Netflix and Squid Game: Using Viewership Data to Win the War on Engagement

By Nick Cicero

October 26, 2021

Streaming businesses can’t always predict what consumers will want until they have a consumer’s attention, which is why data is essential to win that precious engagement.

By now you’ve surely heard of the Netflix smash hit Squid Game, the dystopian South Korean series that has become an international phenomenon. More than 142 million households have viewed the series in just under a month after its launch, smashing the previous record of 82 million held by Bridgerton and making it the most viewed title on Netflix ever.

Netflix has revealed some insights around Squid Game that we can all learn from on how they make data-driven decisions with robust viewership data to drive content discovery, engagement, attention, and ultimately, revenue. So how can you be like Netflix and use viewership and engagement data to deliver amazing content experiences?

1. Identify the right metrics to establish a single source of truth for streaming measurement

The holy grail is a single metric that guides a publisher’s definition of success, but there are combinations of many metrics, put into context, that can drive your business goals. The actual metrics that matter will vary based on your organization, however there are a few places to start if you haven’t yet.  Is there a certain amount of time spent watching per viewer per week? Per session? Per series? Does a viewer consistently watch a certain number of content pieces? How many times do they come back each week? As a best practice, use some combination of reach, frequency, consumption, binge scoring, and if you’re a subscription business, any subscriber and free trial metrics you might have.

According to a recent Bloomberg article, Netflix measures the success of its shows in “impact value,” which combines data like how often a show is watched by new and existing customers, cost efficiency, and impact on long-term viewership. Squid Game cost Netflix only $21 million to make and generated an estimated $891 million in “impact value,” making it not only a super popular show, but also a highly profitable series.

This commitment to being data driven is one of the most important parts of scaling a streaming business today. Netflix has mastered using data to drive results. Streaming publishers big and small can learn from their methodology by measuring the metrics that provide the greatest value and drive the most success for the business.

2. Use consistent data across the organization

Identifying the metrics that matter is only one piece of the puzzle. The only way to turn data collection into data strategy is by having a single source of truth for video measurement—a trusted partner providing quality of streaming experience, content engagement, consumption, and audience in a single methodology that can help surface and combine the metrics that matter to you so you can dictate your own “North Star.”

The ability to do this type of data analysis at scale is no longer reserved for only the largest or most sophisticated data teams of the world. It’s here today. With a streaming analytics and measurement solution, publishers can quickly tap into real-time intelligence to increase acquisition and retention by understanding audiences like never before.

Insights are surfaced proactively, helping your team identify answers and take action from questions such as:

  • Which episodes are most popular by viewership or minutes consumed?
  • What other types of content do people who watch a certain series or genre watch most often?
  • What series in which audience segments are overperforming on engagement?
  • What are the demographics of viewers watching a show that’s blowing up in terms of binge rate?
  • How many net-new viewers were driven by your top shows right out of the box?

Establishing a single source of streaming measurement allows any publisher to find their own Squid Game by being able to quickly identify the trends and changes in engagement in order to make real-time decisions with data.

3. Turn data into action with content discovery and recommendation systems to deliver the most relevant content to users

Viewers today don’t just come to streaming services for the hits their friends are talking about; they like to browse and discover new content that the service bubbles up for them. In Conviva’s State of Streaming: Content Discovery report, 41% of all streaming viewers and 89% of viewers in the segment that over-indexed on streaming agreed with the statement, “I frequently watch what is recommended to me when I start up the streaming service.” And 47% of streamers agreed that recommendations by streaming services are usually very good. Given that viewers are so receptive and have come to expect these recommendations, it’s essential for streaming services to invest in personalization algorithms and a data-driven mentality to prioritize time spent within audience segments to drive viewers deeper into the content catalog.

Once a piece of content goes live, you can use data to monitor viewership and engagement and then overlay content or subscriber affinities to recommend that content to segments who might enjoy the same series. Surface viral content quickly to your highly engaged viewers who will recommend that content to their friends and family to keep the cycle going.

“An abundance of content, enabling binging and the underlying technology to surface content for subscribers creates a serendipity to Netflix that is missing from the other streaming services. The consumer behavior towards Netflix is similar to the days of turning on the TV and channel surfing to find something to watch.” – Rich Greenfield, industry analyst

Having a measurement system in place means that you can focus on taking action with data as new trends emerge to build the systems that can create those moments of serendipity instead of falling behind and missing key opportunities to command more attention.

