Steering Conversation — How Netflix Decides What We Think About.

Nicolas Hinternesch
4 min readApr 9, 2017

“OH MY GOD, YES that is SUCH a GOOD SHOW.” — Does that sound familiar? We constantly chat about how we are so hooked on Daredevil, what we binged over break and what might happen in the second season of Sense 8. TV shows are a topic that we thankfully choose for any type of conversation. They are easy to talk about, hardly controversial and yet make for an interesting topic that almost everyone can relate to. Since watching shows has become a publicly accepted hobby and people spend more and more time consuming, the conversational share that is being devoted to discussing them has risen accordingly.

One thing I noticed, though, is how conversations tend to go further than just discussing the show. I find it fascinating how my generation suddenly starts caring about Pablo Escobar. If it hadn’t been for Netflix, people wouldn’t be nearly as aware of his story and his criminal endeavors. And they are actively curious to find out more about him as well. The immediate development of Google searches and Wikipedia page-views for Pablo Escobar after the release of Narcos says it all:

In order to make the data comparable, I calculated indices of all values with regards to the period. Time-period: 4 weeks pre-release - 18 weeks post-release in the US.

More generally, this effect gets especially interesting when Netflix content revolves around a historical character or has an overarching theme. If the show is successful, the corresponding character or theme immediately receives public attention and plays a vital part in everyday conversations. This is reflected by the amount of internet-users that are actively looking for information about that character. There are plenty of other examples, where a show on Netflix has led to a substantial interest-peak regarding the historical figure it revolves around. Just like interest in Queen Elizabeth II spiked shortly after the release of The Crown, people also started looking for information about the Roman Emperor Commodus right after Roman Empire: Reign of Blood aired on Netflix:

In order to make the data comparable, I calculated indices of all values with regards to the period. Time-period: 4 weeks pre-release — 18 weeks post-release in the US.

Of course, there are possible implications for businesses that come with the pattern of Netflix influencing public attention among certain customer groups. The key is to monitor upcoming releases to anticipate people’s interests and conversations for the purpose of content marketing. That way, businesses are able to craft and provide brand-connected content around topics that users will actively be looking to pull from the internet. However, there are much bigger implications:

Netflix has the power to steer public conversation towards issues, people, and topics that matter.

If you are now thinking to yourself — “Well duh, big news. We have been talking about movies ever since they started making them” — you are right. But think again. This is different. Never has the entire value chain of video content creation and delivery been within the scope of a single company. In the old ecosystem, there has always been a complex network of different stakeholders: Producers, film studios, writers, movie theaters, TV stations. The interdependencies among these players made it impossible for one of them to act freely.

Netflix, however, has the ability to control the entire value chain. All in one hand. This is new. And I believe that this is a game changer when it comes to steering public attention. They have repeatedly proven to deliver successful and addictive content across a variety of genres. Their technological infrastructure, the centralized user-knowledge, as well as their machine learning algorithms enable them to analyze, learn, and immediately adapt their production. That way, Netflix can pretty much take on any content-theme and create something addictive for their audience-segments.

So why not use that power for a greater good?
Make an addictive show revolving around content that you want the world to talk about, but is currently being swept under the rug: Climate change or food chain issues come to mind.
→ Craft video content that centers historical / societal / political characters in order to stimulate interest in current issues, such as the dangers of populist right wing rhetoric or xenophobia.

As a society, we need more conversation about issues that matter. And conversation requires awareness and interest. It feels strange that Netflix as a single company might have the power to make an impact here. But there certainly is untapped potential that can be put to good use.