CobbleCord is a website and app that help people, through a patented process, cobble together their own personalized streaming bundles to get the most out of streaming and get rid of cable. It provides an overview of each streaming service with details on content, price, device support, special features, etc. It helps the consumer, who is overwhelmed by the hundreds of streaming service choices, make the right choice. CobbleCord comes to the rescue of the majority of streamers who suffer from “subscription fatigue,” says CobbleCord founder-CEO Virginia Juliano.
In an interview with ottwatcher.com founder-editor-in-chief BF Firos, Juliano dwells on the inspiration behind launching CobbleCord, the journey so far, industry trends, the relevance of AI and ML in the streaming world, and more. Excerpts:
What prompted you to launch CobbleCord? What was the inspiration or the one defining moment that spurred you to launch this?
I spent 10 years as at Showtime Networks in subscription marketing, distribution partnerships and digital product development. I was always very steeped in the intersection between media and technology and knew that media was on the cusp of enormous change. But when I led the efforts to bring Showtime’s OTT streaming service to market, I really had the “lightbulb moment.”
There were new streaming services launching literally every day, with more on the horizon. Each service had widely varied content, pricing and distribution models and it was becoming very difficult to keep them all straight. That’s when it crystallized for me how overwhelming the evolving streaming ecosystem would become, and I realized that if we in the business were having trouble keeping track, the average person was definitely going to need some help.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the idea, and before long, I started to sketch out a path to help people navigate in a fun, user-friendly way. My background and experience well-positioned me to build it; so, I decided to take the plunge. I left Showtime and began assembling the team that helped me bring it to fruition.
CobbleCord was the first to launch what we’ve coined the Meta-Bundler Category in the Fall of 2016. We use a patented process that is simple by design and tailored to the mainstream consumer who is overwhelmed by the hundreds of streaming service choices available.
What were the initial hurdles/challenges and how did you overcome them?
Being so early with a brand-new concept was its own challenge. When I launched CobbleCord, streaming wasn’t truly mainstream yet. Most people weren’t even aware that there were multiple streaming services available, so they weren’t yet feeling the pain points. But I knew that it was coming.
I also believed that people would want to have multiple streaming services at the same time, not just one, which was not a widely accepted opinion at the time.
Research has now borne out that the majority of streamers suffer from “subscription fatigue,” meaning that they have difficulty figuring out all of the streaming services available. However, there is still massive demand for multiple streaming services and “service stacking” has become more popular. In fact, streamers with three or more streaming services is the fastest growing streaming segment. These are the dynamics that CobbleCord was built for.
It’s not always easy to be ahead of a market change, but I’m proud to say that CobbleCord has been honored with multiple, highly respected industry awards. It took some determination and perseverance, but it seems that the market has finally caught up with our predictions. Staying very lean and nimble has allowed us to keep up the fight.
What has been your biggest obstacle in your career, and how did you overcome it?
I have always been fascinated with disruptive technologies and have often found myself being a catalyst for change in various roles throughout my career. Whether it was building out a new department within an organization, rolling out a new technology or launching a disruptive startup, it’s something I’ve gravitated toward.
But it’s not for the faint of heart. People are naturally averse to change, and it’s often met with resistance. I do have a lot of passion for what I do, which is helpful, but I’ve also had to make a concerted effort to develop patience and persistence.
Kindly describe the key functions of CobbleCord? How is it beneficial for a traditional TV viewer?
CobbleCord (www.CobbleCord.com) is a website and app that help people cobble together their own personalized streaming bundles to get the most out of streaming and get rid of cable. Our patented process guides the user through a few simple questions about their content, device, internet and price preferences and we present them with a custom list of free and paid streaming services tailored to their needs. The process is totally free, so they can go through it as many times as they want and switch up their selections to see what other choices come up.
CobbleCord serves as a central repository of streaming information. We provide an overview of each streaming service with details on content, price, device support, special features and more. We also have a robust search feature that allows you to filter on networks, supported devices, genres, categories, etc., so you can find services that meet certain criteria. And you can save services to a Favorites List to refer back to.
But cutting the cable cord is not for everyone. For some, streaming might best remain a complement to a traditional TV package. Either way, we aim to help everyone get more for their “streaming buck” and better understand their options.
