2020 will go down in history as possibly the most turbulent year in modern memory – a global pandemic, widespread climate change protests, the Black Lives Matter revolution- a year of economic, social, and environmental chaos. What has this turmoil meant for a creative, niche StartUp like Narrative Muse? For founder Brough Johnson, 2020 has become a year of listening. ” We needed to listen to what our audiences needed and really focus on product-market fit since the market had indelibly changed.”
GridAKL talks to Narrative Muse Founder Director Brough Johnson about the issues facing her business now.
What is Narrative Muse?
Narrative Muse delivers book and movie recommendations but better. We do this by pairing people’s personalities with the perfect read or watch.
Users sign up for free and are asked about their mood, taste, and identity. Then, they’re individually matched to books, movies, (and soon) TV by women and gender diverse creatives.
Narrative Muse believes that every individual is important and what they want to read and watch is important. No one should have to waste a bunch of time just to discover content that reflects them.
Describe briefly your journey with Narrative Muse from launch to early March 2020?
Our launch with Narrative Muse showed a lot of promise. After a single tweet from Canadian actor, Kat Barrell, we had 700 people sign up to our beta matchmaker. From there, we went on to complete our first pre-seed capital raise, and with the close of that round, we hired folks to join our team at the beginning of 2020. We were really excited about the international team we’d pulled together. We had been established with the help of over 100 volunteers and now we could value our volunteers’ contributions by paying them and scale with paid staff.
Narrative Muse, the company, decided that it needed to be global from day one. It’s funny to put it that way, but we as founders didn’t actively seek out being global. It just made sense for us. Because we’re online and because our volunteers (and now paid team members), come from 8 countries, we could cater to English-speaking audiences from all over the world. And since content is released at different times based on varying geographic distribution restrictions, it meant that we could be abreast of movies and books as they were released around the world.
So leading up to March 2020, we were starting to get our feet under us in our different markets around the world. We were just beginning to focus on brand recognition, and then, bang, Covid-19 hit.
What were your first thoughts when you heard NZ was about to enter lockdown as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic?
Initially, we felt very prepared. We already had a fully distributed team. We had complete systems in place for working remotely since none of us have ever worked in the same space before. We went straight into ‘what are the needs of audiences in lockdown?’ mode and got cracking.
We immediately pivoted to introduce TV to our recommendation engine. That required a lot of work from our international curators to start sourcing great TV. Because our matchmaker is so unique in the way that it offers recommendations, we have actual humans reading and watching our content. We need this human data set so that in time, we can use it to train our AI engine.
How did Covid-19 impact your business?
Covid-19 impacted us in challenging ways and yet made us a better business in more ways than we could ever have imagined. Going into lockdown, we thought it was our job to talk to our audience so that they could hear us. We learned that instead, 2020 was a year of listening. We needed to listen to what our audiences needed and really focus on product-market fit since the market had indelibly changed.
The media landscape was also changing rapidly. March through June, in particular, saw constant coverage of the global pandemic, global economic recession, and Black Lives Matter. And this was the space we were entering. How do you introduce your product into a space where people are so focused on so many other huge, life-changing things? On top of all that, media companies were falling over globally due to lack of advertising. It became virtually impossible for our small company to get a story in front of an editor for publication. Getting on TV and the radio was also incredibly difficult if the story wasn’t about Covid-19, economic recovery, or Black Lives Matter.
So we turned to listening. We listened to our own global team when they told us we needed to be more ethnically and racially representative of our audiences. We immediately looked at our team and what changes we need to make. We brought in one of our advisory board members, Dil Khosa, to look after our people and culture and hired additional staff.
We listened when our team told us that we weren’t empathetic enough to our international audiences experiencing extreme stress from social unrest. So we looked at our communications and began being more considerate of this incredibly trying time.
We listened when it became clear that underrepresented audiences are demanding the mic more than ever. We began live conversations with content creators from marginalised groups called Flip the Script. And we looked at our own content recommendations to make sure that our curations were representative of diverse women and gender diverse audiences.
We listened when major studios and publishers like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Studios, Warner Brothers, and Hachette openly announced that they needed to fundamentally do more to represent their Black audiences. So we began to plan how we would best serve these future customers when we built our data platform that would help studios and publishers understand what underserved audiences are seeking.
What were the key elements of a successful pivot, or successful plan to grow your business?
User growth is our number one priority. Initially, we had planned to scale our audiences through the network effect of author, actor, and filmmaker champions. As soon as Covid-19 hit, that became an insensitive approach because most of these folks were experiencing extreme stress due to loss of work.
