The power to connect with audiences isn’t just a concept – it’s a roadmap. And for Mike Berkley, SVP of Product Management at Viacom, it all begins with a handbook and a mission to drive and sustain the company’s fan focus by developing enhanced mobile and streaming capabilities across brands.
From a product standpoint, it means maximizing value for viewers across all delivery platforms, and from a business perspective, it means sustained audience growth should take priority over short-term business opportunities. This user-centric strategy means Viacom isn’t just invested in turning fans into “super fans” – it’s also about building toward the future of fandom by looking at audience behavior and how it’s growing and changing with each new generation of television viewers.
V by Viacom: What does this fan philosophy mean to you and how do you incorporate that into your work?
Mike Berkley: A lot of it is changing the culture, specifically within product development and engineering and how we think about the role of our products. Taking a “fan first” approach means we need to reframe the way we think about success.
When you are able to create enough value at the user level, you can drive sustained growth. For us, that means making it as easy as possible for our fans across the world to discover and consume our content in a way that best fits their mobile lifestyle. Whether we use an advertising model or a subscription model, the value of growing a user base is exponentially larger for the business over time than if we focus exclusively on the immediate business problem.
V: Are there different levels of fandom? If so, how do you approach that when you’re building a product?
MB: We have a passionate group of “super fans” that absolutely love our content across all of our properties, whether it’s Comedy Central, BET, MTV, Nickelodeon or TVLand. It’s a core base that is very loyal and lives and breathes our brands. Then we have a larger base of what we call “casual fans.” These are people who love our shows and our content, but they’re not as heavily invested. This segment of users is more difficult to engage over a long period of time, and that’s probably true for all media companies.
By looking at the data, we’re determining what kind of content we can introduce to casual users that has a higher probability of converting them into the super fans. For instance, if we can successfully introduce a “casual fan” to two new shows, we have a much, much higher probability of them entering into that “super fan” segment.
V: Customization has become a big part of the fan experience – how do you think globally while still staying nimble?
MB: We launched Play Plex (a suite of mobile TV apps that offer access to programming from Viacom’s international channels) about a year ago internationally and it’s done extremely well. It’s allowed us to roll out mobile TV apps to dozens of countries with several different brands very quickly.
In the past, Viacom built individual apps and websites for each of the brands in each of the territories. It was very fragmented and not very scalable. When I joined two years ago, one of Viacom International’s initiatives was to fold all of that into a single platform that would allow them to design apps for individual brands and localize them for specific countries, without actually having to rewrite any code.
Domestically our brands already have great reach, so our product teams are focused on designing apps that increase the engagement of that fan base, and make it easier for them to dig deeper into each brand. Again, converting “casual fans” into “super fans.” That can happen in our own apps and sites, but it’s also happening on 3rd party platforms like YouTube, SnapChat, and Facebook. Our products are being designed with awareness for this larger ecosystem in which our audience lives.
V: Speaking of Play Plex, what’s the feedback been like?
MB: The feedback has been great. For users, it’s a very simple product that gets them directly into the video of their favorite shows as quickly as possible. For the business, we’ve been successful in our ability to scale our mobile video products globally. Now we can launch a new brand in a new country in under six weeks, whereas before it used to take months.
V: How much of a role does data play in your current product development?
MB: Data is obviously super important to the company and it will become increasingly so as we move forward. Data will soon be responsible for many of the decisions around which product features we build, as well as what content we present to which viewers, on which devices, and at what times of the day. Artificial intelligence is no longer science fiction; it is very real and very usable for us today. And it’s all powered by data.
Furthermore, we are striving to create a single point of access for ALL of our data across the enterprise, whether it’s viewer data for advanced advertising targeting, or product data for determining which features are driving the most engagement. We’re working to break down data silos and make it easy for anyone to do analysis across any set of data.
V: Is that how you’re able to decipher whether something is a fad or if it has long-lasting appeal for users?
MB: Exactly. It’s why using data and analysis is so important – we want to figure out what works before anyone else does. There are a lot of shiny objects out there, new technologies, new devices, and new apps… and it’s almost impossible to know what’s going to work or be useful without immersing ourselves in it.
To help Viacom stay current, we encourage, and in some cases require, product managers and engineers to spend time experimenting on things outside of their day-to-day work. Everyone has different passions and areas of interest when it comes to technology, and we absolutely want people to pursue those.
V: So, what are your passions and how do they play out in the office?
MB: I’m a creative at heart. I was a music major in college and composed for a couple of years after. But I realized that there were people who were much more talented than me, and I could add value in other ways. So fast-forward to today, what gets me out of bed every morning is the opportunity to make the world a better place through well-designed products. Product design and development has so many parallels to music composition. And staying true to my inner creative, I’ve chosen to apply product development to the world of entertainment. More specifically, for the last decade or so I’ve been working hard to solve the TV user experience “problem”: making great storytelling more accessible, easier to discover, and easier to enjoy, for as many people as possible.
V: The fans of the future – how does that factor into product design?
MB: For our target audiences of kids, teenagers and young adults, there’s very little difference between content and technology. Minecraft and Snapchat are two examples of that. And, they’re growing up immersed in interactive entertainment experiences. So, the Nickelodeon product teams are focusing beyond traditional video consumption and thinking differently about the type of products that we create. And beyond that, we are thinking more about the role of artificial intelligence, machine learning, virtual and augmented reality and what Viacom’s role is in evolving those technologies.
Ultimately, I think it will be about moving beyond the 22-minute episode or the five-minute short-form video. The future of storytelling will likely look very different than what we have today, and Viacom needs to lead the way into that future.