IMDb: onward to 100 M unique visitors through social content, personalization and Asia

I decided to skip watching Wolverine on Friday night and thought about the business of “movies” from my vantage point (as a tech entrepreneur).

I’ve used  the Internet Movie Database (imdb) for more than ten years as my primary source for all things “movies”. Along the way, I’ve also frequented Yahoo movies, Rotten Tomatoes, my college newspaper’s movie reviews and Flixster (on faceboook) for American movies and IndiaFM for Hindi movies. As IMDb continues to grow towards Col Needham’s vision of putting a Play button on every page (the Big Hairy Audacious goal of streaming all movies and TV episodes for free), it has unique opportunities to dramatically increase traffic from 57 M unique visitors per month to 100 M. In this post, I want to share my thoughts on:

  1. The mental model of a movie viewer’s intentions around movies – as a finite state model
  2. How would I approach to grow the user-base by providing an immersive and delightful “movie” experience to users
  3. Social graph, personalization and Asian markets – why they matter!

Where do people go today to find information about movies/celebrities?

While IMDb is one of the most frequented web sites in the world and the most frequented movie destination site in the world, competitors like Yahoo Movies and Flixster (200+ % growth!) have been growing at a faster rate. Here’s a comparative snapshot of US traffic from Compete.(Alexa, Quantcast, Comscore show similar relative results)


Mental model of a movie viewer’s intentions and actions:

Based on my personal experiences and conversations with friends, people visit an entertainment/movie website to read movie reviews, find out more information about a movie/celebrity, find showtimes for movies, watch trailers, buy a movie ticket or learn about upcoming/new movies. Being a computer scientist, I couldn’t help but create a finite state model.


The ideal web experience would enable the user to transition from one state to another in an intuitive and delightful way, without leaving the website. To further understand the four main scenarios, let’s take an example of a fictitious persona : Shelly Jones, who has recently graduated from college and loves movies.

  • Discover: Shelly may discover a new movie or a new celebrity through multiple sources (online and offline) – by talking with friends, watching a trailer in a movie theater, seeing a poster, watching an ad on TV, reading an article in a blog/newspaper, reading the list of upcoming movies on a website, etc.
  • Learn: After discovering about a movie or a celebrity or a TV show, Shelly wants to learn about the movie by reading synopsis, reading a review, learning more about the cast, watching trailers online, listening to/reading interviews of the cast, etc. such that it helps her to decide whether or not she should watch that movie.
  • Watch: If Shelly decides to watch the movie, she may also want to find out the
    showtimes near her location and potentially buy her tickets online. If
    feasible, she may want to watch the movie online right away on her
    computer or rent it (on Netflix or Blocksuster)
  • Discuss: After watching a movie, Shelly may want to write a review, rate the movie and discuss more about the movie with others who may have watched it. She may want to learn more about the cinematographer for the movie and watch other movies by the cast members.

While most movie sites address some or all of the above listed scenarios, the successful ones focus heavily on making the transitions (represented by numbered arrows in the diagram) obvious, intuitive and delightful, thereby reducing any friction for the user to immerse herself in the world of movies. Let’s explore the transitions:

  1. Discover > Learn: Once Shelly discovers a movie, TV show or a celebrity, she should be able to easily search for more information with at most two clicks. The search process should be enjoyable and exploratory, the content should be available and trustworthy and Shelly should be able to immerse herself into a discover > learn > discover cycle.
  2. Learn > Watch: One of Shelly’s primary objective is to decide whether she should watch that movie or not. Shelly should get objective and expert guidance/reviews about a movie/celebrity to help her decide. Shelly should be able to tag or store the information and should be able to access it later.
  3. Watch > Learn: After watching a movie, Shelly would want to learn more about the movie / celebrity.Once Shelly indicates that she has watched a movie, she could be easily shown which of her other friends have seen it, what information have they accessed, how can she use her experience of watching that movie to make decisions about discovering and watching new movies.
  4. Watch > Discuss: Invariably, whenever I go to a movie with friends, the first topic of conversation after the movie is – “Did you like it?”. Shelly is likely to rate a movie, write a review or discuss the movie/celebrity in the message boards. The key would be to highlight key topics of discussion around a movie to Shelly, allow her to share/discuss/compare her review with her friends.
  5. Discuss > Learn: Through conversations, Shelly is likely to discover information about linked movies/celebrities and learn more about it.

IMDb addresses all of the above scenarios, but it has an opportunity to make these experiences more engaging, social and personalized. Based on the affordance of IMDB’s website, today it appears to focus the most on “Learn” and “Discuss” with a long term vision to emphasize on “Watch”. Although, all three experiences are superb by themselves, Shelly’s experience can be enhanced significantly by reducing friction from the transitions.

