Exploring Content Discovery

What does discovery mean and what can content providers do to really convert discovery into moving user experiences?

Discovery is the current great game in the content world. Music, apps, movies, games, TV shows and books are all looking to developers, aggregators and various other discovery platforms and methods to figure out ways to make it easier for consumers to get the stuff they’ll really like. It’s important, because in the content world, access is easier than ever and content more abundant than ever. So it’s easy for consumers to get confused or overwhelmed and for new content to get lost in the crowd.

In the music sector for example, all the digital music services have placed a new focus on discovery. For the two biggest digital players – iTunes and Spotify – discovery has become one of the pillars of their product strategies. Spotify’s ‘Discover’ tab has pride of place as a personalised homepage (a route intentionally avoided by iTunes interestingly enough).

Today, Spotify Discover tells me that I listened to Duran Duran and therefore I ‘might like this song by Fine Young Cannibals’. It notifies me that I haven’t played Bloodflood, by Alt-J for a while – so, do I want to “Play now”? It also tells me (via a clever link-up with concert alert service Songkick) that Laura Viers is playing in Islington soon. The latter notification is useful, although it’s more an alert than a discovery as such. Indeed ‘Discover’ often strikes me as a set of prompts and reminders rather than a discovery service as such.

With iTunes, the discovery push comes in the shape of the new iTunes Radio service. The personalised radio player is Apple’s current music priority, and represents a big step up from previous music recommendation efforts such as the ill-fated Ping network, or the Genius recommendation engine.

However, arguably both initiatives are falling short.

“Algorithm-based discovery & recommendation services are designed to improve the more you use them, but there is a fundamental problem, in that they start-off pretty hit and miss – and are therefore hard to engage with.”

A fair hypothesis might be that neither Spotify Discover nor iTunes Radio are effective discovery vehicles. In fact I’ve had more than a few discussions with Spotify fans about Discover being less than helpful. As such, it goes against the grain of Spotify’s previous ultra-focus on a slick user experience. There are lots of factors at work here.

Discovery is a different beast for catalogue and new artists for example. There is genuine complexity in me discovering a catalogue artist that is new to me – not because I’ve never tried them, but because I previously didn’t ‘get them’. Genuine discovery is largely down to serendipity and realisation ‘discovering’ a new artist can be a delayed reaction, or a contextual moment, in which an artist you are vaguely aware of becomes suddenly relevant. And it’s wonderful – true discovery.

It is for this reason why so much is made of syncing music with ads, film and TV shows – these are great contextual settings in which the songs heard can literally ‘light up’ the brain and make us want to seek out that song or artist to hear it again. We all like to ‘be moved’.

The problem for content providers is that discovery is genuinely complex. It takes many forms and is different for all of us individually. As David Byrne wrote recently in The Guardian:

“The actual moment of discovery in most cases happens at the moment when someone else tells you about an artist or you read about them – not when you’re on [a] streaming service”.

Discovery DNA

It doesn’t surprise me that David Byrne discovers music by word of mouth or reading. Those are two major routes by which new stuff is brought to our attention, along with numerous others, including advertising and other marketing efforts.

We all use a different set of sources and discovery methods – from the latest music apps to more traditional sources (magazines for example). We also display different discovery behaviours – from active seek & search, to more passive methods like word-of-mouth or hearing music in a TV show. Some of us are social and love recommendations via Facebook posts or tweets. For others it’s much more personal.

We all have a kind of Discovery DNA. This is a combination of the whole context of discovery – what grabs our attention and when? What sources of information and access to content do we use? What puts us in ‘discovery mode’ in the first place and what do we do when we enter that mode?

Discovery Context

Out of this context comes a simple set of dimensions. Everyone has a unique profile when these are plotted. In the simple example below, the arrows plot my own profile.


Discovery Dimensions

Cracking Discovery DNA

“More work is needed on discovery. More research, more exploration, more discovery about discovery!”

It does surprise me that major music services and other content providers can make a huge push on discovery without more thoroughly exploring the territory first. Through a combination of consumer insight and mining customer data (imagine the richness of data Spotify, Deezer or iTunes has about music user behaviours), Discovery DNA provides a framework whereby a number of key outputs can be created.

Here are just three simple examples:

1. Customer engagement – a proper strategy!

Combined with segmentation (behaviour based and actionable), the ability to understand which discovery levers excite users provides direct feedback for product strategy and service design. So rather than a homepage with a hit and miss recommendation service, the user might be able to design their own homepage, designed around their own discovery profile and preferences.

2. Third party developer applications.

The app developer and product innovation implications are hugely exciting. This was Netflix’s great vision (at one point) –– to crack the code of discovery with the help of developers. Spotify has done something similar with its online apps platform, social features and some editorial. Third party developers can really respond to the discovery challenge if given the right direction and tools, including data and insights, by the service platforms.

3. Brand content marketing.

There is a role in discovery for brand as curators, including established music curators like radio brands and presenters on digital platforms. Content marketing opportunities don’t come any better than helping consumers discover songs, movies or books they’ll love, while making an association with the brand that brought them together. Traditional radio programming knows all about the power of curation for audiences. I’ll never break my appointments with Gilles Peterson or Guy Garvey, but there’s plenty more space in my listening schedule for real help in leading me to new music, or for that matter TV shows, books et al. It would be great to see brands doing something really ground-breaking when it comes to content discovery.