A few words about the success of Netflix: Vivid. Lively. Keywords.

“Grey’s Anatomy” is “soapy” and “moving.” “Emily in Paris” is “campy” and “quirky.” “Our Planet II” is “relaxing” and “captivating”, while “Gravity” is “suspenseful” and “visually arresting”.

Words like these – displayed alongside the synopsis and movie poster-style thumbnail for each of the thousands of titles on Netflix – seem to have come out of a handbag.

In fact, they’re a vital tool for getting viewers to click play and a key to Netflix’s dominance.

The two- or three-word tags, intended to convey the gestalt of a show or movie, regularly help viewers choose a show from the service’s nearly infinite library, the company says. The words are selected by around thirty employees, called “taggers”.

“Imagine magazines that don’t have a cover and just have photographs,” said Allan Donald, chief product officer at Netflix. “Tags make as much difference as a cover line in that instant ‘this is for me’ decision.”

As Netflix extends its Secretariat-like lead in the so-called streaming wars, the descriptive tags, while sometimes mundane, stand out as an example of how the company is staying abreast. advance. Most competing streaming services either don’t bother to display the tags or don’t have the same financial resources to help a group of employees do all the work behind them.

Netflix made about $4.5 billion in profit over the past four quarters, while most of its competitors continued to lose money in streaming. It has 247 million subscribers worldwide, more than double many other streaming services. According to Nielsen, it accounted for 7.4% of total U.S. TV usage in November, far outpacing Amazon Prime Video (3.4%), Hulu (2.7%), and Disney+ (1.9%). %).

One of the reasons Netflix’s engagement is so high is because it deploys many tools to entice a viewer to watch. And that’s no small feat. There are over 10,000 titles on Netflix and thousands more on other streaming services. Choosing a show or movie is often tedious and frustrating.

From years of testing, Netflix executives know that the tools — what they call “promotional assets” — essentially take less than a minute to run. “On average, if you can’t convince someone to play within 53 seconds, the likelihood drops precipitously” that the person will watch anything, said Eunice Kim, Netflix’s chief product officer.

Assets include movie poster style thumbnails, as well as trailers and synopses. Tags are another, providing a mini-preview to the viewer. Netflix also uses them to populate the service’s themed rows of titles, like “Goofy TV Shows” and “Girls Night In.” Like image thumbnails, the three tags displayed to a subscriber – from the handful assigned to each show – are based on the person’s viewing history.

Every time the company removes tags altogether as an experiment, engagement plummets, executives said.

“It would take a lot longer for people to choose,” Mr. Donald said. “They would give up on a title because they didn’t really like it or because they didn’t know what they would get.”

Julia Alexander, director of strategy at research firm Parrot Analytics, said the beacons probably work on a subtle level. As potential viewers, “when we see the term ‘gritty’ or ‘cerebral,’ we inherently understand what that means,” she said.

All of Netflix’s efforts to help subscribers find content haven’t worked. In 2021, the company introduced a “Surprise me” button, similar to the “I’m lucky” search button on Google. By clicking on it, viewers were presented with something that Netflix’s algorithm was pretty sure they would like.

Even though executives felt “incredibly confident” in the accuracy of the algorithm, viewers rejected it. Apparently they wanted more choice and the button was discontinued early last year.

The company now offers a “Match” button, which indicates, down to a percentage, how suitable a show would be for its subscribers. This tool is apparently a bit confusing for most members, and it’s probably on its way out.

But the tags have persisted since the days of Netflix DVDs. Ms. Kim said diplomatically that her competitors often chose a more “minimalist” and artwork-focused approach.

“We’ve been around longer, so we’ve probably done more experimentation to find out what works for our members,” she said.

There are over 3,000 tags, and their selection and creation is hotly debated. The most used tags are “romantic”, “exciting” and “suspenseful”. Least used? “Profession: agricultural worker. »

At a recent meeting with 14 of the taggers – some with library or information science backgrounds – there was a discussion about whether they should try to eliminate a few tags that seemed to have definitions that fit. were riding.

“Let’s start with something that came out of the analysts who do all of our tagging,” said a senior tagger, Sherrie Gulmahamad, during the meeting held on the 10th floor of one of Netflix’s offices on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. “We have ‘falling in love’ and ‘finding love’, and we also have ‘looking for love’. Do we think we need to group them into one tag? Or do we think they are nuanced and there is a difference between them?

This started a debate, including how the change would affect scripted series, reality shows and international markets. After a 10 minute conversation it was decided that the three beacons were distinct enough and should be left alone.

Likewise, there have been discussions about whether tags such as “comfortable” and “mean crush” should be introduced. Some taggers thought “comfortable” was too subjective and worried that describing a villain as worthy of being crushed was a bit too editorial. A final decision was deferred until a future meeting.

Mr Donald said that when he interviews potential taggers he gives them the “cocktail test”. How would they describe a film to someone they just met at a cocktail party? I offered a suggestion: “Oh my gosh, I saw this movie, you should definitely watch this, this kind of clever cyberpunk thriller that you’ll love.”

In Mr. Donald’s view, that brief description – a nifty cyberpunk thriller – could provide a watershed moment for a viewer at home.

“If you’re hesitant with a title and you say, ‘OK, the box art looks catchy, and it’s popular, so everyone is looking at it – but is it for me?'” he declared. “And then you’re like, ‘OK, it’s suspenseful – yes, it’s for me.’ That’s what made you click.