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Next TV SF: Hulu Says Give Us 90 Seconds

Ben Smith needs just 90 seconds of your time. 

That’s a how long the senior vice president and head of experience for Hulu says he’s got to convince you to watch something on his service. After that, consumers drift off and do something else.

“The first 90 seconds is critical,” said Smith, and if a consumer hasn’t made a choice to view something on Hulu, it probably won’t happen.

That data point is one of two critical key indicators that Smith is focused on beyond the hundreds of other stats the company cultivates to increase viewing. He shared some of Hulu’s audience tactics at the NextTV Summit & Expo in San Francisco hosted by Next TV parent magazines Multichannel News and Broadcasting & Cable.

The other factor is show diversity, as in the number of unique series or shows a user is watching at any given time. If a user watching up to three movies at a time, “they’re seeing value. ... Anything less than that they don’t see value.”

“We’re a subscription business,” Smith said. “If they don’t find value they won’t pay.”

And for users who don’t watch much more than that, the likelihood of canceling (or churning) is “10 times” that of someone who does. 

With a background including posts at Microsoft and Sonos, Smith is one of a new breed of executives in the navigation-challenged world of OTT providers assigned not to marketing or ad sales or retail but to the customer experience -- making sure that the end product is as engaging as the designers hoped. 

Smith said the company is obsessed – down to the second -- with what viewers see when the Hulu screen lights up. For example, the navigation architecture for most services starts with “My Movies,” then “Favorites” then “Viewing History.” Instead of navigating to find these categories, Hulu automatically surfaces the  most interesting things you watch. “You’re going to see about three pieces of content promoted to you” when you start the service, he said. “Seventy percent of the time the user will start with one of those three things…”  

“Not spending your time navigating or browsing is super important,” Smith said. When people watch TV, “they tell me they’re in low energy mode. ... We think a lot about a brilliant laziness.”

Customer choice was the main reason that Hulu, which started out with ad-supported video,rolled out an ad-free service for an extra $4 last year. Surprisingly, Smith said, it hasn’t affect ad revenue. Last year, he said, was the best year of advertising at Hulu.

Hulu is hoping to offer more VR content in the future, too, but Smith concedes it’s still early in the evolution of VR. Yesterday, the company followed its first VR app for the Samsung Gear VR with a version that is optimized for the higher-end, PC-connected Oculus Rift headset that that features a new, immersive experience for Syfy’s 12 Monkeys series.

“VR is something were really excited about in long term,” Smith said, but for now most of the players in the space are “front running.”