Stefan Butler is an aspiring video game programmer who starts his morning with a bowl of Frosted Flakes… or Sugar Puffs. Whichever you prefer. As the protagonist in “Bandersnatch,” Netflix’s interactive film-length episode of Black Mirror, Stefan’s choices about everything from breakfast to SPOILER! whether to jump off a balcony or not lie in the hands of the viewer.
A science fiction series that originated in the U.K., Black Mirror often focuses on the consequences of technology. “Bandersnatch” is particularly meta, Choose Your Own Adventure-style content about someone looking to create a video game based on a Choose Your Own Adventure-style book.
Though Netflix has experimented with interactivity before, “Bandersnatch” was the first interactive content aimed at adults. Its unique format has garnered plenty of attention, ensuring there will be more where that came from.
“I admire Netflix because even though they’re at the top of the heap, they’re trying to innovate. It can be hard when you’re a market leader because you have so much invested in the status quo,” says Dan Taitz, President of Penthera, a mobile video download solution. “But when you’re a market leader and you fail to innovate, you leave openings for other people to leapfrog you.”
Can we expect more interactive video content in the future?
Taitz points out that the way we consume video programming is evolving. We’re not just watching TV at home; between laptops and mobile devices, we’re watching it everywhere.
“Watching a video while you’re commuting on the train is a different experience than when you’re at home relaxing,” he says. “The context changes the dynamic with how you interact and whether you’re inclined to be more engaged.”
Netflix takes that into consideration with “Bandersnatch.” If you don’t make a decision, Netflix chooses automatically. According to eMarketer, an ever-growing 70% of U.S. adults are second-screeners. If someone is on their phone and not giving the show their full attention, that keeps the content moving seamlessly.
That also gives Netflix an unusual glimpse into viewers’ engagement levels. Are you making choices? How quickly are you making them? Many choices in “Bandersnatch” are dead ends, requiring viewers to go back, which means there are several possible endings. Are you engaged enough to watch all of them?
More subtly, your selections could further enlighten Netflix about your preferences. “Bandersnatch” is hardly Cannibal Holocaust, a movie you should definitely not look up on Google Image that’s banned in more than 50 countries, but there is some violence. If someone consistently makes the milder choice, that can impact the way Netflix’s highly sophisticated recommendation engine sees them.
“That gets plugged into their algorithm and affects the content they’re recommending to that person and like-minded users in the future,” says Dan Meehan, CEO of interactive mobile company PadSquad. “There’s a content boom happening on all the streaming platforms. Now it’s about how they introduce that content. This is the next frontier.”
If “Bandersnatch” starts a trend, marketers surely won’t be far behind. While Netflix doesn’t have advertising, other streaming platforms do. For non-premium Hulu subscribers, interactive elements could be timed around ads, ensuring those messages are on the screen when people are more likely to be engaged.
Product placements are an obvious solution. Stefan’s cereal in “Bandersnatch” could have been sponsored by Kellogg’s or General Mills. Meehan sees it going further, almost combining programmatic and native advertising, and video content. Because of all the data interactive content yields, streaming services can pair ads with unique, highly-targeted audiences.
“Instead of taping your 30-second ad and the networks slotting it in there, why not leverage the talent from a specific show with an ad that blends your messaging and the talent, coming right out of the content?” he says. “The user doesn’t know the advertising break is happening. You’re blending the talent and the brand cache with the platform, introducing the sponsor’s messaging, and then you break.”
That has potential to be polarizing. However, Taitz points out that as long as brands aren’t too heavy-handed, the viewing experience could remain seamless.
“It’s remarkable that there’s been so little innovation on video advertising beyond 6- or 15-second spots instead of 30,” he says. “Interactivity allows you to embed advertising messages in a new way, without being too invasive, which is really what annoys audiences about advertising.”
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