It’s like the changing of the seasons, or the incoming tide. When a popular online network changes its user interface, the complaints are inevitable. So it was when Netflix rolled out its new ratings system, changing from the classic 5 stars to a thumbs up or thumbs down rating.

On top of that, users looking at a title now see a percentage score expressing how likely they are to enjoy it. It’s a pretty bold move – after all, the 5-star rating system for film and TV is pretty familiar to most of us – but Netflix has never been shy of turning the industry on its head, backed by the mountains of user data they have to inform their decisions.

So what’s wrong with the old Netflix rating system?

Let’s face it – the five-star system isn’t perfect for film & TV.

You’ve probably walked past a billboard today plastered with review snippets for the latest blockbuster.

“***** A non-stop thrill-ride”,

“**** The best action film in years”…

…the poster will scream at you, bidding for your hard-earned cash.

That’s all well and good, but a single reviewer in a national newspaper liking a film doesn’t mean I will. It’s actually a pretty crude method of determining if a new release is worth my time.

The poster doesn’t know anything about my tastes (romcoms, political thrillers and pretentious European nonsense, in case anyone was wondering) and it doesn’t even tell me much about the reviewers’ tastes. I might get some hint from the name and reputation of the publications they’ve put on the adverts, but that still doesn’t equip me particularly well for the key question – do I want to see this or not?

Obviously, comparing this directly to an online streaming service’s recommendations engine is harsh. Billboards and full page-adverts are just about getting a particular film into the conversation for your next date night.

Those ‘official’ reviews serve a similar purpose. If someone who knows a lot about film thinks it’s worth my time, that might confirm my decision to consider it. That star rating is the right content for that stage in the decision journey. But that doesn’t make it the best way to rate titles for all scenarios.

In reality, the stars you saw floating over Breaking Bad or Legally Blonde were never popular opinion or a critic’s view. The Netflix rating system has always been personalised.

Netflix has long segmented its users into different groups and served people ratings based on others with a similar profile. That’s actually where the problem lies. Looking at the stars, a user could see no difference from the ratings that scream out from a billboard at the train station. All the hard work going on in the background by the recommendations engine was being wasted by the format ratings were presented in.

If working at Reevoo has taught me one thing, it’s to value a rating system that gives information in the best format for making a decision.

What can we learn from the change?

At Reevoo, we spend a lot of our days thinking about this problem.

Too often I see ratings tagged onto the bottom of flyers, or flashing up in the last 5 seconds of a TV ad without understanding what the rating means. The number – 8.9, or 4½ stars – is meaningless if it doesn’t help inform the decision you want the consumer to make. It’s all about context.

That’s why we separate our ratings out:

  • Into scores for the brand, expressed as the percentage who’d buy from that company again;
  • And the product, calculated from the average of the scores buyers have given out of 10.

When a consumer sees ‘95% of customers would buy again’, there’s no mental gymnastics required. Push that into someone’s eye line at the right time, and it helps them decide if they’ll consider your brand.

Homeserve billboard Netflix rating system
A great example from Homeserve of getting the right kind of information in kind of the right kind of eyes.

The same goes for a product review.

It’s no use telling me that you have a great package tour to Italy on offer or that your car is highly rated for fuel efficiency if I’m unsure about your brand. But once I’ve narrowed down my choices to the last few, that information becomes vital.

Homeserve billboard Netflix rating system
Reviews drive conversion at the checkout.

The same goes for the new system Netflix has in place.

Why context matters

When you’re looking for something to watch (in my experience, this can take up to 100 hours per person in the room), you don’t want ratings presented in the same format as they would be in the ‘awareness’ phase.

Express them in terms of my likelihood of enjoying it, and you’re helping me decide with relevant information.

Everyone likes to feel like they’re an individual with their own tastes. Someone else’s opinion might be helpful for looking at cars, power tools or insurance, but not for films.

With the dual incentive of a simplified rating mechanism and the more explicit reward of personalised scores for every title, Netflix saw the number of responses leap by 200%.

That’s another thing we talk about a lot at Reevoo. Understanding what motivates people to leave a rating is key to collecting more responses.

To us, it’s about karma. You benefit from reviews when you buy, so feed the system by helping someone else out when they’re trying to decide themselves.

That’s the real genius of the revamped Netflix rating system – it shows a deep understanding of its customers and the way they use the product.

Netflix has ticked all the boxes we check for at Reevoo:

  • Ask people at the right time;
  • remind them what’s in it for them;
  • and then serve up the ratings in a format that’ll help people make decisions at the crucial time.
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Netflix has found the right recipe for a ratings system. Here's why