We currently have advertising on the site and have also experimented with an affiliate or referral model, but to be honest, the OTT streaming space is extremely fluid and dynamic. Even mega-corporations continue to shift their strategies and make pivots.
We are agile and flexible enough to react to the market and continue to refine our niche. We are planning to evolve our offering to include additional paid features that would reinforce our customer-first focus.
It’s really important for us to remain as agnostic and as independent as possible while we continue to explore both B2C and B2B opportunities. An immediate revenue model is less important to us than the long-term vision. as we try to establish our positioning. Not having a legacy business model to defend allows us to be more aggressive in driving industry change.
What is the kind of association you have with OTT platforms? How has been the response from OTT players to your idea?
Right now, the biggest obstacle to success for most OTT services is simple awareness, so anything that drives awareness and discovery has been welcomed and they’ve been very supportive. We surface a wide array of streaming options for each user and try to paint a thorough picture of the choices available. And we drive to as many of them as possible. It gives people a way to broaden their streaming horizons and can prompt a trial or sampling opportunity.
As OTT aggregation models evolve, one thing I believe streaming services will need to wrestle with is maintaining their brand identity within a larger service or platform’s ecosystem. Although I think ease of access and convenience is important to consumers, I also think that a certain amount network or service attribution and branding helps orient the viewer and establish appropriate content expectations.
As CobbleCord evolves, I want to continue to find ways to highlight and reinforce each service’s unique qualities. It’s not only a grounding element, but I believe that showcasing individual streaming services (and the option to subscribe to them directly) along with the larger aggregators can also help prevent consumers being forced into another “big bundle” situation.
What are your promotional/marketing campaigns?
I am a big fan of performance-based marketing. We’ve done some search and social advertising as well as content marketing. We’ve also focused on public relations and partnerships. Because we are a lean startup, we need to be smart about how and where we direct our resources and marketing spend. It has to make sense from an ROI standpoint while staying in line with the ideas that we are built on.
Additionally, I really enjoy doing speaking engagements about cord-cutting and streaming to different consumer and professional groups. Sharing tips and tricks as well as overall industry trends is a great way to get the word out on CobbleCord while giving me a great feedback loop. I get to see first-hand where the confusion or challenges lie with the average streamer.
What are your key target markets and future expansion plans in terms of reaching more markets/countries?
CobbleCord was designed to be scalable and flexible. I see a lot of opportunity in the space for innovated startups and believe that our concept can travel across borders to other markets. In fact, we have multiple patents pending in various countries. India, the EU and China are all very top of mind because of their huge markets, entertainment focus and expanding middle-class.
There are, of course, different nuances across geographic regions. For instance, I don’t think that the backlash against the traditional TV bundle is as intense outside of the US. In the States, customers have an almost visceral hatred of it. They have been forced to pay for hundreds of channels they never wanted and never watched, with no recourse. Add in hidden-fees and long-term contracts, and it’s no wonder that as soon as there was another option, people were all over it.
What is your vision for CobbleCord and where do you see it evolving in the next two to three years?
I believe that the next great disruption for the entertainment industry will be continuous and ongoing subscription churn. We’ve only seen the tip of this iceberg on this to date. It’s only a matter of time before mainstream consumers begin to fully understand and embrace the power they now have and take a more active role in managing their streaming mix on an ongoing basis.
Our core message continues to be that there is no one-size-fits-all streaming solution and one’s streaming mix should continue to be optimized for changing preferences and life circumstances. Just like rebalancing your stock portfolio, people should rebalance their entertainment portfolio to continue to get the most out of streaming.
In the world of streaming, there are no long-term contracts or equipment, so people can subscribe or unsubscribe at will to suit their personal needs and schedules. CobbleCord wants to facilitate this and provide a cross-platform one-stop-shop where they can easily manage all their streaming needs coupled with customer-friendly filtering, search and budgeting tools. Ultimately, we want to transform how people manage their entertainment.
The pandemic has prompted the sprouting of a lot of new OTT platforms. Is this me-too trend good for the industry or will it lead to saturation?
