] don't pick it that way. We personalise it.
"The first image of Eleven (above) — if you watch romance and you tend to watch Stranger Things, that works. People into comedy like the image of two teenagers. Different images work for different people. Not only will everyone have different titles featured at the top of the UI, even the images around each of the titles is catered to each individual user."
Netflix's vice president of product innovation Todd Yellin told Gizmodo that there's still an element of art to the process rather than cold hard data, but that it comes in earlier in the pipeline than you'd think. There's no seat of the pants flying here: "It's a mix of art and science — seat of our pants hasn't existed since I joined Netflix. We're deliberate and try to be smart in our decisions. The art part is we have to figure out what are a bunch of diverse images that represent the title — 'here's a great image of Eleven, of the sheriff, of the Demogorgon.'
"The science part is after we come up with the suite of images to represent Stranger Things, we put it out to the world — and within a day, a hundred thousand people have seen each of these images, and we see who likes what, and we can start to personalise it to the individual."
Stranger Things is also pushing a renaissance in dubbing for the video streaming service. It's over-represented versus other wordier shows like House of Cards when it comes to the English the show was filmed in being replaced with a local language.
Italy, for example, loves to watch Stranger Things dubbed (likely into Italian) — 84 per cent watched it with characters' voices replaced. It's not so common in Japan, though — only 28 per cent of viewers opt for Japanese dubs rather than subtitles. Other Netflix shows, interestingly, have revived the lost art of dubbing mainstream TV into English — shows like Narcos and 3% have a strong English-speaking viewership, but those viewers aren't necessarily content with reading subs.
The service's user interface is translated, and shows are dubbed and subbed, into over 20 different languages. That makes a lot of sense when you consider that Netflix is watched across all seven continents — there has been one show watched in Antarctica, and it was Stranger Things season one, by one lone viewer. Yellin is quietly confident that it'll double, triple, or maybe even quadruple that figure when the next season comes out.
Stranger Things season two drops in Australia on October 27. [Netflix]