Memo: RokuMart

We often choose what’s in front of us. This is the bet that Roku is making on both media and online retail.

Retail Media Networks are at the forefront of merchandising and performance marketing. Roku is months into quietly developing an approach of its own. Two principles that we’ve researched here in the past may be combining to form the future of shoppable commerce. To accomplish this, Roku must first become platform agnostic, at least from a content perspective.

The 1990s saw the peak of cable television’s rule. Today’s market fragmentation is a product of the cable industry’s early indifference towards streaming. Nearly 15 years later and the media property has its own Netflix competitor. As a result, we have an unlimited amount of big budget streaming content. We’re beginning to see narratives like these: Amazon’s latest Lord of the Rings project losing to HBO Max’s Game of Thrones prequel (of sorts). But consumers are also paying for multiple services, often paying more than they would have if cable television was their primary source of consumption. While there are no plans to address the rising costs of maintaining multiple streaming subscriptions, Roku seems the closest to addressing the need for curating content in a platform-agnostic fashion. Consider what we’ve written about the beginning of the market fragmentation that we know today in the context of streaming:

Market fragmentation is accelerating and while the economics may work for popular individual creators, it may not be what’s best for the industry as a whole. The streaming and the eCommerce industries seem to be inching towards a parallel path to consolidation. It’s a privilege that we once took for granted, whether in the context of streaming content, packaged goods, and fashion retail: it was easier to decide what to buy when our choices were in front of us. We spent much less time searching and more time discovering. Before, the burden rested with the marketplace to do the discovering and curating for the consumer. We browsed cable channels and a centralized guide of programs. We window shopped in malls and roamed the aisles of places like Walmart, Target, CostCo, BestBuy, and Sam’s Club.

By the time that Netflix broke into streaming (2007), obvious cracks began to form in cable’s facade. It was no longer the home of all of the content that you were interested in. Friends were binging Netflix shows while you were watching that episode of Friends for the seventh time. In parallel, retailers like Walmart featured products that you needed. A new generation of modern retailers launched their own sites (with the help of platforms like Shopify), hoping to build a direct-to-consumer business in an efficient manner. For some of those brands, it worked. For most, it did not. Market fragmentation, in both media and retail, seemed to occur in tandem.

Consumers are yearning for a central depository of content and Roku seems to be focused on setting aside its own brand of content (Roku Media) to curate the rest, accomplishing this sought after goal for viewers. It just so happens that consumers also seem to want to rely on traditional marketplace systems of purchasing physical goods. Walmart is back in fashion and the timing couldn’t be better for Roku, Walmart, or the hundreds of brands looking for a new, efficient marketing channel.

As reported by TechCrunch, Roku’s recent announcement addresses the first problem (curation vs. fragmentation) head on:

Roku today unveiled the features it has in store for the next version of its media software, Roku OS 11.5. This time around, the platform maker is looking to advance its own offerings, like its Live TV experience, as well as better cater to viewers who are struggling to keep up with a range of film and TV content across a growing number of streaming services with new features like an expanded universal watch list, a platform-wide “continue watching” feature, and a new discovery center called “The Buzz,” featuring short-form content.

And here is why curation is important. Roku spends on content but not like the other platforms. While Netflix and Amazon have Oscars and multi-billion content budgets, Roku has chosen to invest in a manner that resembles the cable systems of old.

With its own discovery platform, The Buzz, Roku wants to take a more active role in curating the content it carries via its streaming channels and helping users decide what to watch. The platform will carry short-form content like clips, trailers and other videos from partners including AMC+, Apple TV+, BET Plus, Crackle, Hallmark Movies Now, IGN, Plex, Popcornflix, Showtime, Starz, The CW, Tubi, Vevo, and Wondrium. The goal is to get new shows and movies in front of users, who can like posts, follow profiles and save things to watch later in the app. It’s paired with new features including a save list and continue watching, making it easier to navigate to programs and shows on the Roku platform without visiting individual apps.

As The Verge reports, the discovery platform’s utility will vary by user, but the idea is to offer a more personalized experience as it gets to know individual preferences over time. Its success will also depend on streaming services’ willingness to play ball: if a big player is missing from the lineup, that will leave a hole in Roku’s ability to show users all of the content that it can offer. Some streaming services may find it useful in order to promote their content, but the big guns like Netflix and Disney+ may not feel as if they need to do so. Ultimately, what Roku wants to do is be the conduit that people use to find the content they want to watch, be it through early discovery or picking back up on what they’re in the middle of as easy as possible. Roku’s own content is taking a back seat, something that might bode well for streaming services’ willingness to work with it.

Roku will also launch new technologies atop its existing self-serve ad platform. An earlier article from June explains why curation and interface are so important to Roku (and why its ceded billion-dollar content budgets to other platforms). It wants to make shoppable advertising the future of streaming content. And while Prime TV and Amazon Prime would make sense as the de facto leader in this retail / media merge, its Roku’s interface and Walmart’s partnership that make Roku the new leader. This is happening at an interesting time for Retail Media Networks. Twenty-eight of the top performing applications, according to Search Engine Land, have already begun building PPC tools for the top retail media networks:

The Roku x Walmart partnership, which was formed in June, is a first-of-its-kind effort to unite streaming and shopping. Walmart is the exclusive retail partner of Roku, and streamers can become shoppers with a few clicks of their remote while they’re watching something in which shoppable products are featured. The point is for it to become second nature by making it easy to checkout. According to Progressive Grocer:

Viewers just press “OK” with their remote on a shoppable ad and move to checkout, with their payment details pre-populated from Roku Pay, Roku’s payments platform. Once there, tapping “OK” on the Walmart checkout page places the order. A Walmart purchase confirmation is then emailed with shipping, return and support information.

Roku already has a built-in payments system to allow viewers to buy streaming-related and subscription purchases in the app. The retail component is an extension of that, and brands, marketers, and the broader industry will be watching to see how it lands with customers. Do people watching an ad on TV jump that quickly to making a purchase? Roku will find out. The efficacy of the shoppable ads will be measured by the company’s in-house team. Its brand studio will also work with marketers to create the right ads for the platform.

Roku’s ambitions to be a streaming media curator may foretell the future of content platforms in the streaming age. Roku has the content, it’s now building a universe where people can watch movie trailers, save content lists, and more easily navigate the often overwhelming world of streaming. Whether or not that’s where people also want to shop will remain to be seen, but the investment in the ad platform has the makings of a new sort of new retail media network at work.

By Web Smith | Edited by Hilary Milnes with art by Alex Remy and Christina Williams

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