Inside the secretly effective–and underrated–way Netflix keeps its shows and movies at the forefront of pop culture

How the streaming giant presents itself as a TV and movie super fan and uses meme-able, self-aware social media content to keep us watching more.

Inside the secretly effective–and underrated–way Netflix keeps its shows and movies at the forefront of pop culture

On New Year’s Day, Kim Kardashian West decided to watch a movie on Netflix. With that one click, one of the most popular people on the internet unwittingly joined an already crashing tidal wave of Bird Box meme-ification. Even with 59.6 million Twitter followers, West was late to a very, very big party–and fellow social star Chrissy Teigen let her know it.


Bird Box had only been on Netflix for about a week and a half at that point, so of course the entire world hadn’t seen it. It just felt that way. Especially on social media.

Netflix’s social and brand editorial team first started seeing the memes for the dystopian sci-fi film–starring Sandra Bullock, Sarah Paulson, John Malkovich, and Trevante Rhodes–catching fire on Black Twitter within the first three days of the movie’s December 21 release and began retweeting and promoting their favorite reactions.


Thanks to the film’s sly combination of gimmick (blindfolds!), genre (horror!), cast (awesome!), and holiday release timing (maximum binge-to-get-away-from-family mode!), Bird Box attracted enough eyeballs that Netflix decided to crack open its black box of data for the briefest of moments, long enough to boast that more than 45 million accounts had watched the movie in its first week, which prompted another wave of viewership and conversation.


How Netflix promotes its original movies, series, and specials has long been a source of fascination and bewilderment for both viewers and creators. For a long time, the company maintained that it could do better promotion than traditional marketing via its menus, in-app notifications, and even old-fashioned email to alert people to programs when it thinks they’re most likely to watch. “We’ve found the most effective way to drive viewing is on the service,” Netflix VP of product innovation Chris Jaffe told journalists in December 2017.

But stars and producers would often complain it wasn’t enough, and subscribers did not always know what was worth watching. The company’s strategy started to change last summer when it purchased 32 billboards along Los Angeles’s famous Sunset Boulevard for $150 million, and it advised investors that it would likely spend $2 billion in 2018 on marketing. Up to 85% of that spending would go toward its “title brands,” meaning Netflix originals.

Amid all these changes, though, perhaps the effective way Netflix educates viewers about new programs and encourages them to watch is through its social media and brand content strategy. The company uses its social and brand editorial department as the engine that keeps Netflix shows and movies at the forefront of the pop-culture conversation. By imbuing its social platforms with the personality of a meme-happy fan who lives for TV and movies (rather than being stunt-driven, deadpan, or, worse, mocking the very audience it seeks), Netflix’s approach goes beyond mere promotion and jumps armpit-deep into participation and collaboration. They’re both marketing, but the Netflix strategy pushes over into something more surprising: an ongoing, creative dialogue with audience members who can sniff out forced enthusiasm in a nanosecond. When what Netflix delivers on social feels genuine, the difference in engagement is stark.


Sometimes the company’s efforts are as simple as amplifying someone else’s, such as when it shared director Guillermo del Toro’s 10 personal musings about Roma. Netflix’s heaviest lifting comes when it does such things as work with partners like creative firm to gift the world with a meme template highlighting the most exaggerated facial expressions of Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in Velvet Buzzsaw.

Social media is also the rare venue where Netflix’s performance data is public. Everyone can see the engagement on every post, and, increasingly, Netflix executives themselves are touting such metrics as the rising follower counts of the talent who stars in its originals as evidence of the streaming service’s deep connection with its subscribers. With social media and Google Trends as the leading indicators of success for any given show or film, Netflix is able to dodge one of the biggest criticisms against it: lack of data transparency.


But as the Netflix social shtick becomes more expected than surprising, and the company deals with the same challenge it has elsewhere of showing appropriate love to its tsunami of new originals, how does the company’s social team plan to keep up with the speed of culture?

Finding its voice

Netflix’s specific social-media tone was born in the spring of 2017, when it had just launched a House of Cards Twitter feed in Brazil. An editorial manager in Brazil decided to communicate as if she were sharing with friends.


The tremendous response to the “It’s difficult to compete” tweet (a sly nod to real-life Brazilian politics) illustrated the power of speaking fan to fan. But as anyone who’s seen a brand pull a “How do you do, fellow kids” on social, Netflix had to figure out how to nail the difference between trying to talk like a fan and actually being one.