4. Social media and word of mouth are critical to streaming content discovery

It’s hard to fathom sometimes, but social media has been around longer than streaming video. It is a ubiquitous part of society, augmenting face-to-face conversations and expanding the universe for content discovery.

While there was a point at which social channels were perceived as a threat to streaming video, it’s clear that there are direct synergies between the two. Word of mouth is one of the strongest drivers of discovery for new shows by viewers who are heavy streaming viewers as 59% of respondents in our State of Streaming: Content Discovery said they found the content they recently watched for the first time through word of mouth, chatting with or seeing social media posts from friends, family, or influencers.

For streaming publishers, the psychographic and cultural data that can be gathered from social media platforms is an X factor when it comes to delivering personalized content experiences for the shows you plan for—and the ones you don’t expect. Only by connecting content consumption and social data can you capitalize on the conversations that are happening.

Squid Game was not heavily marketed in the United States. In fact, aside from an initial trailer that dropped on Netflix’s YouTube channel September 1, it took more than a week after the show’s premiere to generate buzz within popular social accounts before taking off like a rocket. We looked at 10,000 public accounts, including Netflix’s own social handles, tracking any mentions of Squid Game or #squidgame via Conviva Social Insights. Here are a few key moments over the first 30 days of launch.

There was a flood of content on TikTok, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube with people creating their own Squid Game challenges, reacting to the series, and creating memes around the series viral moments. On TikTok in particular, the Squid Game hashtag has been viewed 44.1 billion times.

When Roblox versions of Squid Game started appearing at the end of September, Netflix didn’t shut them down like they could have. Instead, they reaped the benefits of the amazing promotion, generating millions of plays by gamers. Then when thousands of streamers and YouTubers, including influential creators like FazeClan, SSSniperWolf, and PewDiePie, posted videos of them playing the game to their millions of subscribers, Netflix achieved even greater, organic reach.

Compare this to Bridgerton, which boasted a star creator in Shonda Rhimes, a Christmas Day release date, and U.S. marketing splash, especially on social. There was an almost instant bump in conversation around the series at launch (as compared to the delay seen in Squid Game), but a fraction of the engagements.

While Bridgerton certainly was a high-performing show both on Netflix and on social, it was much more calculated from a U.S.-based social strategy, versus Squid Game that took off organically, thanks to strong word of mouth, user-generated content, and social sharing.

“Subscribers tweeted and TikToked about it, and it just grew through word of mouth. People hear about it, people talk about it, people love it, and there’s a very social aspect to that, which does help grow the show outside of what we do.” – Bela Bajaria, Head of Global TV at Netflix

The Netflix team saw this trend, embraced the discussion, and quickly pivoted by increasing their content output to tap into the newfound popularity and expand the marketing promotions to an international audience.

Netflix also certainly used social data to inform their content recommendation systems and surface the series in the feeds of new audiences around the world, tying back to the need for personalization algorithms. Social engagement data can significantly improve the signals collected from first-party data since, unlike a YouTube video, there are no comments on shows within a streaming platform to know if someone liked it or not.

Both scenarios—Bridgerton’s white-glove release and Squid Game’s viral success—are important to a streaming business. You never know where your hits can come from, so social engagement data is essential to inform your strategy, content calendar, marketing plans, and series premieres. Listen to what viewers are saying about ALL your content and be flexible and nimble in your social content strategy to embrace Squid Game-like moments when content you didn’t expect goes viral.

So how do you put this all together to operate like Netflix?

Netflix is winning the content war by winning the measurement and data war. If you want to be like Netflix, you need key data skills within your organization:

  • A single source of truth for video data, measuring quality of streaming experience, content engagement, video consumption, audience insights, and social data in a single methodology so each can be informed by all others.
  • A culture to build the right systems and processes to take advantage of the data. While a lot can be made about the number of metrics that might go into Netflix’s custom formulas, it’s just as important to have a culture of data and experimentation in your business as it is to have analytics systems in place to measure those metrics.
  • A measurement solution that can marry first-party viewing data with third-party social data and word of mouth to uncover new opportunities to increase engagement.