Netflix knows me. The recommendations they serve up for me are terrific and clearly speak to their understanding of my personal tastes. That is a pretty huge leap in the movie watching experience when you consider that not too long ago, I used to walk through the aisles of Blockbuster Video hoping to find something that was half decent and in stock. How does Netflix do it? Data. Data on an individual customer’s behavior and a deep understanding of the movies they carry. In a sense, that’s what BloomReach aspires to do for our customer’s sites. We are Netflixing the web.
Let’s go back in time briefly and recall what we did to find a decent flick at Blockbuster. They had their selection of VHS tapes DVDs organized into a small handful of categories – drama, comedy, action and children’s. Oh and if you lived in a progressive urban area, maybe they’d have an indie section. That’s it. Then it was up to you to wander the alphabetical aisles (I’ll bet if you could look back at Blockbuster’s rental data, movies that start with a-f titles were far more popular than those in the later half of the alphabet purely because overwhelmed movie renters gave up before getting deeper into the alphabet). The Blockbuster experience never learned from your behavior in order to save you time or delight you with recommendations.
Enter Netflix and their data driven approach to personalizing the customer experience. The magic of their method is certainly in the front end – learning more about you each and every time you engage with their site. But all of that is for naught if they don’t fully understand the attributes of the very movies they carry. Sounds simple right? It is if you are Blockbuster and have a few huge buckets. But that’s not nearly good enough if you have a massive catalog that people must navigate on their TVs, laptops, tablets or phones.
Instead Netflix uses an army of movie watching experts who watch and describe movies with an exhaustive list of tags. Those tags, which cover attributes including the obvious and the obscure – from lead actor and genre to location and “stoner”. These attributes are then combined to create “microgenres” that are extremely niche. For example, “violent action thrillers starring Bruce Willis”, “African American crime documentaries” and “tearjerkers from the 1970s” are microgenres. With focused niches like those in the mix, the obvious question is how many microgenres Netflix has?
Soak that in for a second. Blockbuster had maybe ten genres. Netflix has 76,897. Better still, they learn from you and show the movies that you’re most likely to enjoy. This makes discovery of movies relatively effortless, dare I even say, enjoyable. I don’t recall ever enjoying browsing Blockbuster’s racks.
The BloomReach approach to personalization is similar but different. We don’t collect information about you, precisely, but we’ve observed and interpreted so many interactions and the language people use in those experiences to be able to infer intent based on observed anonymous behavior across devices and channels. Take the Dynamic Categories we create on the Neiman Marcus mobile site for example. We use an individual customer’s behavior and our deep understand of the products Neiman Marcus carries to create Dynamic Categories. Those categories put attributes and categories together in unique ways based on the products that individual consumer is looking at. During the last three months, over 3,000 Dynamic Categories were created on Neiman Marcus’ mobile site. On the Just For You page of the site, those Dynamic Categories were mixed and matched to create 30,130 totally unique experiences.
Like Netflix, we aim for the customer to feel like the retailer “knows them” by delivering the right mix of products that suit their personal taste without revealing private and personal information. After all, a shopper gives you a lot of clues about who they are and what they like before you even know their name. Why not use those clues to personalize their experience to what they want? The result is very unique categories such as “New This Week in Sale”, “Ties & Pocket Squares by Brioni”, “New Apparel by Gucci”, and “Retro Sunglasses by Prada.” Creating, grouping and showcasing these categories is a Netflix approach to a world of online shopping that is often stuck in a Blockbuster paradigm.
There is one point where the Netflix and BloomReach models diverge. Netflix employs a small army of people to watch and tag their movies. BloomReach, on the other hand, uses an algorithmic approach to extract the attribute information about our customers’ products and consumer behaviors. At the scale we work in – millions of products across over 100 merchant websites – a manual approach would never scale.
Netflix on an iPhone image by Flickr user Shardayyy used under Creative Commons License.