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How do you market a product to the world if you already have close to 200 million committed customers? For Netflix, the answer has been to realize that its audience is not a monolith.
A little over two years ago, the streaming service began to zoom in on subsets of its audience that are big on social, but often overlooked by traditional marketing. To do this, Netflix launched dedicated social channels, including NX for all things geek and sci-fi; Con Todo, a channel for Latinx audiences; LGBTQ+ channel The Most; Netflix Family for everything parents enjoy; and Strong Black Lead, an outlet celebrating Black films and TV shows.
You wouldn't know much about these efforts just from browsing the Netflix app. But on social networks like Twitter, Instagram, Twitch and Reddit, these channels have become mini brands in their own right, complete with vibrant communities consisting of hundreds of thousands of followers each. It's an approach that invites fans to connect over their shared life experiences and passions, and it's worth studying for any company looking to cater more authentically to diverse audiences.
One of the first such efforts for the company was Strong Black Lead, which launched in early 2018. "The Netflix universe is this wonderful, vast tapestry of a lot of different content and stories," said Netflix Editorial and Publishing Director Maya Banks, who oversees these social channel efforts at the company. "But Black audiences didn't really know that we had all this diversity in storytelling for them."
What's more, some of Hollywood's content didn't resonate with Black audiences simply because of the way it was marketed. "I've been working in entertainment my whole career," Banks said. "Traditionally, when you launch shows and movies, you come up with one way to talk about it. And then you market it to a bunch of different audiences through that one lens."
When Netflix launched its Strong Black Lead accounts on Twitter and Instagram, the company tried to instead start with the audience, and then ask: What does this show, this movie mean to them? "It's all about perspective," explained Netflix Editorial and Publishing Director Myles Worthington, who heads the Strong Black Lead team. "As a Black man, I watch things that don't have Black people in them. 'Ozark' is one of my favorite shows." But for Black viewers like him, the show may resonate for very different reasons than for a white suburban mom.
Today, Strong Black Lead has around 550,000 followers on Instagram. Just in the past couple of days, posts included clips from the sitcom "Girlfriends," teasers for the new Netflix film "The 40-Year-Old Version," snippets from the Strong Black Leads podcast "Okay, Now Listen" and a list of "New Black and on Netflix" content. Resonating through many of the posts is a shared sense of Black pride and a spotlight on Black excellence in Hollywood and beyond.
"We really wanted it to feel like a home, a community of celebration," Worthington said. "For underrepresented groups all around the world, there's a lot of hardships on social, a lot of things that bring you down. So we really wanted it to be a place of joy and representation."
That approach is similar to Con Todo's, which often celebrates the diversity of its community. "Growing up Puerto Rican in New York is not the same as the Chicano experience in East L.A. It's not the same as the experience of Tejanos," said Netflix Editorial and Publishing Manager Andrea Gompf, who leads Con Todo. "This is an audience that is culturally fluid and linguistically fluid. People who kind of see themselves as really living in multiple worlds."
We really wanted it to feel like a home, a community of celebration.
Many brands have in recent years awakened to the growing importance of Latinx consumers, but Gompf said that marketing is still too often ripe with stereotypes. "There are a lot of misconceptions, that we're all interested in a certain type of content," she said. In recent days, Con Todo's Instagram account highlighted quotes from stars of Netflix's East L.A. comedy "Gentefied," a plug for the service's upcoming "Selena" show and Lin-Manuel Miranda talking about writing music for "Hamilton."
Key to understanding this kind of diversity is to hire from your audience, Banks argued. "We hire fans and people who are obsessed about this stuff, who live and breathe it," she said.
That's also true for NX, the streaming service's social outlet for all things geek that currently has around 450,000 followers on Instagram. "You've got to know your shit," said Editorial and Publishing Manager Max Mills, who leads NX. "There's this really interesting nuance with this community where identity and content are kind of intermixed," he explained. "I am defined by what I watch, and what I watch defines me. It helps me find people who are like me."
Geek communities are nothing new in the world of entertainment, where Comic Con has become a mecca for many of TV's most popular shows. However, Netflix is in a bit of a different position than some of its competitors. "We don't have this legacy of 40 years of established I.P. We're creating these new stories, these new worlds and these new fandoms," Mills said. Starting from scratch can be a challenge, but also an opportunity, he said. "We're able to look at it: What is that next generation of geekdom, the next generation of fandom?"
Targeting niche audiences in this way also does have some risks. A generic brand message blasted out to millions may lead to less engagement, but that lack of engagement also makes it easier to ignore or drown out more-divisive responses. When you're in the weeds of it, ignorance is not really an option.
I am defined by what I watch, and what I watch defines me. It helps me find people who are like me.
That's been especially obvious in the comment section of NX, where some of the more toxic subsets of the geek and gamer community occasionally raise their voices. Some of those instances included discussions of "The Legend of Korra," a show that broke ground with its inclusion of bisexual characters when it first premiered on network television a decade ago and that recently debuted on Netflix.
"There was a lot of toxicity in the comments," admitted Mills. However, NX didn't shy away from the controversy, and instead defended the show, its protagonists and LGBTQ geeks in general, and frequently told homophobic commenters to take a hike. "It is a symptom of us standing up for a community," Mills said. "This story was important."
"We stand up for our members, for the audiences that we serve," added Banks. "We don't punch down."
Banks and her team have spent the last two-plus years refining their niche-centric approach, which included some hits and misses. A channel for action fare was quickly abandoned when it became clear that there wasn't a defined audience for it. Netlfix Family, on the other hand, became a massive success when the team brought on Editorial and Publishing Manager Megan Sayers, who at the time was a new mom herself, starving for content that spoke to her.
"There's so much media and there's so much entertainment, but it's focused on the business of taking care of and raising a baby, or it's focused really solely on what your kids are watching," recalled Sayers. "I didn't feel like there was a place that talked to me as a person and a parent."
These days, Netflix Family's Instagram account — which has almost 900,000 followers — includes not only recommendations for new family-friendly movies, but also references to "Schitt's Creek," "Gilmore Girls" and "Enola Holmes," and a craft tutorial for anyone looking to make their own "Stranger Things" monster. "Parenting is one of those things that you just can't really understand until you're living it," Sayers said. "We really try to not sugarcoat it."
More recently, Netflix has begun to adopt the same audience-centric approach to social media in other markets. The company has also begun to experiment with ways to reincorporate some of its social audience brands back into the Netflix app experience. For instance, viewers who frequently watch shows with Black characters may see a row titled "Strong Black Lead" within their Netflix app, and Netflix has also begun to market some movies as "Strong Black Lead pick of the month."
Worthington also hinted at plans for Strong Black Lead merch, and suggested that the company is in conversations with dating apps and other online services to cross-promote its channels. In other words: What began as a way to speak to specific segments of Netflix's large and growing audience could eventually turn into full-fledged brands in their own right.
Netflix's audience-segment-specific approach to social media marketing and brand-building might be new to the world of streaming services, but Banks argued that outlets like BuzzFeed, which has a dedicated LGBTQ Instagram account and frequently targets subsets of its audience with content that speaks their language, discovered it long ago. "Publishers have been doing this for years," she said. "But bringing that approach to entertainment is what makes it really interesting and different."
Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.