Then we turned to the media and PR. There we quickly discovered that the entire news and media industry was experiencing huge upheaval due to the folding of so many magazines and the loss of huge swathes of journalists after advertising revenue fell through the floor.
Today, since content creators are back to work, we’re reengaging with these champions on topics that are particularly relevant today.
Media is still under a lot of pressure and is still focused largely on the global pandemic, economic instability, and racial justice, so we pivoted away from media. Instead, we’re focused on testing various marketing messages to find the best way to engage with new users.
Our second priority is content scaling in our recommendation matchmaker. This is a priority for us for both user happiness but also for an R&D project we’re working on. In order to advance our technology and IP, we need to improve our algorithm, and to do that, we need lots of people rating how good we are at giving them recommendations. And to do that, we need a lot of content that matches people’s taste.
We’ve learned from our users that they want to see diverse content from women and gender diverse creators with various intersectional traits. Intersectionality is the confluence of identity traits that make us who we are. This can be our race, ethnicity, disability, religion etc. Our audiences wanted to see their diversity represented in our content. This has always been something that we’ve worked on in our content curation but what we learned through Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter, is the importance of openly naming this and making sure that the leadership on our team represents a diverse range of people from different backgrounds.
How does the ‘new’ Narrative Muse differ from the original concept? ( If it differs at all)
The new Narrative Muse is one that’s more explicit about our support of women and gender diverse people from all different backgrounds. There’s no place for the underrepresentation of Black people, and there’s no place for the underrepresentation of people from other marginalized groups. Transgender folks, people of color, people with disabilities, and people from various sexualities all deserve to be represented when they join Narrative Muse to discover stories that reflect who they are.
Some have asked me why we’re focusing on this ‘niche’ audience. The reality is that our audience isn’t entirely a gendered audience. Two thirds of our audience are women and gender diverse people and one third is men. We’ve learned that our recommendation matchmaker isn’t just for people of certain demographic tags. It’s also for people who share the same value set. These are people who want to read and watch stories from underrepresented groups. So Narrative Muse is for anybody who has an interest in reading or watching amazing stories from people we don’t usually hear from.
What are your plans for the next 6 mths?
Our plan for the next 6 months is to continue growing our user base. We’ll also be developing more relationships with champions who are in alignment with our kaupapa.
We’ll refine our algorithm to not only improve our recommendations but to also reduce the number of questions we ask our users when they sign up. This R&D project will also help us understand where our recommendation gaps are. Ultimately, we’re continuing to work on being the most dynamic and accurate personalised recommendation source for our book/movie/TV-loving audiences.
And lastly, we’ll be raising money in the second half of this year. If anyone reading this has any suggestions of values-aligned investors, send them our way!
What are your long term goals- what does the future hold for you?
What I haven’t spoken about is our ‘why’. This drives our long term goals. Narrative Muse was created to change the entertainment landscape to be more gender diverse.
To do this, we’ve created a recommendation engine that helps us understand what audiences are actively seeking. With this data, we can predict best selling content and box office hits. We can also understand how to market content to unexpected audiences.
Our ‘forward-looking’ data is unique because it’s based on audiences’ searches for what they would like to read and watch. All other media analytics companies use ‘backward-facing’ data which reflects what content has sold well in the past.
In a post-Covid world, this backward-facing data is less relevant since audiences’ tastes have changed so dramatically. Also, backward-facing data is based on what content currently exists. It reinforces more of the same. Our data unearths what content would be incredibly financially successful should it be given the opportunity to be made.
Our future is one in which we’re working with publishers, producers, and distributors to fully understand this underserved audience and produce and market content for them.
What are the key learnings you will take from this Covid-19 experience?
Our key learnings are that New Zealand is having a very different experience of Covid-19 from the rest of the world. We have a very different perception of the loss, grief, and unrest that much of the world is experiencing.
From a social perspective, we’re incredibly lucky to have an economy that’s rebounding and a population that’s healthy. As a nation, we are also getting better at having more open conversations about marginalisation and inclusion. I believe that these conversations will continue to grow in volume.
From a business perspective, New Zealand companies are at risk of not fully appreciating the extraordinary impact that social unrest has had on so much of the world.
If we’re looking to expand our markets, it’s important that we really listen to the needs of these markets. Now is not a time to push a product or service onto people. Instead, it’s a time to truly understand what’s necessary for these markets as they pick up the pieces and continue to survive through this continuing pandemic. And for marginalised customers, the products and services these groups engage with must be seeking to value their everyday existence. To ignore the significance of Black Lives Matter and marginalised groups is to ignore such groups as essential, valuable members of communities. It’s not only a limit to New Zealand businesses’ growth and the value our companies will bring to the world, it’s a limit to our growth as a global society.