One challenge not facing the streaming industry (save any impacts from the ongoing writers’ strike) is a lack of content. But with the proliferation of streaming apps and free streaming channels, content discovery and connecting viewers to shows and movies they like and will keep coming back for, is a well-known issue for both consumers and service providers alike.
Various players have taken tactics such as changes to user interfaces or promoting editorially-driven recommendations to help users better find content, but now vendor Wurl is now bringing a different approach. The Palo Alto-based company introduced a new ContentDiscovery advertising platform that promises to help streamers and content publishers find, attract, engage and retain viewers by promoting content, fueled by machine learning, across streaming apps and mobile devices – with the ultimate aim of shifting content marketing campaigns from a cost burden to a profit center.
In an interview with Fierce, Wurl CEO Ron Gutman explained how unspecified customers keep telling the company what a big expense marketing is to try and grow channels, as various platforms now have hundreds of channels themselves. For some of its services, Wurl already counts players such as A+E Networks, AMC Networks, BBC Studios and others among customers. The company’s distribution and CTV ad platforms deliver thousands of streaming channels across major CTV providers, with a Wurl platform reach of over 300 million CTV viewers. It’s also worked closely with FAST providers, including Samsung and its Samsung TV Plus service.
“If you’re just trying to grow your channel or your stream inorganically, if you just sit back and wait, it doesn’t happen. You need to keep finding more and more people,” Gutman said.
A FAST like Samsung Plus, for example, might have over 250 channels in the U.S., but making consumers aware or connecting them to that content isn’t always a simple task.
“We see from how many channels people watch on Samsung, on Roku, on LG, on Vizio…it’s very little,” Gutman noted. “Most people don’t even know how much access they have to content.”
And as companies look for ways to make streaming businesses profitable, they don’t have unlimited budgets to promote all of the content available.
Enter ContentDiscovery – a machine learning-powered platform that Wurl has been developing over the last few years that learns a service or app’s content, identifies high-value viewers across connected TV and mobile devices that would be interested in it, and then serves and tracks targeted ad campaigns for that content. Not only does find viewers, it offers tailored creative services and precise targeting, coupled with exact measurement about who watched an ad, levels of engagement, and who converted or was retained (among other KPIs), which in turn leads to more efficient return on advertising spend (ROAS).
“There are many marketing campaigns that you can’t really measure exactly, but with streaming you can measure,” he said, noting this makes it a very different discussion between a CMO and CFO regarding marketing budgets when they can guarantee campaigns will make money.
ContentDiscovery enables the ability to advertise across a scaled mobile supply and more than 3,000 CTV channels. In the FAST space in particular Wurl competes with other vendors such as Amagi and Frequency, but Gutman said up until this point there isn’t another similar offering on the market when it comes to content discovery and marketing. The platform is currently available in North America and expected to launch in Europe shortly.
Gutman noted that every customer will have different KPIs they’re aiming to achieve – be it that a viewer converted to a paid subscriber, levels of engagement or how long they kept the customer.
Wurl’s new ContentDiscovery platform has also been bolstered by AppLovin’s acquisition of the company in 2022 for $430 million. Through the work with AppLovin, Gutman - who was CTO at Wurl before taking the helm in February - said they’ve seen how this performance marketing approach happened in the mobile industry a few years ago and predicts “very similarly, it will happen in CTV that marketing is actually a revenue stream, not a cost stream for companies.”
Content marketing budgets spread thin
The issue of creating too much content and not enough dollars to promote it was highlighted on Disney’s most recent quarterly earnings call.
Disney plans to integrate Hulu content into a single Disney+ app and CEO Bob Iger, speaking about reducing content spending, indicated marketing costs also had become a burden for a vast sea of programming that doesn’t always hit the mark.
The Disney chief noted marketing budgets were spread thin, going to content that isn’t particularly useful to subscriber growth on the company’s streaming services including Disney+.
“When you make a lot of content, everything needs to be marketed. You're spending a lot of money marketing things that are not going to have an impact on the bottom line, except negatively due to the marketing costs,” Iger said.
He indicated Disney would be more surgical in the type of content it chooses to greenlight, focusing on real sub drivers, while promoting content that resonates.
One thing Disney knows is that its tentpole theatrical releases are big subscriber drivers, he said, but budgets weren’t there to promote the films when they come to streaming.
“We were spreading our marketing costs so thin that we were not allocating enough money to even market them when they came on the service,” Iger said, citing films like the most recent Avatar and Guardians of the Galaxy. “Where we actually believe we have an opportunity to lean into those more put the right marketing dollars against it, allocate more … basically away from programming that was not was not driving any subs at all.”
Continuously improving campaigns
As for Wurl, the main challenge, according to Gutman, is actually finding the people that will enjoy and become what’s considered “high-value” to a specific type of content. That’s where machine learning comes into play to zero in on those viewers.
He explained how Wurl defines the KPI (key performance indicator) for every campaign, and if the campaign is successful it runs indefinitely, while continuously tracking and optimizing for when and who to reach with the right creative.
“We keep optimizing, the more you run the campaign, the machine learning has actually become more and more attuned to your KPI and we find more and more people,” he said.
Once it meets the KPI, Wurl will spend the money to target the audiences on mobile and CTV, while also honing the right creative in what is somewhat of a one-stop shop offering. Wurl uses its in-house team SparkLabs to build more than 10, sometimes 20, different creatives (free of charge to the customer) that are matched to audiences for each campaign. Then after seeing results, it tells marketing partners which creatives work best so they can build more of a similar kind.
In testing a variety of creatives, Gutman noted some people will only sign up and pay for a subscription if they’ve seen enough messages related to multiple pieces of content they want to watch, “so it’s important to have multiple creatives for the user journey” and to create one that leads to the KPI the streaming service or publisher is trying to achieve. Sometimes that means reaching viewers on mobile when they have their phone out while also watching TV – a combo he said has had good results so far.
And as the platform learns libraries and audiences, Wurl can get granular with its messaging down to title-specific creatives. Although streaming services work to provide recommendations within platforms, those can fall short because providers don’t know what viewers are watching elsewhere, according to Gutman.
“We know what everybody watches everywhere, so we can actually find out what people would like out of your catalog,” he noted. And eventually as a byproduct of that, insights from the Wurl platform can then help inform streamers how much of that type of content they should bring to their catalog to attract, retain and engage users.
Not just built for SVODs to acquire new viewers, the ContentDiscovery platform is also an engine for growing channels within apps. That’s something Gutman said has also been successful, and an easier conversion when users are already within an app, by serving one or two ads for content on the same platform that people might not be aware of. This in turn increases usage overall for the app.
“These people are watching between three-to-five more times than people that were not addressed,” he noted.
For some clients Wurl will track just conversion from a campaign to subscription, others will follow retention and engagement. But ultimately the key metric is ROAS. Gutman said “we see that most people start with 200% return on ad spend,” though some see more, and the chief executive cited a typical range between 100-150%.