This Is the Way

Lessons from Disney+ on virtual engagement.

February 18, 2021

One of the largest challenges facing streaming providers is the concept of subscriber churn. Because services like Netflix, Disney+, HBO Max, et al. allow subscribers to cancel any time, they run the risk of subscribers simply shutting down the service when they’ve finished bingeing their favorite sitcom or sci-fi series.

To combat churn, content platforms like these are under pressure to consistently release new and stimulating content to keep their subscribers engaged. The easiest example is one of the newest entrants, Disney+.

Episodic Releases vs. Nostalgia Libraries

One of the tremendous assets of Disney+ is its immense library of on-demand content out of the box. Owning the rights to the Star Wars franchise and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, on top of Disney’s vast library of its own animated classics, helps the platform leverage nostalgia immediately. However, Disney understands that nostalgia alone cannot sustain subscriber growth, which is why it releases new content in an episodic format -- unlike Netflix.

Netflix releases all the available episodes in a series at once: it’s perfect for getting hooked and binge-watching Bridgerton or Firefly Lane. Disney, in contrast, releases episodes of a series one by one, over several weeks. Their goal is to anticipate a subscriber’s desire for new content -- and keep them looking for it week after week.

Colleges and universities have an opportunity to borrow from this playbook. The reality is that no matter the audience you’re trying to reach and engage -- traditional undergrads, adult learners, returning students or anyone in between -- the competition your institution faces is not just other colleges or universities. We’re not combating Zoom fatigue with target audiences so much as we are combating attention division. They have so many options for their on-screen attention: it’s essential for institutions to find a way to stand out.

Event vs. Series

Courtney Minden of Babson College recently wrote, “Engagement Is a Process, Not an Event.” Higher ed’s experience during the pandemic was proof that virtual events and online engagement worked. And to keep online engagement vital, we can’t return to older models of engagement.

That’s why it’s worthwhile exploring Disney+’s model. They’re focusing on keeping their audiences engaged and subscribed for the long term. In the context of streaming platforms like Disney+, this is the difference between releasing an entire season of The Mandalorian and having your audience cancel their subscription until the next season versus releasing one episode at a time and then less than a month later releasing the behind-the-scenes special ahead of the rollout of fresh Marvel content. This careful content planning ensures minimal audience churn, as there is never a “good time” to cancel.

Institutions should follow a similar approach with virtual content as we head into a post-pandemic world. As we return to in-person programs, hopefully by this fall, institutions will struggle with how to incorporate in-person live programming with online live programming as well as on demand.

The winning approach will be developing and hosting a series of on-demand content available any time while creating consistent reasons to engage. Why host a live general information session daily when that can be made available on demand 24-7-365 for students to view at their convenience? Save being “webcam ready” for impactful and interactive events.

Streaming services publish weekly “what to watch” digests via email with quick links to fresh releases or popular on-demand content. Colleges and universities can and should do the same.

Own Your Experience

The final key to success for streaming platforms is owning the experience. Streaming platforms have enabled consumers to choose which content to subscribe to while empowering the providers with the opportunity to own the data on engagement. Disney doesn’t rely on YouTube to host and share its videos because it not only loses the revenue of subscribers but also the data on engagement and the ability to personalize content in real time.

While hosting a series of videos solely on social media may be tempting, generally, the cons outweigh the pros. Institutions are better served to host their own content in ways that are easily accessible, in fully branded environments with activity tracking, and then examine that data to measure outcomes and iterate programs. As we head to the ever-important spring and of course think ahead to the fall and (hopefully) a post-pandemic world, virtual engagement will no longer be a series of events … it will be a consistent combination of live, on-demand and prerecorded content to generate meaningful and impactful experiences.

A leader in enrollment marketing strategy, Gil Rogers has published numerous studies on digital student engagement and presented at dozens of national conferences on enrollment strategy. He currently serves as executive vice president at PlatformQ Education.


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