Magic in the margins: What algorithms and RuPaul can teach marketers

According to Nielsen, streaming to TVs soared 85% in the U.S. in the first three weeks of March.

I just finished watching Hollywood, the series on Netflix that imagines a revised history in which African Americans, Asians, women and queer folk see success and receive much-coveted accolades in Hollywood circa 1947. It’s a history that many of us who grew up on the margins wish would have been reality.

While Hollywood was a great salve during the pandemic in terms of entertainment value, it actually is much more than that. It’s a powerful example of the crucial role technology plays in helping marginalized people radically assert their viewing power to get their stories heard and produced in the future.

According to Nielsen, streaming to TVs soared 85% in the U.S. in the first three weeks of March. With so many people at home, many probably feel a sense of loss for all the community building activities that won’t happen, such as the annual Pride parade. But watching TV can be political as much as it can be social. Getting our voices and stories heard shifts attitudes and provides more openness within culture, easing the pathway for more equal treatment and rights.

Historically, the production of content was dictated by a powerful elite who curated what others saw across a limited set of TV or other distribution channels. By contrast, streaming platforms, like Netflix, are built upon two-sided networks. On one side of the network, there are consumers looking for content they will like. On the other side are suppliers of that content. In the center, the data of consumers and what they watch is captured and crunched by complex algorithms. These algorithms try not only to pair the right content and marketing of that content to the right viewers, but also provide insights to Netflix about the types of content it should produce.

This is where the magic happens for people on the margins.

When we watch more and more stories about topics on the margins, Netflix is motivated to find more and more producers of that type of content. It completely shifts the balance of power away from an elite few into the hands of writers, producers and directors who, until now, didn’t have a seat at the table. American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, Dear White People, Grace and Frankie, American Horror Story, Orange is the New Black, Pose and, of course, RuPaul’s Drag Race tell the stories of marginalized communities that would never have seen the light of day, if not for the data we, as viewers, leave when we stream.

Taking a page from Netflix’s algorithms and content producers like RuPaul, there is plenty of magic in the margins for marketers. First, brands should get their data infrastructure in order to capture and organize the declared, behavioral and predictive data on their prospective and current customers. Second, brands should experiment, pushing into potentially unfamiliar channels like TikTok and VR, content types like episodic series or podcasts, and messages that could appeal to untapped audiences. Third, brands should personalize and optimize content using segmentation, multivariate testing and programmatic media. And finally, brands should bring in partners like journalists, influencers and unexpected voices to bring fresh perspectives.

The story in Hollywood is about how an African-American movie star, a gay studio executive and a female studio head produced an incredibly successful film that saved a studio and reshaped an industry by taking a chance that viewers would embrace the magic they saw in the margins.

The story of Hollywood is about how viewer data and algorithms have replaced guesswork with science, making it easier than ever for marketers to identify the magic in the margins and provide the content their audiences most want to see. It’s high time marketers listen.

Sean MacDonald is the global chief digital officer of McCann Worldgroup.

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