Why DC Universe Failed Hard: A Content as The Product Story

Before we dig in too deep here… I’d like to establish myself as a fairly serious fan of DC Comics, specifically Batman.

Evidence submitted:

  1. 3/4 of my arm tattoo real-estate to Batman-themed work.
  2. 4+ long boxes of mostly Batman-related comics in my office.
  3. 1/2 of my office wall space dedicated to Batman posters, comics, and collectibles.

The reason I say all this is to let you (the reader) know that I was actually rooting for DC this whole time. The strategist and marketer in me couldn’t help but point out some serious mistakes that really contributed to the failure of the product/initiative in terms of fan adoption and satisfaction.

Background

Way back in September of 2018, DC Comics launched their own exclusive streaming service called “DC Universe”. Aside from promising some exciting programming for original series and access to several shows and movies they hadn’t licensed for streaming they also included some “benefits” for hardcore fans like access to some digital comics, the opportunity to buy exclusive collectibles, and some kind of community thing… I think. In September, 2020 they announced this streaming service will shut down as of January 2021 and be converted to a comics only offering.

Leading up to their service DC had done a pretty OK job at marketing their platform. They teased scenes from their most promising original projects and made all of the other stuff they crammed into the offering seem more exciting than it probably was in reality.

Without having the numbers to back it up, DC has always been a little darker and grittier and probably followed by more traditional “comic fans” as compared to Marvel who has actively invested in becoming more universal and accessible for both “comic fans” and the general public. That being said, no one really expected DC Universe to launch with billions of subscribers ready to go. They seem to have focused on engaging known fans vs trying to acquire new fans – which is a smart play when you’re talking about niché content IMO.

What Went Wrong

Product Readiness At Launch: Meh

When the app launched it had several bugs tied to the ability to stream to devices and user authentication making it inconvenient for excited fans to actually digest the content. I specifically remember giving up on trying to stream to the tv all together and just watching Titans on my iPad.

Having lead countless discussions around MVP functionality and launch readiness, I can say it’s absolutely insane to launch a streaming service that can’t actually cast to a bigger screen or allow users to stay logged in so that they can access the content easily. It would have made infinitely more sense to drop out features like digital comics or “exclusive product access” and just nailed down the ability for users to access and enjoy the core content offering. This is a classic case of “jack of all trades but master of none” on the product front.

Capitalizing On The Binge Economy

Binge-watching actually started developing as a media consumption habit back when putting seasons of tv shows on DVD became a thing – circa two-thousand something? Once the internet evolved to a point of allowing the average person to be able to stream media with a stable and consistent experience, it exploded and eventually shifted user expectations for how they engage with and consume stories through the tv/movie format.

At the time of launch DC had a decent beta audience signed up and ready to dive in to all of their new content. The hope, from a marketing perspective, is obviously that these users and early adopters would be so happy with the product that they would quikcly become advocates and drive the next wave of users to sign up.

As I mentioned above, DC Universe was already off to a rocky start in terms of user experience in the app. Once fans like myself got around some of the bugs we were ready to dive into new content. While Titans satisfied the immediate need, (it’s a pretty great show) there wasn’t much (or any?) more new content to dive into. Most fans and subscribers ended up waiting for weeks at a time in between the release of their original series which meant the app mostly offered access to some of the things serious fans had already seen at this point.

Downtime in engagement for any platform generally leads to a loss in user retention. It’s harder to get someone back in an app when they go from using it daily to not using it for several days (or weeks). For DC, this meant that their marketing dollars were mostly spent on re-engaging existing users/fans and not on new user acquisition.

When you look at the major streaming services, we’ve seen each of them ramp up both content production and acquisition to ensure that all users always have something new to watch. In 2019 alone Netflix released over 2700 hours of original content. DC was never able to hit anything close to that volume of content publishing.

Titans — Ep. 213 — “Nightwing” — Photo Credit: Brooke Palmer / 2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Exclusive Content?

The reason there are so many streaming services out there now is mainly because of licensing and the ongoing battle for exclusive rights to stream popular content. Aside from hitting a home run with original content, this is the biggest way to get fans to subscribe.

When DC Universe was preparing for launch DC was in the middle of releasing a handful of films in an attempt to try and be Marvel. The first time I opened the app I had hoped to see Aquaman, Shazam!, and some of the other big-budget films in there… but guess what? They had already licensed them out to other streaming services with exclusive rights which meant I’d have to buy something else, besides the cool ned DC streaming service, to watch the cool new DC content….

Despite the previously mentioned issues, DC actually had some really solid content that, had they kept producing it and maintaining exclusive rights to it, would have been *almost* enough to maintain my subscription…. but guess what?

Just a few months after launch Titans showed up on Netflix!!!

“Why am I paying for this if it’s going to end up on Netflix anyway?! ” – Me

At that point in time there were still shows like Swamp Thing and Doom Patrol to keep me engaged so, being a long-time fan, I kept my subscription. And then I found out they canceled Swamp Thing. And then I found out Doom Patrol was on HBO…And then I canceled my DC Universe subscription.

A lot of this tracks back to being “launch ready” from both a platform and content perspective. I’m assuming putting Titans on Netflix was a play to get some exposure to a larger audience. Swamp Thing being canceled is likely tied to DC’s ongoing identity crisis and resistance to being too dark.