Netflix’s Black Mirror — Bandersnatch — Is a Lesson in Personalization

Anna Ralph
January 3, 2019

The holiday season has come and gone, and while everyone was busy gathering around the dinner table and unwrapping gifts, Netflix and the makers of the critically-acclaimed series Black Mirror had another gift in mind. Known for its mind-bending plots and cultural, technological, and social commentary, Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker closed out 2018 with a bang with the release of Bandersnatch, a 90-minute, choose-your-own-adventure interactive streaming experience.

Unlike traditional TV series’ and previous episodes of Black Mirror, Bandersnatch invites viewers to guide the main character, Stefan, through the episode by making a series of decisions, each having different ramifications on his life, experiences, and mental state. Whether it’s choosing between Frosted Flake or Cheerios, or whether or not to jump off a balcony, every decision affects Stefan’s story, resulting in a series of different endings. Bandersnatch was met with critical acclaim (and some remorse for how viewers treated poor Stefan), as it took a traditional form of entertainment and turned it on its head by allowing viewers to create and personalize their viewing experience.

While this is a first for video streaming and entertainment, personalizing an experience for the masses is simply mirroring (pun intended?) the expectations of an entire digital-first generation of consumers. Whether it’s food, entertainment, clothing, or news, people want more control over what they consume. They like the idea of unique experiences and being able to control them on one level or another. And that’s exactly what Conversational AI and chatbots enable.

So, if Netflix can do it, why not you?

Whether you’re in retail, CPG, or ecommerce, it’s time to consider personalizing your own customers’ experience with the help of a chatbot.

From Bandersnatch’s use of non-linear narratives to personalizing each user’s viewing experience to Netflix now having a wealth of new consumer data, Black Mirror’s latest creation can teach brands a lesson or two about designing engaging customer experiences that drive results.

No loose ends.

Every time the viewer made a decision, they went further into the plot, but regardless of which decision the viewer chose, Bandersnatch did a great job of tying up all possible endings. Whether it pushed the user forward through the storyline or gave the option of going back to a previous step, every choice led the viewer somewhere logical. And the same should go for chatbots.

When thinking about conversational UX, and mapping out your decision tree, you need to ensure that you have covered every path the user can possibly take. This means that you have to always be offering something, whether it’s a step forward, a way out, or in the case of customer service, the ever-important opportunity to talk to an actual human being.

A good narrative trumps gimmicks.

As Brian Bagdasarian, Head of Conversational Growth Strategy at HubSpot says, “Craft the narrative first, build the bot second.” And we couldn’t agree more. Bandersnatch had to strike a fine balance here, and the reviews are mixed. Some thought that the entire experience was too gimmicky, relying too much on the novelty of controlling a movie instead of the actual narrative itself. With Conversational AI, there is little wiggle room. Your chatbot experience is only as good as your narrative.

Where Bandersnatch really succeeded was leading viewers down a distinct path (or a variety of paths). As far as chatbots, it’s important to guide the user as much as possible to avoid frustration, help them along their journey, and avoid errors on the part of the AI. It helps to be honest up front with users and set the expectations that they will be interacting with a machine, but to still have an AI that’s robust enough to respond to the unpredictability of humans and a variety of possible inquiries and questions.

It’s all about the data.

We mentioned earlier that customers don’t mind a mutually beneficial trade-off when it comes to personal data. The information Netflix and producers gathered and will continue to gather from the viewing habits and decisions made by viewers is both insightful and invaluable. How many people chose A vs. B? Which performed better? Who kept watching and who stopped watching and when?

Netflix customers get to be involved in their entertainment, and in return both the streaming service and Black Mirror creators, writers and producers can see what performed well and what didn’t, subsequently guiding future storylines against hard evidence and proven viewer preferences.

Similarly, conversational AI puts this gold standard of data at brands’ fingertips.

By personally engaging in a long-term customer relationship through instant messaging, brands can not only deliver better service but can acquire a tremendous glimpse into the habits, preferences and inclinations of its customers.

From this, they can then better focus their marketing efforts, personalize their offerings, and collect more insightful data and the cycle of the mutual benefits of Conversational AI continues. At scale, these 1:1 conversations become a living, breathing marketing lab — a kind of focus group on steroids — that delivers valuable insights that can help shape your entire digital strategy.

Trust your customers.

By incorporating instant messaging as part of your communication strategy, you are ultimately opening yourself up to each and every one of your customers. And of course, with transparency comes vulnerability. While you’re ultimately giving up some of the control you’re used to as a brand, you can still lead users down a more or less pre-scripted path towards a desired action, while still letting users decide things for themselves.

“A great conversational UX creates the illusion of free choice, while in reality it is scripted in a way that controls the flow of the narrative and its related experience, to move the human user forward.”

Our CMO and co-founder Etienne Mérineau puts it best: “It’s about striking that perfect to create an experience that’s both scripted and spontaneous. The best conversational designs are those that make the user feel like they’re in complete control with the brand only gently guiding them along the way.”

The future is personalized.

Netflix is a great example of a brand understanding the demand for more unique, personalized experiences. By tailoring its viewing experience and putting the power and trust in the hands of their viewers, they perfectly illustrate how you can control your brand even if you let your customers control how, where and when they experience it.

Because it’s time we come to terms with the fact that the role of the brand has changed. Gone are the days of brands as product pushers. Screaming your message directly to your customers (all at the same time, no less) is not the way to go, because mass communication is taking a backseat to mass personalization. The future of commerce is all about “curated personalization”, where brands ought to act as on-demand butlers who provide select options based on their customers’ known preferences. And rest assured you’ll get no customer complaints about it.

Customers are more educated than ever, and chances are they already know what they want, so brands must embrace their newfound roles as curators and guides. So let them choose their own adventure within the boundaries of the narrative you’ve created for them. All you need to do is provide the playground and let your customers play.