Are you a Robin Williams fan? If so, Netflix might try to coax you into watching Good Will Hunting with a photo of Robin Williams as psychology professor Dr Sean Maguire. Or do you have a history of watching a lot of romance movies? Forget Robin: you’re more likely to see a picture of Will (Matt Damon) and Skylar (Minne Driver) as they are about to go for a kiss.
That’s because Netflix is trying a new approach. Instead of displaying movie artwork designed to appeal to the broadest range of people, the streaming giant has instead worked out algorithms to personalise the artwork for each user – and try to draw them in.
So if Netflix wants to feature “Stranger Things” as a recommendation on its homepage, some people will see the “shadow monster”, some will see Chief Hopper in the pumpkin patch, and some will see the kids dressed as Ghostbusters.
Detailing the technology and algorithms behind the change, Netflix explains: “With a catalog spanning thousands of titles and a diverse member base spanning over a hundred million accounts, recommending the titles that are just right for each member is crucial. But the job of recommendation does not end there. Why should you care about any particular title we recommend? What can we say about a new and unfamiliar title that will pique your interest? How do we convince you that a title is worth watching?
“Answering these questions is critical in helping our members discover great content, especially for unfamiliar titles. One avenue to address this challenge is to consider the artwork or imagery we use to portray the titles.
“If the artwork representing a title captures something compelling to you, then it acts as a gateway into that title and gives you some visual ‘evidence’ for why the title might be good for you. The artwork may highlight an actor that you recognise, capture an exciting moment like a car chase, or contain a dramatic scene that conveys the essence of a movie or TV show.”
The on demand service gives a key example: “Let’s imagine how the different preferences for cast members might influence the personalisation of the artwork for the movie Pulp Fiction. A member who watches many movies featuring Uma Thurman would likely respond positively to the artwork for Pulp Fiction that contains Uma. Meanwhile, a fan of John Travolta may be more interested in watching Pulp Fiction if the artwork features John.”
And has it worked? Apparently, yes. There was a “significant lift in our core metrics” as people engaged with Netflix’s recommendations for TV shows and movies.
So next time you log in to Netflix, think – why are you being shown that particular image, and what does the algorithm know about you?