To build its U.S. social team of about 15 people, Netflix hired TV and movie buffs who were passionate about sci-fi or comedy, two key target areas for Netflix. They had backgrounds in marketing, journalism, PR, and entertainment, and varied in age. The team averages about three posts per day on Twitter and Instagram. Each platform has dedicated team members.

The company does not impose a strict approval process for social posts, choosing instead to establish broad guidelines rooted in the freedom and responsibility section of the Netflix company culture deck. Its directives include such prescriptions as “don’t promote, entertain,” “stand out by taking risks,” and “don’t just clip out the show, build out the world.”


In the U.S., individuals run specific social channels. The main Netflix account started way back in October 2008, but as its library of originals grew, the company added specific feeds to showcase comedy (Netflix Is A Joke, April 2017), family fare (Netflix Family, September 2017), African-American pop culture (Strong Black Lead, January 2018), new content (See What’s Next, March 2018), and sci-fi and fantasy (NX, May 2018). In other countries, some of the social teams are set up as writers’ rooms. All are meant to share a broad sensibility–positive, uplifting, fun–but with local, personal flavor.

For returning shows, social media plans take into consideration fan reactions to previous seasons. For new shows and movies, the team sketches out a strategy ahead of time, while also preparing to change course if need be. The #BirdBoxChallenge, for instance, was fan-driven, with people across Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook sharing videos of themselves engaging in various activities while blindfolded (in homage to the film’s star, Sandra Bullock). Netflix shared 22 retweets of memes and funny and/or celebrity reactions.


The social department also works with show producers and creative agencies to produce content aimed at making being a fan more fun. One example of this was the cheeky educational series #cokenomics, created for the first season of Narcos with the agency The Many back in 2015. According to Netflix sources speaking on background, the guiding principles for these projects boil down to: How can we build out the experience beyond what’s on the show or movie itself?

The idea is to show producers and stars that this promotional work feeds into Netflix’s own media outlet, a modern version of the traditional wacky bits and lighthearted interviews of the talk-show circuit. For Bojack Horseman, for example, producers have created an Instagram feed from the main character’s perspective, made entirely of original illustrations.


To stay effective, the social teams need to be watching and listening in the right places, at the right times, so they can tap into real-time conversations that yield results, like a video of awkward silences for the show You, or responding to fans who think the Lost in Space robot is hot. The latter went viral last April, prompting James Corden to weigh in.

Netflix’s social voice rarely devolves into cringe-y, try-too-hard Brand Twitter territory, but that doesn’t mean it always hits the mark. For the high-school comedy Sex Education, the team tried a lot of different angles to create engaging video, with varying success. While videos of the British cast touring America hit more than 1.1 million YouTube views, and another on what it’s like to film a sex scene garnered more than 950,000, the one on sex terminology got just 9,337 views.

Amplifying fan voices is great–especially if that fan is director Guillermo del Toro–but it’s not perfect. Back during peak Bird Box mania, the audience-generated #BirdBoxChallenge did not go smoothly. At first, watching videos of people–including Jimmy Fallon–falling and bumping into stuff seemed like harmless fun, but it soon escalated to more dangerous levels. A teen in Utah crashed his car while driving blindfolded. A tattoo artist took the challenge to work, with predictably awful results.


Netflix’s warning then led to a conspiracy theory that the company was actually the one fueling it all. Sources within Netflix deny any broad orchestration, saying that when it comes to social media, it simply follows fans’ leads.

Network effects

Social media–and Twitter, in particular–has long been a place for TV networks to connect with audiences. In 2007, MTV enlisted the stars of its sketch comedy show Human Giant to live tweet the Movie Awards, and ratings went up 23% from the previous year. “Second-screen viewing” between TV and Twitter became more common, and series such as ABC’s Scandal became cultural phenomena when its stars live-tweeted while watching, even embracing fan-created hashtags. More recently, HBO enjoyed a viral hit last month with its Soprano Yourself tweetstorm to celebrate the series’ 20th anniversary.


Most network social posts tend to be in service of encouraging live viewing. ABC, for example, is usually reminding people it’s time to watch The Bachelor, rather than subtly mocking it, as its devoted fans are. Netflix’s style, meanwhile, is designed for its binge-mode model of releasing entire series at once. When it comes to social, full-season drops are simply more conducive to tapping into an obsessive audience. Who’s more likely to retweet or repurpose a meme? Someone four hours deep into a sparking joy session with Tidying Up, or a viewer three days removed from a new episode of a weekly series? Sure, the enthusiasm for new series or movies tends to settle down after a few weeks–last week it was Russian Doll, this week it’s Umbrella Academy–but the net effect of its hundreds of programs is that they have the potential to spark a never-ending pop cultural conversation.

