Netflix’s Content-Marketing Secret Sauce Is Wrapped Up In ‘House Of Cards’

Editor’s note: Brandon Carter is a marketing manager at Outbrain, a content discovery platform on a mission to help readers find the most interesting content online. Follow him on Twitter at @sleepchant.

It’s been nearly impossible to consume any kind of media in the last few weeks without hearing about Netflix’s new original series “House of Cards.” With a massive budget and 13 episodes that were released simultaneously to enable binge viewing, the David Fincher-directed series has everyone talking about what it means for the future of the TV industry.

What hasn’t been discussed is what this move means for content marketers. Yes, you read that correctly. Netflix’s strategy has some important lessons for the content marketing industry. As a company with plenty to lose and an all-too-recent history of spoiling its goodwill with a once fiercely loyal subscriber base, Netflix has plenty on the line. And it all begins with how successful they are at engaging their customers.

Aim High

Hulu, Amazon, Vudu and iTunes may be streaming rivals to Netflix, but television titans HBO and Showtime are the established leaders in subscription-based premium content and Netflix’s ultimate targets. In order to compete, Netflix has to develop and sustain the kind of experience worthy of “the golden age of television,” which the aforementioned networks are leading in. Judging by the overwhelmingly positive response to “House of Cards,” Netflix aced the exam.

You are competing with the biggest platforms in digital — the Facebooks and Twitters of the world.

If you produce content, either as a brand or publisher, you’re not just competing with similarly positioned players for eyeballs. You are competing with the biggest platforms in digital — the Facebooks and Twitters of the world.

Look to the companies consistently producing great content and use that as inspiration. Use your unique voice and expertise to tell great stories in appealing packages — whether you produce videos, photos, editorial, blogs or long form content. It’s tempting to cut corners and skimp on quality in the chase for eyeballs, especially if you’re new to content marketing, but sabotaging yourself early with less-than-stellar content can reduce internal buy-in and stamp out support for your content-marketing plan.

Adapt With The Audience

Netflix is acutely aware of its subscribers’ binge-viewing behavior and elected to honor it with the release of all 13 episodes of “House of Cards” at once. Engaging your audience in the manner they like to be engaged is a smart long-term strategy, even at the expense of short-term gains.

As you consider new ways of distributing your content — the oft-overlooked “marketing” side of the content marketing equation — make sure it’s native to consumer habits. There are a number of working examples to consider, from native advertising to content discovery platforms. If your target audience is reading articles on a publisher site, engage them with your own articles. If they’re looking at a Facebook feed, engage them with a sponsored post. In each instance the audience is interacting with your content in the context of their normal habits.

Engagement Matters

Netflix could easily have created a great show and then followed the linear programming model of releasing one episode each week. Surely this would have incentivized longer subscriptions (for those signing up for the one-month trial just to check out the show) and inspired week-to-week buzz.

Instead, Netflix made it extremely easy for users to watch more “House of Cards” while they were already in content-consumption mode. Making all 13 chapters available is one thing, enabling auto-play after each one is another (if you’re like me, you the next chapter started automatically while you debated whether to stop for the evening). If Netflix is only marginally interested in the short-term gains “House of Cards” could provide – namely, a lift in new subscriptions — it’s because they’re cultivating a far more valuable asset: a hyper-engaged audience.

Such an audience is less likely to relinquish their subscription after having a great experience, even if they intended to quit at the end of a one-month trial. They’re also more likely to evangelize and rave to their friends.

Marketers pay heed: audiences hyper-engaged with your content can provide ample opportunity to convert them to loyal customers and, ultimately, brand ambassadors further down the sales funnel.

Track And Optimize

In many ways, “House of Cards” may be a test to see just how engaged the Netflix audience is. As their content offering grows and more subscribers come to their platform, their insight will deepen and they may yet find an optimal solution to deliver their content.

Tracking audience engagement is crucial to figuring out what’s working and what isn’t.

It’s taken shows like “Breaking Bad” and “Friday Night Lights” years of linear programming, great reviews and word-of-mouth to reach wider audiences. It wasn’t until they were made available on streaming providers like Netflix that audiences really started flocking to them. Waiting for “House of Cards” to become another legacy show on Netflix might very well have robbed Netflix of the deeper insight they were after. Is the binge-viewing phenomenon the result of months and years of hype, or can a quality new show made to order enjoy equally great results? Netflix’s reluctance to release the numbers on how many people watch “House of Cards” indicates a willingness to wait and find out.

Tracking audience engagement is crucial to figuring out what’s working and what isn’t so you can optimize your strategy. Set benchmarks that cohere with your goals. Is your goal to increase brand awareness? Deliver a bigger audience for advertisers? Get people to use your app? To use a baseball metaphor, you don’t have to hit a home run every time if you can string together some singles.

The new model that Netflix has introduced to the market is not unlike content marketing in its infancy. The same debate over engagement, revenue and ROI should all sound familiar. The fact is, it takes time and learning to develop successful new strategies for growing digital media, but if you’re going to start, put your best foot forward. With “House of Cards,” Netflix has done just that.