In common with its competitor, Hulu – founded by News Corporation and NBC Universal – hoped to take a decent slice of the fledgling streaming market and with the later addition of Disney, this dream slowly began to take shape.
Three years later Hulu launched Hulu Plus, offering full seasons of TV shows and instant access to new episodes. Today, Hulu is a success story, offering three products – Hulu basic, Hulu with no ads, and the range-topping Hulu + Live TV. As of late last year, Hulu had more than 36 million subscribers but it’s the way that the service went from zero to two million that today piques our interest.
When it Came to Streaming, 2010 Was Still the Wild West
In 2010, unlicensed streaming link sites such as Surf The Channel were pulling in large numbers of eyeballs, around 400,000 per day in this platform’s case. That earned the site’s operator a four-year prison sentence for facilitating copyright infringement but many more similar sites remained operational, filling in the gaps underserved by the legal services of the day.
Today, running a pirate platform is much less straightforward but the fact remains that their ‘pirate’ users are potential customers for legal services. The big question is how to reach them. It would be unthinkable to market a legal service on a pirate site in the current climate but back in 2010, it transpires that Hulu Plus was unafraid to do so.
Hulu Plus Marketed Itself Directly on Pirate Sites
On Twitter yesterday an interesting discussion was triggered by Patrick OShaughnessy who asked a straightforward question: What is the most clever customer acquisition strategy you’ve ever seen?
A response came from Jay Rockman, who previously worked as a key member of Hulu’s marketing team. He retold a story from the launch of Hulu Plus that reveals that rather than treating pirates as the enemy, Hulu made the decision to target them directly, on their platforms of choice.
“A fun story… when Hulu Plus launched, I contacted every illegal streaming listings site (with great SEO/20M+ uniques per month each) before Google was forced to remove them from organic search listings,” Rockman explained.
“Most were foreign operated… Cyprus, Russia.. I told them instead of suing them I’d like them to skin their sites with Hulu Plus ads on every single page of their sites. They had no better way to monetize so I offered them all a $0.50 CPM and in some cases an affiliate fee,” he continued.
The Strategy Worked, Boosting Hulu Plus Subscriptions
According to Rockman, targeting pirates on their home turf really paid off. Sites like the hugely popular but now defunct TV-Links.eu carried Hulu Plus links which encouraged pirates to test out the fledgling streaming service either instead of, or in addition to, sailing the high seas.
“[T]his strategy was a major contributor to [the] first 2M paid Hulu Plus subs,” Rockman revealed.
“It was a long time ago, but the strategy is simple. Start [with] your value proposition and then consider how someone looking for that value behaves. In this case, Googling ‘watch gossip girl online free.’ All the top results were flooded with traffic. I had them all redirected to us.”
Streaming Services Still Utilize Pirate Data
Advertising on pirate sites today would be a big no-no for the vast majority of streaming services and even if they wanted to, the same technique would be much less effective. As Rockman points out, this only worked because pirate site links appeared prominently in Google search, something which is much less the case today. However, pirate data is still a useful resource.
As reported back in 2013, Netflix admitted that it used the popularity of content on pirates sites to in part determine what TV series the company bought. In 2016, Hulu went on to reveal that it was doing the same, although we can presume that the days of paying pirate sites to promote legal content are long gone.