The power of recommendations in movie retail and marketing

Video retail entrepreneur Stuart Skorman has a guest editorial on VideoBusiness.com talking about the power a knowledgeable sales staff can have on the movie rental business (Via HackingNetflix). He makes the case that part of Netflix’s success comes from their automated recommendation engine, an engine he used in human form by employing movie buffs. Those staffers were then able to appeal to other movie buffs, a group that made up a smaller but very powerful and loyal customer base for his several retail ventures.

When I worked at a movie theater and then later at Blockbuster I made it a point to get to know some of the regulars that came in. I wasn’t close personal friends with them but I recognized them, they recognized me and I felt comfortable making suggestions to them based on movies they had previously enjoyed. It might be vanity in part, but I like to think that part of the reason they continued to come back was because they enjoyed the personal touch that was offered and the fact that I wasn’t just shuffling them through the line. It’s that sort of impersonal feeling (or, conversely, an overly fake “nice” feeling) that too often invades all forms of retail. But the movie business, with its highly subjective material (this is art, we’re talking about after all) can especially benefit from paying attention to consumer’s habits and such.

Let’s say that a couple has decided, on a Saturday afternoon, to go see a movie. They’re not sure what, but since the local theater has 18 screens they’re sure they’ll find something. So they get to the theater and stand, looking at the board and trying to decide what to see. This is a perfect opportunity for an employee who is passionate, enthusiastic and generally loves movies to step in and help act as a sort of guide for the moviegoers. By feeling out what sorts of movies they have otherwise enjoyed, how they feel about certain actors, certain genres and a variety of other factors said knowledgeable employee can make a recommendation to them that he or she feels comfortable with.

Is this going to result in the moviegoers being satisfied with the choice every time? Of course not. This is why it’s also important to have that employee hit them on the way out. If they’re not satisfied, maybe authorize the employee to cut them a couple of passes for their next visit. But that employee must have seen the movies currently playing as well as have a broad cinematic vocabulary to draw from. They also have to have a work environment that encourages such personalization.

It’s that personalization that’s key. Think about how many clothing and other retailers have a “Personal Shopper” available. They realize that sometimes shoppers need their hand to be held or just need help in navigating the wilderness of the shopping experience. But movies are served up like a fast food hamburger. It’s a commodity, not an experience. That needs to be reversed if the movie industry hopes to revive actual theater going and hopes to revitalize a home video market that’s losing steam.

When you think about it, a large part of most movie marketing campaigns is built around the concept of “If you liked X, you’ll also like Y.” That’s the central conceit behind sequels, adaptations of existing material and remakes. But even original films use star power, director recognition and appeals to genre to make the audience feel like what they’re seeing is, at least in some respect, somewhat like something they’ve already enjoyed.

It’s personalization that powers word-of-mouth, both online and off. We trust the opinions of friends, who make recommendations based on the fact that they know us. That has been transfered to the world of blogging, where we find voices that reflect our own and take their opinions seriously. This sort of relationship is what makes social networks so attractive, since like-minded people tend to find each other there. It’s also what drives post-filter recommendations on sites like Amazon, where people can review items they have personal experience with, recommendations that get factored into others’ purchasing decisions.

The movie industry – at all levels – would do well to embrace the nerds, geeks and buffs that are the most passionate about films since it’s their enthusiasm that will spread virally (yes, I just said viral. I will now go wander into traffic) to the customers. Remember that movie buffs are not necessarily people who only enjoy French New Wave, martial arts and other non-mainstream movies. It just means that these people are powerfully moved by film in whatever form it might take. Yes, it’s going to take money to hire and retain these people since they’re not just minimum-wage jockeys looking to cruise through a gig. But the return on that investment in terms of making movie-going once again into an entertaining and enjoyable experience will be worth it.