“They come from the internet,” says BTIG analyst Rich Greenfield. “Their expertise in leveraging online marketing, and using TV more sparingly than their industry peers, has led to a far better ROI on their marketing spend than others. Netflix is able to put stuff out there, see what bubbles up, and then they can amplify it based on the response. It’s a very different approach.”

This is particularly evident with follower counts. In the U.S. alone, Netflix has 5.72 million Twitter followers and 13 million on Instagram. HBO, by contrast, has 2.13 million followers on Twitter and 2.1 million on Instagram. Hulu? 611,000 on Twitter, and 346,000 on Instagram. Over on broadcast television, CBS, ABC, and NBC each have less than 2 million Twitter followers, and barely 500,000 each on Instagram.


Then there’s the age gap. According to a 2018 study from Wall Street firm Cowen & Co., nearly 40% of Americans in the coveted 18-to-34 age bracket said Netflix is the platform they watch most often on TV, beating YouTube (17%), basic cable (12.6%), Hulu (7.6%), and broadcast TV (7.5%). Your great uncle isn’t talking about NCIS on Instagram.

The focus on keeping a younger audience’s attention was evident in the company’s Q4 2018 shareholder letter, which stated that Netflix holds about 10% of TV screen time and less than that of mobile screen time, and acknowledged its main competitors. “We compete with (and lose to) Fortnite more than HBO,” the letter stated.

In December, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos told the UBS global media and communications conference that social media is, in effect, a more effective way to create a collective viewing experience than that endangered species: appointment television. In discussing the Netflix romantic comedy To All the Boys I Loved Before, Sarandos said, “It was an enormous hit for us this year. But you saw it in the social media presence of that movie that people not only love to watch it and love to watch it over and over again. They love to post on Instagram about it. They love to post on Facebook about it . . . and it was just a really incredible kind of global experience that happens all at once, with very little marketing spend, by the way.”

Star power

It helps that the stars of Netflix shows are active on social media–particularly young talent like Noah Centineo of To All the Boys I Loved BeforeStranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown, and Cole Sprouse of Riverdale, all of whom have become social stars in their own right.

Netflix is “increasingly tapping into the halo effect of the shows and personalities affiliated with the streaming service, many of whom have big followings on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat,” says eMarketer analyst Paul Verna. “That means, in addition to the paid media Netflix is taking out on those venues, it’s getting quite a bit of earned-media exposure as well.”

That halo effect includes the virtuous cycle of fans following these new stars, talking about them, and keeping their shows and movies on the public’s radar. The term “Netflix famous” has become a real thing. In its most recent letter to shareholders, the company shared a chart titled “A launching pad for a new generation of global stars,” showing how the eight cast members of its Spanish original Elite had grown their Instagram followers in the three-plus months since its launch. Seven of the eight actors and actresses had started with between 10,000 and 30,000 followers and all now top 1 million.

What’s next

According to sources within the Netflix social and editorial department, there are two significant goals for 2019. The first is to engage more on Reddit, where its presence is scarcest. The second is to bring more of its meme-happy approach into the real world, to merge the social energy with unique, in-the-flesh experiences that can then be turned into more social content. When Netflix helped a Santa Clarita Diet fan propose to his girlfriend (with an assist from series stars Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant), it was an idea that came out of one fan’s social post and turned into a cute promotional vehicle for the show.

Netflix is also working on linking fans more effectively. Last month, it introduced a new feature through its app that allows viewers to share customized title art for a film or TV show directly to their Instagram Stories, creating a more seamless way for fans to spread the word.

The company is also expanding into podcasts. Strong Black Lead is now also a podcast, You Can’t Make This Up bolsters documentary content, and there are two shows designed explicitly to recommend new shows on, you guessed it, Netflix. At the end of January, it launched a new podcast called The Human Algorithm (let that one soak in for a moment), where employees as well as stars from its most popular shows, like The Umbrella Academy, talk about and suggest things for fans to watch next. 

It not only bridges the voice, personality, and obsessive fandom fostered on social to another medium, but also uses its own stars–who all have their own personal followings–to create a platform-wide cycle that will encourage even more engagement.

Who knows? Maybe even Kim K. will eventually be listening.

[Photo Illustration: Samir Abady; Stranger Things: courtesy of Netflix; Orange Is the New Black: Cara Howe/Netflix; Narcos: Mexico: Carlos Somonte/Netflix; Bird Box: Saeed Adyani/Netflix; Phone: Farknot_Architect/iStock; Twitter Icon: Clker-Free-Vector-Images/Pixabay]


About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity.


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