The news that Netflix was losing subscribers for the first time in a decade was a wake-up call for the streaming giant — and it should be for the rest of the entertainment industry too.
Not only did it show that people couldn’t afford to subscribe to multiple streaming services, but it also showed that a year after most of the world got out of pandemic lockdowns, people are turning off the TV and looking instead. to experiences that feel real and tangible.
Netflix has hinted that it understands this shift by creating Stranger Things: The Experience. A place where fans can enjoy an immersive event taking in familiar parts of the show, including the government’s construction of the Hawkins Lab and the alternate dimension Upside Down, before heading to the Mix Tape, an ’80s-inspired refreshment and entertainment venue.
The streaming platform has also partnered with interactive games company Immersive Gamebox to develop a lifelike — but less lethal — experience of its 2021 hit Squid Game. Giving fans the chance to try some games from the South Korean show in person, albeit with less serious consequences for those who lose.
Preventing the subscriber exodus is a smart move, and more entertainment brands should take advantage of it. Netflix has realized that real-life experiences forge a much stronger bond with fans. The experience of passively watching something immersive and sensory can be very powerful – if done right.
Netflix CEO Will Dean says reimagining Netflix’s most popular show in a different format will give fans more ways to stay connected with Squid Game.
Not only streaming platforms can benefit from this. A movie, book, play, even the world of a beloved toy can be brought to life. If people really love something, this is an opportunity to make them feel like they are a part of it.
The time is particularly ripe for entertainment brands to capitalize on this. After two years of on-off lock-downs, people desperately want to experience life outside their four walls again: to feel a connection, to be part of a community.
Disney, Marvel, the BBC or any other entertainment content producer have the ability to interact with fans off-screen. Give people a reason to get out there and interact with your brand, instead of being something to attract when they have nothing better to do.
How do you do this successfully?
At the heart of creating immersive experiences is love and fandom. It won’t work with something that people just “like”.
You also need the right kind of stuff to bring to life, something with a rich universe to pull off. Many fans who attended the Friends experience felt cheated. But it’s an incredibly small universe — centered around Central Perk and a few apartments — so all that had to come to life was the iconic couch: one photo and fans were done.
Stranger Things, on the other hand, is ripe for it: Not only is it an interesting story with well-developed characters, but it’s also visually spectacular – and outspoken. It’s a different world that people would like to experience. Likewise, the Game of Thrones and Harry Potter studio tours have abundant worlds and backgrounds that people want to experience.
Immerse visitors in an authentic way
For the Harry Potter and Game of Throne tours to work, they had to take advantage of what people like about the stories. Before starting to create a new experience, it’s critical for designers to understand what makes this particular universe special. There must be an understanding of the meaning of all the different elements and how important they are. Crucially, what makes sense to superfans?
That information is always there. Not only in the source material, but also in articles, blogs or fan sites that can tell you what makes a movie, show or book special. Deviating from this can be dangerous. Take Disney’s immersive Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser Hotel. In principle it makes sense, but in practice it is not so attractive. It takes place outside the story that people know and that fans struggle with. It’s not the place to say “wow, I’m finally here”. And then there’s the $6000 (£5100) per night price tag.
It is also why all real life experiences must be authentic. Fans know right away if it was carelessly thrown together. It’s like going to a gig and the band playing.
Doing things right is a lengthy process and takes a lot of effort: it’s not something that can be done in half. Every element has to be considered: the colours, the feeling of the space, the sound, the light. It even comes down to what you sell; people would love to own Dustin’s “thinking cap” from Stranger Things, but if you slap a minor character’s face on a water bottle, it screams “all we want is your money”. The Making of Harry Potter’s retail and cafe spaces enhance everything fans really love about the franchise. They are a seamless extension of the entire studio tour experience, not a bolt-on.
That’s the most important lesson: never break the spell. From the moment they queue up to the moment they leave, fans should feel like they’ve been catapulted into the world they see on their screens and far away from their couch at home. If it’s an experience they’ll never forget, Netflix — or any other entertainment brand that wants to fully engage their audiences — will have caught their attention for the long haul.