I’m not sure that I would say that the pandemic has sprouted new OTT platforms, as I think there has been a proliferation over the past two years, but the pandemic has certainly accelerated streaming adaption and cemented it as the viewing method of choice.
In the US, many streaming services have reported seeing a several hundred percent increase in both viewing and subscriptions. It was a giant sea change. However, we’ve already seen some normalization since the beginning of the pandemic and things have settled down a bit as lockdowns eased.
One thing is for sure: it was a huge opportunity for sampling and trial and most of the streaming services rightly took full advantage of it by beefing up promotions and free trial periods. Now that users have been entered into their CRM systems, the challenge is for those services to reduce new subs from churning out and figure out how to win them back.
I do think there will be some consolidation amongst streaming services. Those that are overextended or have done an over-reach on content acquisitions could have a hard time staying afloat because of the intense competition. Some will likely need to merge or be acquired. But I predict that those that have been careful and are built upon solid economics will fare very well and there is room for many of them.
Even with some of the recently announced price hikes (Hulu, Netflix and YouTube TV, for example) OTT is still a better value than the traditional TV package – at least in the United States. It all boils down to consumer choice and control.
How do you evaluate the Asian OTT market in general and Indian market in particular?
As I mentioned, I think that CobbleCord’s framework can work in other markets and the Asian and Indian market holds a lot of opportunity.
The diverse nature of its population and geography along with the explosion of new services underscores the need for highly personalized streaming options. And the high mobile phone usage further reinforces individualized viewing patterns.
The pandemic has been a blessing in disguise for OTT platforms the world over. With theatres shut, OTT release is the only way to go. Do you think this trend will stay even after the pandemic?
I think the studios and the theaters had been trying to stave off the inevitable for a long time, but most consumers were already there. Other than very select demographics, the majority of people are very happy to watch movies in the comfort of their own home and are even willing to pay a premium for it.
The studios will continue to try to maximize the value of their content, as they should. When people go back to the theaters (and I personally don’t think that will happen in a meaningful way until 2022), if the studios can extract additional revenue from the in-theater exclusive window, they will. But I do think that window has now permanently shrunk, while the premium VOD option will continue to expand. There will be less industry resistance to a more flexible content windowing going forward.
How can OTTs resort to personalization in order to stand out in an increasingly fierce market? How can they build trust and loyalty in a competitive marketplace?
Content is almost becoming commoditized because there’s so much of it and a lot of the same content is available on multiple services simultaneously. I think that personalization and UX in general will become a more important factor as the streaming wars heat up, particularly, more user-centric UX.
Today’s consumer values freedom, control and flexibility. They expect ultra-customization and instant gratification. They like being self-directed and are used to self-service.
Personalization contributes to customer stickiness and higher retention rates. An engaged customer is usually a stickier customer. Services that focus on giving users the tools to better personalize and navigate will be the ones that have the advantage, translating into more loyal subscribers.
How will AI and machine learning determine the future of OTT services, especially in a post-pandemic world? What are the ways in which AI will be deployed in the OTT ecosystem, such as determining subscriber attitude, personalization, etc.?
CobbleCord is all about giving people more control over their streaming mix, and that concept also carries over into how I think about the content search and discovery experience. While AI and a lean-back experience certainly has its place, I think that some services may lean a bit too heavily on AI. It’s not necessarily a silver bullet.
At the core, OTT is about customer choice and empowerment and I believe that enabling more user-driven controls is an often-overlooked way to improve content discovery and navigation. The streaming world may want to look to some of the tried and true, lean-forward techniques of online retail. They have many years of expertise helping users sort and sift through a ton of choices. I’ve actually written and spoken about this concept at length.
My contacts at the various streaming services tell me that video starts come fairly evenly from multiple sources — not just AI-driven recommendations. That includes in-product search, platform search, auto plays, curated sections and category filters.
And let’s not forget how important an arsenal of marketing tactics is in driving people to watch and discover content. That includes email, social, pre-roll, push notifications, on and off platform advertising. The goal is to get the right piece of content in front of the right person at the right time and there are many ways to do that. It’s a lot like building a well-thought-out, 360-degree marketing plan. Data and AI can certainly enhance it, but it’s not the be-all and end-all.