How would I grow traffic at IMDb?

IMDb has been growing at an enviable rate for its size (almost 40-50% year over year) ans as it continues to grow towards its big goal of streaming all movies and TV episodes, I see strategic opportunities to significantly grow traffic/ad revenues while satisfying the users and advertising customers.

IMDb is an established brand with a large number of loyal users. Taking an overly simplified approach, there are two ways to grow:

  1. Provide “more” services and thereby monetize the existing demographics more
  2. Attract new demographics by offering newer services


1.1 Existing Demographics:

As shown in the tree diagram above, it would be both strategic and tactical to address the users with existing demographics, which can be further segmented as

  • 2.1 Existing Users, who already frequent the website
  • 2.2 New Users who may have similar demographics as the existing users, but do not frequent IMDb

2.1 Existing Users:

  • 3.1 Increase average time per visit:

While integrating videos is likely to increase average time spent on the site, IMDb has several assets (message boards, ratings, reviews, recommendations) which can be leveraged to have more users spend more time on the site. While most discussion on IMDb is facilitated by message boards and comments, there are tactical opportunities to make these conversations more discoverable, frequent and delightful by augmenting them with a social graph and an architecture of reputation for all user generated content. When users have an incentive to discuss movies and celebrities with their friends, they’re likely to spend more time on the site in communicating and reciprocating on the web site, in addition to the time they would spend for their personal movie-exploration.

  • 3.2 Increase frequency of visits:

Existing users typically visit a specific intent to discover/consume some information (and a relatively small percentage of users visit to just explore.) Users in the former category can be prompted to visit the site, when new content which maps directly to their preference is added to the site or when their friends have contributed some content that they may care about. Personalized and social notifications (recommendations, reviews and messages) along with an architecture of reputation could incentivise users to visit the site more frequently.

2.2 New Users:

  • 3.3 Reduce friction to discover the site

In the past three years, a certain class of web-sites and applications have become the sole way to discover, consume and access information on the web. The key in attracting new users is to reduce any friction from their current behavior/method of consuming information.While some optimization can be done through Search Engine Optimization (especially for TV-related information), the highest order bit is to make the information on the site discoverable and available through user’s existing work flow. Detailed integration with facebook and MySpace, further integration with twitter (beyond requesting information about movies) and integration with avenues where people watch movies/TV(for instance: Netflix queues, Blockbuster rental history, Tivo and fandango). This would ensure that new users will discover and use IMDb, without significantly changing their behavior.

  • 3.4 Reduce friction to use/access the site any where and on any device

Requiring a user to be using a computer (desktop/laptop) to be able to fully enjoy the movie-exploration experience may be restrictive. A new set of users could start using IMDb more frequently, if it is pervasive and accessible anywhere from any device. Investments in mobile-optimized website (for instance, trailers which work on iphone), applications on iphone/android/Windows Mobile could reduce friction to access the information. Integration with Netflix-enabled devices (for instance: XBox 360) could be another channel for a pervasive experience.

1.2 New Demographics:

Besides leveraging the users of existing demographics, it would be strategic to invest in newer markets to ensure long-term growth.

  • 2.3 New markets (both geographically and genre-wise)
  • 2.4 New content aimed at both casual users and professional users

2.3 New Markets:

  • 3.5 New geography

IMDb is the number one movie site, but caters primarily to Hollywood movies or acclaimed International movies. India boasts the world’s biggest movie industry (at least in terms of number of movies released per year) and several Indian celebrities are popular across the world (even among non-Indians). While IMDb contains title pages for several Indian movies and celebrities and syndicates news from, the experience for browsing an Indian movie is not as immersive or delightful as that of browsing a Hollywood movie. Through a combination of key partnerships with Indian content providers, SEO and seeding IMDb resumes of Indian celebrities, IMDb has an untapped opportunity to become the number one movie site for Indian movies. The same applies to movies made in rest of Asia (China/HongKong/Taiwan in particular, where the movie is going through a massive growth in the relatively liberal years currently.)

  • 3.6 New genre

While IMDb has successfully rolled out a dedicated section for all things – TV, there are opportunities to increase scope and grow by offering information about video games, user generated videos on YouTube, anime and music.

2.4 New Content:

  • 3.7 Content for casual users

While pro users contribute most of the content, casual users (who mainly seek information about a movie, TV show, trivia, celebrities, gossip, etc.) typically tend to account for the majority of visitors (I haven’t confirmed this for IMDb). Casual users could be interested in interactive games, trivia and polls, which is currently hidden in message boards. There is an opportunity to create a new set of content (games and applications) catered towards the casual visitors. The ideal avenue would be to empower the pro-users to create such content/games, by giving them tools to create, promote and distribute such content. Today, the pro-users already do that through message boards.

