For the first decade and a half of its existence, Netflix’s reputation as an advertiser was that of a brand focused much more on substance than on style.
Using the same data science expertise that fueled its much-lauded movie recommendation engine, Netflix was mostly concerned with finding users likely to be interested in its service and peppering them with banner ads for a free trial across the web.
But as Netflix began expanding into original content with the introduction of “Lilyhammer” in 2012 and “House of Cards” the following year, it needed to expand its advertising efforts to shed light on its new role as a storyteller.
Netflix has been able to craft a series of stories that are just as worth spending time with as editorial.
And so began a concerted effort to do the sort of high-level brand advertising that would not only allow Netflix to bring new people to its service but also get its existing customers fired up about the original programming that was increasingly becoming a part of its identity.
In the roughly two years since, the video streaming brand has made a name for itself in marketing circles as a master of native advertising, a format that allows it to extend the stories of original programs like “Orange Is the New Black” and “House of Cards” into immersive, multimedia news features.
By maintaining high standards and working closely with premium publishers like Wired, The Atlantic, and The New York Times, Netflix has been able to craft a series of native advertising stories that are just as worth spending time with as the editorial pieces readers would find on the same publication.
"The brand has evolved in that storytelling and original content are really a big part of what they do, so the marketing is a natural extension of the way the brand has been changing,” explained Kristine Segrist, managing partner at MEC, a communications planning agency that partners with Netflix on its digital and native campaigns. “These native advertising programs allow us to explore new types of stories in more depth than you could in a simpler format.”
Netflix came to the conclusion that if it made something great, people would have no problem taking the time to read, watch, and interact with it.
Netflix began experimenting with native advertising in 2013, working with the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed to produce relatively short, surface-level pieces in support of its original shows. For instance, it helped promote the fourth season of “Arrested Development” with sponsored BuzzFeed posts like, “The 15 Most Unforgettable Arrested Development Mash-Ups” and “Everything You Need To Know About Arrested Development In 30 Gifs.”
As Netflix tinkered with these early native activations, the brand began to realize that while there are benefits to quick, timely interactions around, say, a weekend weather forecast suggesting people will be spending time indoors, the brand also had the opportunity to create things that were longer and more in-depth.
In other words, Netflix came to the conclusion that if it made something great, people would have no problem taking the time to read, watch, and interact with it.
Segrist says Netflix really turned a corner in December 2013, when it launched the Netflix Documentary Club on Gawker. The idea for program came from a meeting between Netflix’s internal marketing team, MEC, and Gawker’s senior leadership to figure out a way to use Gawker to shine a spotlight on some of Netflix’s better non-fiction content.
Netflix’s ability to produce quality native content hinges on two things: the brand’s willingness to take risks, and its hands-on approach to storytelling.
Together, the three sides came up with an idea to hold an open call to find the biggest Netflix documentary fan among Gawker’s literate group of commenters. They then had that superfan hold a discussion of a different Netflix documentary each week inside the Gawker’s Kinja commenting platform.
Over the course of the six-month engagement, the project generated thoughtful discussion of more than 30 documentaries, as MEC, Netflix, and Gawker grew comfortable tweaking Gawker’s distinctive voice in a way that worked for the brand.
“That was kind of the first thing where we were like, ‘Okay, this feels a little bit richer, it addresses a business need, it’s something that’s totally aligned with the DNA of Gawker, but it’s really right for the Netflix brand,’” Segrist said. “We said, ‘Okay, maybe there’s something we can do with this format that lends itself to storytelling in a way that feels right for the Netflix brand.”
While Segrist considers the Gawker activation a success, Netflix didn’t start getting plaudits for its native advertising skills until it ran an interactive sponsored story with Wired in May 2014 and a paid post with the New York Times the following month.
The New York Times activation was particularly impressive, and pushed the limits of what people thought native advertising could be.
The piece was a longform, multimedia news story on the ways American prisons fail to take into account the needs of female inmates, an issue that is at the heart of the Netflix original series “Orange Is the New Black.”
In addition to in-depth reporting, the story featured smooth, responsive design, useful infographics, documentary photography and video interviews with formerly incarcerated women.
What made the partnership so special, Segrist said, was how Netflix, MEC, and The New York Times all came to the table wanting to create something “incredible” that hadn’t been done before in the native space.
Netflix and MEC went into the process thinking that the story would focus on a more niche topic — like prisoners’ beauty regimens or how inmates get tattoos — but once they started speaking with some of the women who had been in prison, they realized that the real story was in the correctional system’s deficiencies.
The paid post was a resounding success, earning more than 140,000 impressions, according to a Digiday story published the following month, and winning praise not only from marketers but from journalists, as well.
“Some of the editorial staff at The New York Times were also sharing it, which was a nice thing to see because you always wonder if they are feeling good about this part of their business,” Segrist said. “[The late New York Times media columnist] David Carr gave it a shoutout, so we were happy. I was like ‘Oh my god, this is so exciting.’”
Since then, Netflix has gone on to do other successful native integrations with the online retailer Gilt (a clothing collection inspired by “Orange Is the New Black”) and The Atlantic, (an interactive piece tied to "House of Cards" that focused on the relationships U.S. presidents have had with their wives).
Segrist credits Netflix’s ability to produce quality native content to two things: the brand’s willingness to take risks, and its hands-on approach to storytelling.
While other brands might slow down the content creation process by running everything by their legal department, Netflix is willing to make big bets and give its partners some leeway.
At the same time, it is not content to hand everything over to a publisher’s brand studio and let them take it from there. For instance, on the New York Times project, MEC and Netflix were made sure all of the details were perfect — from checking the sound quality in the videos, to working with T Brand Studio on the ideas covered in the story, to assuring that the project would render properly on tablets.
It’s this sort of devotion to the quality of the end product that has allowed Netflix to get so many of its partners to exceed what they had previously been capable of in native.
“Because they develop content, Netflix has a strong point of view around their shows and their originals, and how they can come to life in different formats,” Segrist said. “We’re lucky that it’s a brand that has an appetite for exploring things, and as much as content and tech is sort of their DNA, innovation is definitely in their DNA. They try to make sure that the marketing reflects the innovative spirit of Netflix.”
For distribution, Netflix relies almost entirely on organic channels, which include its social media accounts and those of the publication it is working with. Though it does measure the number of impressions each project gets, it is equally concerned with how much time people are spending on the content, how many people are sharing it, and whether readers are interacting with the videos and infographics in the stories.
In general, Netflix and MEC want to make sure that the stories they’ve spent so much time and effort creating have been worthy of people’s attention.
Though they’ve been successful so far, Segrist knows it will take a lot of work for the brand to continue to top itself.
“There’s a lot of healthy pressure that the marketing has to be awesome because the product is awesome. It makes it fun to work on and it keeps us on our toes,” Segrist said. “It would be such a missed opportunity if the marketing was not interesting because the product is so compelling.”