Technology

The Slow and Nearly Painless Way to Kill a Feature

By / Jul 10, 2018 You couldn't read Netflix reviews on an Apple TV, pictured. Soon, you won't be able to read them anywhere. (Onfokus/iStock Unreleased/Getty Images)

Netflix’s decision to drop user reviews has largely been met with indifference by users. That’s probably not an accident, and it’s an approach your association should steal. Here’s how they did it.

Let’s talk about how a shifting business model can change priorities.

Two decades ago, Netflix rented DVDs by mail and let users review those discs, which took a couple of days to arrive. The feature made sense because there was a time delay, and Netflix simply delivered the content, rather than producing it in-house.

But that doesn’t describe Netflix today. Its business is driven by streaming, meaning that gratification is instant, and it invests more money in new content than half of Hollywood. While not all of its original programming is successful, much of it drives the cultural conversation.

As a result, user-generated reviews no longer work for the company.

Last week, blaming “declining usage over time,” Netflix revealed it will remove the feature from its website in stages. At the end of the month, users won’t be able to add new reviews; in the middle of August, reviews will be dropped from the site entirely.

“We have notified members who have used the feature recently,” company spokesperson Smita Saran said, according to CNET.

Death by a Thousand Cuts

Although Netflix might not admit this, it’s likely that the company has been plotting this move for years. And it’s kinda brilliant.

Here’s why I say this. Netflix is available pretty much anywhere with a screen. If it wanted reviews in all of those places, it would have found a way to shove them in. YouTube, Yelp, and Foursquare have no problem making user-generated content work on mobile devices.

But Netflix relegated user reviews, both for writing and reading, to its website. And as the platform became more focused on numerous other mediums, the reviews lost prominence as part of the Netflix brand. The only time user reviews came up in the media was when online trolls tried to influence public perception of a show, as was the case last year when an Amy Schumer comedy special faced such an attack. The resulting stories about user ratings hurt the show, of course, and bolstered the corporate case against the reviews.

The result? You might be wondering why you haven’t heard about Netflix’s online reviews until recently. Which appears to have been the company’s goal in the first place.

It’s easier to kill something you no longer want to support when many people don’t even know it exists.

How Netflix Learned its lesson

Netflix learned this strategy the hard way.

In 2011, the company decided to break off its DVD rental service from the fast-growing streaming service. It suddenly raised prices and split off the rental business into another company called Qwikster. The move proved controversial, and within weeks Netflix walked it back, complete with a quickly recorded mea culpa from CEO Reed Hastings. The company lost 800,000 subscribers in a single quarter due to that debacle.

It’s easy to understand why Netflix probably doesn’t ever want to relive that controversy, which did a number on its reputation for a while.

Netflix later succeeded in splitting its DVD and streaming businesses, without controversy, by taking a more subtle approach. It renamed the business DVD.com in 2016, gave it similar branding, and allowed customers to use the same account for streaming and DVD rentals.

Netflix’s approach to dropping user reviews is taking a similar path. With headlines like “Netflix User Reviews Weren’t Useful Anyway” emblazoned on sites like Engadget in response to the news, the company’s strategy to slowly starve the old feature clearly did its job.

Steal This Idea

The best part about this tactic is that associations can replicate it without a lot of problems. If there’s a feature of your website that is more trouble than it’s worth and is perhaps even a brand liability, the best way to transition it out is to follow the same three-step process Netflix did:

1. Isolate the problem. By restricting user reviews to its website, Netflix limited their impact on the overall brand. Burying or fencing off a feature you want to ditch is a subtle prelude to killing it entirely.

2. Offer a simpler alternative. Netflix was long known for its five-star rating system, but last year, the company replaced it with a less-detailed thumb system. Whether or not you like the change—plenty of critics didn’t, of course—it made it easier for Netflix to get out of the riskier business of reviews. The thumbs are less useful for a reason: They keep the algorithm around while avoiding the damage that can be done by a bad review. That’s a feature, not a bug.

3. When you go in for the kill, do it quietly. Netflix didn’t announce this change during a holiday week because it was trying to draw attention to it. Rather, it was trying to bury the news. It succeeded because it took its time to limit the impact of the change.

Not every aspect of a business model will make sense forever. Sometimes, things have to go away for the greater good. If you have to kill a feature on your website, I’d argue that what Netflix just did is the humane way to do it. Limit the anguish.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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