With an average of nine videos watched per day, per user, and a massive six-fold growth over the first month of Coronavirus curfew, we talk to Watch iT’s Vice President and Managing Director Moustapha Bekheet to find out how the content streaming service is keeping up with unprecedented demand.
Every year, millions of Egyptians – and indeed Arabic speakers at large – wait patiently for Ramadan to come around, in anticipation of the tens of new TV series to hit the screens. Social media becomes a sounding board for viewers, young and old, to discuss viewing schedules, outlandish storylines, actors’ performances and even commercial breaks. This year, however, as the Coronavirus pandemic continues to limit movement and human interaction, Ramadan feels a little different. But one thing remains the same: TV content is top of mind. In fact, because of COVID-19 curfews, viewers have more time than ever to voraciously consume content.
“Binge watching has become a real trend in Egypt over the last month,” says Moustapha Bekheet, Vice President and Managing Director of Watch iT, the first homegrown Egyptian content streaming platform. “We’ve seen a huge jump in the number of active users, as well as the amount of content each user consumes. We’re talking about six times the number of active users.”
Launched in May 2019 – coinciding with Ramadan of that year – Watch iT is owned by Egypt’s United Media Services, the largest media conglomerate in the Middle East. Under its umbrella are several TV channels, radio stations, production houses, publications and advertising agencies. In short: United Media Services is in a unique position, as it already either owns or has some stake in much of the TV content being produced in Egypt.
“Our viewer numbers are on par with the international content streaming platforms, thanks to our library of Egyptian content that targets the whole family. We have content from the 60s and 70s up until the most recent releases,” explains Bekheet, alluding to an agreement with Maspero, Egypt’s state-run broadcaster, to exclusively stream the country’s rich archive of television programming. “We were able to take the online streaming habit from being primarily something a younger audience does, to something all segments can enjoy.”
Bekheet admits that the online entertainment industry is one of only a handful that is not only immune to the economic slowdown created by the Coronavirus pandemic, but is indeed thriving because of it. “Worldwide, numbers are up like crazy,” he says. “And you can feel it because of the internet slowdown. Some countries are even asking streaming services to reduce the quality of the content playback to lift some pressure off the infrastructure. People have completely turned to online entertainment because of the extra time they’re spending at home.”
“Being the first Egyptian brand to introduce video-on-demand with international standards – from technology to legality to content quality – we are trying to make it part of the daily habits of audiences,” he continues. “The shift does not happen overnight; we started Watch iT a year ago but Coronavirus has certainly helped accelerate the change in consumer behaviour.”
Of course, the most dramatic shift is the increase of subscribers: Bekheet says there are now around 3 million active Watch iT users, 700,000 of whom signed up in the month since Egypt’s evening curfew was announced in the last week of March 2020. In fact, to encourage Egyptians to stay home, Watch iT offered a free one-month subscription for every new sign-up – a marketing campaign that coincided with new title releases that were already in the pipeline, helping the platform turn casual viewers taking advantage of a free month, into paying, long-term subscribers. With Ramadan starting just as many of the free trials were ending, Watch iT’s marketing activations are a case study in good timing. “After the one month free trial, we introduced great value Ramadan bundles for families to subscribe to and acquired exclusive rights to stream 17 new TV series,” adds Bekheet. “I expect we’ll beat our own record for new subscribers by the end of April 2020.”
Beyond value for money and more time spent at home driving the massive uptake in online content streaming, Bekheet and the Watch iT team are noticing more substantial behavioural shifts among consumers. “In the MENA region, people are used to consuming content recklessly, without regard to the playback quality, the source of the content and its owners,” says Bekheet, referencing the content piracy that has plagued the region for as long as we’ve had internet.“The younger generation, however, have started thinking twice about how and where they get their entertainment content. They've become critics of quality content, both in its artistry and its technical specifications.”
Giving users control over what they consume lets streaming services like Watch iT unearth interesting insights, and even inspire new trends in content consumption. “We’re finding that lots of users are discovering content that they didn’t even know was being produced in Egypt, like high quality documentaries and theatrical plays. In fact, Yehia El Fakharany’s King Lear is one of the most viewed titles on Watch iT – and 75% of viewers who play it, watch it until the end,” says Bekheet, suggesting that audiences are growing more and more sophisticated and discerning. “We have to thank all the creatives for the epic content Egypt has been creating for over 60 years. Combining this content, with the right technology and the correct business model, I think Watch iT is on the right path to becoming one of the big international players.”
Though content is at the heart of Watch iT’s business model, and is indeed what is helping the company thrive during these uncertain times, Bekheet underlines the fact that the technology is equally important. “If content is king, then user experience is key. If you have good content but the experience is bad, the user will not have patience for it,” he says. To that end, Watch iT has introduced a whole host of new features over the last months to make bingeing a breeze – you can now skip show intros, jump to the next episode and get recommendations from an artificial intelligence-powered recommendation algorithm.
Watchit has also been rapidly increasing the platforms audiences can use the service on, now counting Apple TV, Amazon Fire Stick and Google Chromecast, alongside 95% of smart TVs and smartphones among the various compatible devices. “Content, marketing and technology. The three need to develop together,” says Bekheet, as the company also addresses some recent complaints among users of their mobile apps (simply updating the app on your device should fix any instability, a recent statement announced).
“We believe that what’s happened across the world over the last few months will change behaviour for a very long time. People have discovered that they can stay home, and I think they’ll continue to do that,” says Bekheet. Clearly, brands like Watch iT are among the few beneficiaries of this shift – but on the other hand, the increased consumption of content puts pressure on streaming services to continuously satisfy customers with new content.
“On average, each active Watch iT user watches nine different pieces of content per day – that’s a huge number. And the more they watch, the more we need to give them,” says Bekheet. Alongside continually acquiring new content, Watch iT of course benefits from its mother company’s media production arms to be able to create original programming – something the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime had to do in reverse, first making money through subscriptions before being able to fund their own productions. “This period instigated a real transformation from traditional media into digital media, across the MENA region – and it will stick, long after the COVID19 crisis is over.”
Additional reporting by Bahira Amin.
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