  • 3.8 Content for pro-users

Most content on IMDb is user-generated and editor-approved. Pro-users (very frequent visitors of the site, who proactively participate in discussions, write reviews, add biographies, etc.) are responsible for most of the user-generated content on IMDb. There is an opportunity to leverage this loyal base to create more and different content for the casual users to consume, by empowering the pro users with tools to create new, engaging and interesting content. Today, most of the innovation is restricted to message boards on IMDb, which restrains the creativity of the creator and discoverability of the content by a casual user. By providing tools to create games, different visualizations of content (photo albums/collages), movie guides catered towards a diverse set of users (guides for Christians, guides for immigrants, etc.), user-submitted photos, videos and fan sites – a completely new set of content can be created and offered to the users. This approach can be further optimized by adding the notion of “reputation” to incentivize pro-users to contribute more and high-quality content. Today, a user’s profile page on IMDb doesn’t distinguish a registered user who may have written 100 movie reviews from a user who may have not written any.

Decision Matrix – Which ideas to implement?

As a business owner, I would optimize the implementation on the basis of users’ satisfaction and advertisers’ satisfaction. The top left quadrant in the 2X2 matrix below indicates the changes that would add positive value to both users and advertisers while the top right quadrant indicates ideas that are positive for the users but may not be the most optimal for advertisers. Based on the opportunities described above (3.1 -3.8), I see three main themes, which would add positive value to both users and advertisers: social content, personalization, Asia.



  1. Social Content

    1. Social Graph: I’m not proposing a “me too” approach of copying “Flixster”. Instead, I’m proposing to highlight and leverage the already existing social activitiy happening through message boards on IMDb.
      1. Instead of relatively static message boards, IMDb has an opportunity to increase the reach of discussions to a larger number of users by integrating with other portable social graphs (Facebook Connect, My Space Open API, etc). It would be strategic to extend the notion of “Friends” on message boards to IMDb’s own social graph in the long run, thereby enabling scenarios for easily sharing friends’ reviews, ratings, notifications, etc. (today limited sharing is available through exchange of static links, which could be a barrier for some users)
      2. The conversation can be further extended to a conversation between celebrities and users, as opposed to amongst just users. Ashton Kutcher has proven the value of a constructive dialog between a celebrity and fans. IMDb has an opportunity to be a social interface between celebrities and fans.
      3. IMDb has an opportunity to incentivize users who add significant value to other users by implementing a notion of “reputation” based on a user’s activity
    2. More user generated Content:
      1. IMDb has an opportunity to leverage the loyal user base to create/source innovative content around movies, TV and celebrities. Empowering users to create their “fan sites” or blogs around a particular celebrity or a movie could lead to more traffic and a stronger sense of community.
      2. Enable user to comment, rate and review individual content pieces as well. For instance enable users to comment on a photo, instead of generic comments on the title page.
    3. Platform Approach:
      1. A majority of innovation could be crowdsourced to the long tail of movie fans and devlepers who would find creative ways to build new experiences around IMDb’s content. Today most content is not easily accessible (developers need to download the text files locally and pay licensing fees.) IMDb has an opportunity to selectively expose some content through a hosted API, and let movie fans innovate. There’s a minor risk of sabotaging existing licensing fees (earned from the content), but it could prove to be a strategic long term move
  2. Personalization:
    1. Instead of restricting personalization to visual appearance, IMDb has an opportunity to leverage user’s browsing habits, ratings, reviews, friends, message board participation and My Movies lists to create a very personalized movie-experience. Personalized notifications through RSS feeds about new content that may interest the user could incentivize the user to visit the site more frequently.
    2. Partnerships with Netflix, Tivo and other similar services could help automate personalization.
    3. Enable the user to fine-tune the personalized recommendations by allowing them to vote on the recommendations.
  3. Asia Readiness
    1. Focus on India: Position IMDb as the most comprehensive destination for information on Indian movies and celebrities (it is NOT today), by seeding information about Indian movies and celebrities.
    2. Raise awareness amongst the Indian audiences through SEM and partnerships with leading content providers in India.
    3. Repeat in China.

IMDB has been successful as the most comprehensive source for movie, TV and celebrity content. Fostering easily accessible and shareable conversations around this content could accelerate and nurture rapid growth.

There’s no business like show business!


2 thoughts on “IMDb: onward to 100 M unique visitors through social content, personalization and Asia

  1. Interestingly IMDB is owned by Amazon:)
    Here are some thoughts to supplement your ideas :
    – integrate the fulfillment by Amazon services with IMDB to sell movies on IMDB
    – Integrate Amazon video with IMDB to create a Hulu like business model (premium content) with high def. content and on demand shows

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