Curiosity, Discovery and Confusion: Consumers Navigate Streaming Services Under Covid-19

streaming services

We can all agree that 2020 couldn’t be over soon enough, but one area that has delivered some much-needed comfort during this punishing year has been the abundance of new subscription-based streaming platforms during the COVID-19 crisis. With a bunch of newly launched services like HBO Max, Quibi, Peacock, and Disney+, major media and tech companies have seen an opportunity to sooth the masses by providing access to more content right when we need it the most.

Maru/Matchbox’s market research technology and media teams have been tracking streaming service trends over several years, but as the market has matured and consumer demand has increased during the pandemic, we decided to take a fresh look at where the streaming market is heading and how consumer behaviors may be shifted over the long-term.

To do this, we surveyed our tech savvy 1,500 member Tech Advisory Council to ask them about their streaming media behaviors and their go-to digital services during the Summer of COVID.

Three primary steaming trends have stood out as COVID has had viewers locked down:

  • COVID & Content Curiosity: We have seen massive shifts in consumer online streaming behavior during the crisis, with more people trying out new services as they have been forced to stay home.
  • Where’s My Media?: With so many new streaming video services, viewers are suffering from too many options, not enough data transparency, and too few good tools to address the basics of finding the content they want.
  • The Great Rebundling: More consumers are looking at aggregated and simplified options with-in a sea of emerging choices.

COVID & Streaming Content Curiosity

Stuck at home with little to do, many consumers have turned to streaming online video services for some quality time. When asked about their media behaviors during the past couple of months, about three-quarters of the respondents on our Tech Advisory Council have said that COVID has made some or a significant change to their media consumption habits in the past few months. Over one-third of respondents have found themselves exploring new media territory saying that they are seeking out new genres they had not previously explored.

Yet not all streaming services have benefitted from an increase in content curiosity. Quibi, which launched about a month into the pandemic (and recently announced that it is shutting down), had a focus on mobile episodic experiences with 7-10 minute “quick bites”. The service struggled to move beyond just a few million users despite top talent. The company’s focus on the in between times while being “out and about” simply did not fit the lockdown reality of COVID-19 where viewers commit much more time to the deep content libraries of many streaming services.

Disney+ on the other hand, which launched just before the pandemic, has done very well with a mix of reliable classic content and new stories like the Mandalorian which regularly showed up in our research as a driver of interest to sign up for the service in the first place.

As Audra Priluck pointed out last year, viewers are exploring their options in a big way with advertising-based video on demand (AVOD). Ads or not, the number of options and the breadth of content for a service that they can just select without having to signup, is a huge plus. One member of our Tech Advisory Council has tried a lot of streaming services but found AVOD service Tubi to be a solid choice:

“ We’ve tried them all and have found good things on all. But actually, right now I’ve been enjoying the free Tubi channel! Sure, there’s ads, but about as many as the pay-Hulu has! And it has a lot of old shows and British shows that I prefer.”

Where’s My Media?

In the golden age of TV and with more time on our hands than any of us planned for, media discoverability has become a huge issue for viewers exploring two, three, four and sometimes many more new streaming services at once. While many new subscribers may associate one or two shows with a streaming service, most have no clue which service owns which content.

Universal search tools have been a perpetual issue and that has gotten far more complex with the new streaming service introductions this year. According to Deloitte, about half of consumers find it hard to know what is on which service and 75% of consumers want to be able to search for all content in just one place. Startups like Reelgood and JustWatch have emerged to address this frustrating need for consumers.

When it comes to theatrical and new releases, consumers are faced with fear and confusion given COVID-19 restrictions on theaters. Cineworld and Regal Cinemas recently suspended operations in the UK and US closing over 600 theatres in both countries as films like the latest James Bond film “No Time to Die” have been delayed well into 2021. At the same time, streaming services like Disney+ are experimenting with new business models and distribution windows to fill the gap. By offering “Mulan” as a $29 premiere release on their service this Summer and Pixar’s “Soul” on Christmas day, Disney+ is exploring how new consumer expectations for content delivery might play out not just during COVID, but possibly beyond the pandemic.

When we asked whether our Tech Advisory Council panel members would purchase a movie premiering on a streaming service for $29, only 20% of respondents were very or somewhat likely to consider that fee. And when it comes to their likelihood to return to theaters at all, one-third of people don’t even know if theaters are open in their area, while about half of respondents are not likely or not very likely to go even if COVID precautions are in place.

Welcome to the Great Rebundling

If there is one thing that we know at Maru/Matchbox it’s that what consumers say and what they actually do are often not the same thing. Our study of consumers using System 1 quantitative and qualitative methodologies focuses on solving this by uncovering implicit consumer emotional responses and drivers. In the media space, these emotional motivators have been playing havoc on traditional media business models as consumers ask for more a la carte options forcing cable providers to unbundle content in response. With new streaming services, those desires have largely been answered as many more options have emerged in 2020.

But despite all the noise for a la carte flexibility, the new companies that disrupted those original cable bundles are now aggregating more and more content options to “simplify” media fragmentation because too many streaming services have made that a problem.

In conversations with our Tech Advisory Council many members have expressed their overall happiness to pay less for streaming services than they may have for the same content on cable, but many noted that it was frustrating to have to cobble together so many services just to find what you want to watch:

“I subscribe to 4 or 5 streaming services and still pay less monthly than I did for Dish. That said, it’s frustrating to need a handful of individual services to access all that you want to watch. It would be nice to have bundles available.”

Still, it isn’t just about simplification, as in other areas of their lives, viewers are rethinking everything as COVID rages on. While we see a return to re-bundling, we are also seeing viewers starting to play with and rethink their streaming lineups by simply canceling and swapping streaming services as more options have emerged this year. One member of Maru/Matchbox’s Media & Entertainment team coined this behavior as “streaming cannibalism”. Streaming customers realize they have the freedom to cancel services to explore new free trials or other content and so they sacrifice one for another. While it may be a small number of users, there is no question that viewers are testing the waters across a variety of media behaviors in 2020.

What’s Next for Streaming Media?

With so much change this year and many deeply emotional drivers at play, viewers are clearly looking for top media brands to offer flexibility, innovation, and understanding as the fundamental need to escape during a crisis persists. Great stories have always helped when society frays at the edges, but media companies have a bigger opportunity to influence consumer behavior beyond just offering access. They can forge loyal relationships with customers with the right mix of content and control in a media landscape that will never be the same.

This article was co-authored by Maru/Matchbox’s Andrew Hawn, Managing Director, Technology and Audra Priluck, VP Business Development, Media and Entertainment.

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