Amazon Fire TV’s Charlotte Maines on the secret sauce for free streaming channel experience

Fire TV has been working to boost the user experience on its streaming TV platform, particularly around aggregating free linear channels featuring short-form content with the launch of Fire TV Channels earlier this year. And Fire TV’s Charlotte Maines said the latest effort is working.

Speaking to StreamTV Insider during the StreamTV Show in Denver, Maines, director of Fire TV Advertising, Monetization, Sales and Engagement, shared some learnings around Fire TV Channels, which since Amazon started expanding its free content offering last year has added new categories like travel, cooking, music video, and news, among others.

“What we’re definitely seeing is that there really is that secret sauce around being able to create” the experience with live channels, Maines commented.

Part of that is creating a free content experience that’s easy for users to navigate and engage with, even if they’re don’t know what they want to watch. She cited the electronic programming guide (EPG) experience across many CTV players, where there are hundreds of channels, be it dedicated single-IP or aggregated clips, where users can pop in and out and browse, much like the traditional days of cable’s EPGs. And while Fire TV is among those trying to bring a wide breadth of free content to viewers, one challenge is that the sheer number of channels can pose a problem for discovery.

“We also find that it’s very intimidating, especially with the number of channels” or if viewers don’t have any idea of what they want to watch, Maines said. “In theory it’s great, a buffet. But a buffet of 800 things is too big of a buffet.”

Amazon by far is not the only one leaning into free content. Other platform players are paying attention too, such as Google TV which launched a new free live TV experience in April that pulls in both native and aggregated channels (and just so happens to boast around 800 channels across providers browsable in an EPG organized by topic).

But for Fire TV, narrowing down and categorizing while surfacing content in multiple places on the interface can help with the choice fatigue. According to Maines, Amazon’s found that when they can help users find content they can easily jump into that’s organized and aggregated thematically, it “really lowers the cognitive load.” 

“We have the opportunity with Fire TV channels or with Freevee first-party content to pull out specific pieces into the UI in different ways,” she said.

This is particularly useful with placements on the home screen, where consumers are in browsing mode, or within a free tab where users know they don't have to pay for content or worry about signing up, removing friction. So if a viewer doesn’t know what they want to watch to zero in on it easily within the EPG, Fire TV pulls content into other places so it lives in whatever part of the interface a customer might go, she explained.

“We’re really seeing that that’s working,” Maines noted.

She called out the travel category specifically as an example, which was added around the time of NewFronts and joined categories like cooking, music videos and news. Within Travel, FireTV offers things like “Escapist Moments” featuring bite-sized travel moments, or “Europe on a Dime” and “Barcelona in Summer,” for example.  

With the aggregated user experience customers see a topic they’re interested in and enter from different points in the UI, and once within the channel and browsing experience can see all other travel content available.

It’s another aspect Maines emphasized is working for customers within a living room experience that’s more immersive through the 75-inch OLED Amazon-made Fire TVs. “It’s really taken off,” she said.

And narrowing it down for consumers helps drive engagement across content, as well as ad opportunities.

“What we have found is that by helping customers get a little bit more qualified in what they want to watch, basically whatever experience we put in front of them they are engaging with.”

Maines previously told StreamTV Insider in May that in the prior six months Fire TV saw monthly hours streamed of free content grow 300%.

Tostitos is one example of a brand activation within the Fire TV Channels, which purchased a placement within the home and cooking section and sponsored content. In exchange, Maines described, as they watched content, customers could scan a QR code for a $3 coupon delivered directly to their Amazon account and get the discount when they purchased Tostitos at checkout. She cited this as an illustration of both the wide variety of touch points between the broader Amazon and Fire TV specifically, as well as unique opportunities on Fire TV that deliver incremental value.

Maines previously explained how pulling users in through content categories also helps advertisers zero in on audience segments (and dedicated eyeballs) and qualify traffic – more on that here.

Working backwards

Maines heads up monetization, and in pursuing paths to profit, she also keeps the user product roadmap in mind, such as with non-programming features on new Amazon-built smart TVs like the Ambient Experience.

The Ambient Experience on Amazon Fire TV Omni QLED Series TVs uses sensors to determine when a room is dark or unoccupied and displays things like curated art collections as the smart TV background, time and weather, along with a selection of customizable widgets like calendar, sticky notes, and Live TV.  

When Amazon launched its own Fire TVs in Mexico, UK and Germany in March it also brought collections of local artists to TVs in those regions – one of the ways the platform continues to optimize features as Amazon gets more information back from testing and users. As of March, Amazon sales of Fire TVs surpassed 200 million devices globally.   

Features like Ambient are currently only available on the highest-end Amazon-built Fire TVs, but Maines maintained that every Fire TV customer is equal with a desire to bring the same features and experiences whether customers are buying an Amazon-made smart TV or Fire TV from a third-party partner or dongle stick. While not sharing comment on a specific product roadmap, Maines suggested Amazon would want to offer new features, such as Ambient, to all Fire TV customers.

Asked if Fire TV is able to directly monetize those features, Maines declined to comment on specifics but said generally “our goal is you start by creating the experience that customers love and want to use.”

By working backwards from what users want, Fire TV can then better serve advertisers.

“If the experience doesn’t work for the end customers, then you can’t monetize it, because there’s no eyeballs to monetize,” Maines said.

That said, she indicated it’s safe to assume that with newer features like ambient Fire TV is ensuring its building experiences that also have monetization in mind.  

“There are cool different things that we are thinking about that are unique to that experience” she said, noting she thinks about advertiser customers who can leverage opportunities that they can’t find outside the Fire TV through features such as the ambient experience.

And doing what works well for consumers happens to translate to working well for advertisers, Maines continued, noting it’s about finding the connective tissue to build on top and deliver a unique and special product for viewers and brands.

Separately, in June reports surfaced that Amazon Prime Video is planning to launch an ad-supported tier. While Maines didn’t confirm or comment on anything related to those purported plans, when asked if Fire TV Channels could also pull in and integrate content from an ad-supported Prime Video tier to the interface, she noted that the company has already taken learnings from video offerings to launch new ones and fill where they see a need - as was the case with Fire TV Channels, which followed Prime Video and the ad-supported Freevee FAST.

“We’ve learned a ton about what works for customers, and what kind of content might be more engaged with from the perspective of something that’s friction free and doesn’t cost incremental, you know where we’re seeing things with Prime Video.”

Amazon saw that Freevee worked in certain ways for customers, she noted, but there was a gap in short-form content: enter Fire TV channels.

“You can imagine that we are constantly learning from the data we get and how customers use our services to inform what additional services or flavors of those services we might want to offer them,” Maines said.