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🧠 Why Netflix thumbnails are a billion dollar business

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Hi there - Jen here :)

Netflix’s entire $271B business is built on one simple marketing channel:

The humble thumbnail.

Netflix users only look at a thumbnail for 1.8 seconds.

And if they can’t find anything on Netflix in 90 seconds, they bounce to another streaming service.

Netflix knows it has to make thumbnails as engaging as possible to get you to watch.

And that’s why they’ve spent billions of dollars cracking the psychology of a great thumbnail.

Today we’ll cover:

  • How Netflix mixes personalization with psychology to create and test billions of thumbnails

  • Why emotions are so important to capturing attention and figuring out what makes buyers tick

  • Practical ways to use the power of emotion in your marketing, business, and customer experience

👉 But before we get started:

If you’re trying to figure out what makes your buyers tick, I recommend learning more about Customer Journey Mapping.

It’s an easy-to-use framework that can help you crack customers’ deepest desires, goals, and psychological pain points.

I’m holding one more free Journey Mapping Workshop on April 19th:

Today’s edition of Choice Hacking Ideas is brought to you by:

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How Netflix Creates Thumbnails

Netflix uses a process called AVA (aesthetic visual analysis) to create thumbnails straight from its content, then decide which thumbnails will work best for which customers.

That’s right, the thumbnails that you see are personalized just for you. 

via Netflix

First, in Frame Annotation, Netflix tags each frame of a show or movie based on things like:

  • Face detection: Which characters are featured, are they a star or a supporting player, and what emotion are they conveying in every frame?

  • Camera shot detection: Is this frame a close-up shot, or are the characters further away?

  • Motion estimation: How are the characters and the camera moving in this frame? The more visually exciting a moment (like a car chase scene) the more likely it could make a great thumbnail.

You can see an example of how Netflix tags each frame with this information (called metadata) in the bottom left hand corner of this frame from the movie “Bright.”

Next, Netflix ranks the images based on those attributes and how well the algorithm thinks all the elements will work together as a thumbnail.

Actors and their emotions are critical parts of a high-performing thumbnail according to Netflix

After testing billions of thumbnails, Netflix found that featuring a polarizing character (like a villain) and exaggerated, emotional facial expressions make for a winning thumbnail:

Villains often perform well because they evoke strong emotions in users.

Exaggerated, emotional facial expressions capture our attention.

This isn’t surprising given the power of emotions in marketing. Behavioral Science and Marketing Psychology tell us they’re great at:

  •  Grabbing our attention

  •  Keeping us engaged

  •  Creating memories that stick in our heads

It’s down to something called Emotional Salience

What is Emotional Salience?

This principle describes how likely an object, ad, or image is to stir our emotions. And when it does stir our emotions, we’re more likely to remember and engage with it.

So when we’re scanning a webpage and see an ad that clearly expresses emotion, it seems to jump out from its surroundings and we’re drawn to it:

How Can You Use Emotions to Engage Customers?

Here are a few ways to use emotion to make more powerful marketing (no matter the size of your business):

// Measure

To measure emotional responses to marketing and digital experiences, we have to start as close to the moment of "raw reaction" as possible. 

When Choice Hacking leads this type of research, we use cutting-edge software and AI to measure and analyze peoples' emotional reactions and micro expressions.

In bigger projects I also use things like eye-tracking glasses, GSR (galvanic skin response), and even brainwave measurements to see how people are reacting in real time.

But just because your brand is smaller, doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from analyzing emotions, too.

Here's how to get a handle on emotions if you have a smaller budget:

  • Customer interviews

  • Timed response surveys

  • Observational research

  • Diary studies

When you know how people feel when they interact with your business, you can get better at grabbing attention and engagement.

// Map

Once you understand the emotions that people associate your customer experience, start mapping those against touchpoints, messages, goals, and friction points in your experience.

A customer journey map can help you make sense of these emotions and their causes:

To learn the basics of journey mapping, I recommend reading this article: Mastering the Art of Customer Journey Mapping: A Step-by-Step Guide.

(If you want to learn how to grow your business with a Customer Journey Map, my course “How to Create Magnificent Journey Maps” version 3.0 will open for registration for only 48 hours on April 23, 2024. Click here to register for free and I’ll send you an invite when it launches.)

// 5 Emotional Buying Triggers To Drive Sales

Here’s a common marketing myth I see folks repeat over and over:

“Emotions build brands but they don't drive sales.”

I (and research) disagree.

Here's 5 emotional buying triggers you can use in your marketing to encourage sales and engagement:

  • Acceptance: Brands grow when they make their customers feel accepted for who they are. Rhianna’s brand Fenty Beauty built a billion dollar business with this insight.

  • Empowerment: When you make your customers feel like they can do anything, you can stir their emotions and make them feel good about themselves. Nike’s “Just Do It” platform and “Find Your Greatness” campaign are prime examples of this.

  • Fear (but use this one ethically!): When customers are afraid of something, they want to act to avoid it. And sometimes that act can coincide with your product or cause. Fear can be used ethically, if powerfully (as in the Apple ad below that you can watch here) or unethically. Use fear with caution as it’s a powerful emotion.

  • Relief & Protection: Offering customers relief from worries, stress, pain, and fear is a great way to make them feel emotionally engaged with your product.

  • Anticipation: Play on customers’ impatience and excitement for your product using anticipation. Heinz Ketchup are masters are this (their ketchup is famously thick and slow to come out of the bottle):

Figure out how and when/where your customers feel these emotions.

Spend time creating marketing that evokes one or all of them.

You’ll not only get the brand-building effects, but you’ll find your marketing is suddenly more effective at driving sales, too.

If you want to find even more emotions that can drive engagement and sales, check out the Wheel of Emotions (sometimes called the Feelings Wheel) below:

Read, Watch, Listen

  • Ethical Marketing: The Thin (Tempting) Line Between Persuasion and Manipulation [Read]

  • 5 surprising ways customer journey maps help create better marketing messages [Watch]

  • Check out the latest episode of the top-rated Choice Hacking podcast [Listen]  

🚀 Coming up in the Thursday Edition:

The Thursday Edition is a weekly newsletter shared with Choice Hacking Premium subscribers - upgrade to Choice Hacking Ideas Premium for $5 or less a month.

This week’s Thursday Edition will cover:

  • What Wendy’s got wrong about customer psychology when it adopted dynamic pricing

  • The secret psychology of pricing that every business needs to know

  • 3 ways you can avoid damaging your brand with poor pricing strategy

FYI - I have 1 consulting spot opening up in April and 2 1 in May.

Reply to this email to book a free exploratory call.

Until next time,

Jen Clinehens, MS/MBA
Founder & MD Choice Hacking

Want to use behavioral science, psychology, and AI to grow your business?

👉 When you’re ready, Choice Hacking can help:

  • Coaching: Looking for clarity, focus, and confidence in your work? Behavioral Science-powered 1-on-1 Coaching could be a good match for you.

  • Training: We can help your team level up their work with psychology, behavioral science, and AI training.

  • Consulting: I have 1 spot for a consulting client in April and 2 1 open in May. Respond to this email to schedule a free connection call if you’re interested in getting help with:

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