Many pundits and news outlets have declared the onset of “streaming wars,” as all the major traditional media companies have launched robust streaming products this year. The success of these battles is tracked in subscriber counts, new content launches, and the content brands that each platform boasts.

Valid enough. But Forrester believes there is another more covert battle just beginning to engage: the streaming experience war. And we just published our latest research defining the fronts in the battle: “The Forrester Digital Experience Review™: US Streaming Media Apps, Q3 2020.” We grade seven apps from top media companies on 18 functionality and five user experience (UX) criteria.

Experience is critical to success because the appeal of streaming goes beyond the content, rooted in a higher degree of control that consumers have compared to the old, one-way scheduled broadcast era. Content will get consumers to try a streaming app, but experience will keep them watching or paying a subscription fee.

As new apps crowd into this emerging space, we have seen experiences — and consumer expectations — evolving rapidly:

  • In the middle of our research, Hulu launched a new interface that tackled significant UX issues we found in the old version.
  • Consumers expressed disappointment in Netflix’s vaunted personalized recommendations because they weren’t personalized enough.
  • Disney+ drew praise for its clean, visually attractive UI and content categorization that eased consumers’ efforts to find what they want to watch, despite having almost no personalization.
  • And while the report identifies clear best practices, Peacock is trying a different path specific to how its viewers relate to its content (as I wrote about here).

While these services are engaged in a battle for the time, attention, and dollars of consumers, war is the wrong analogy. The dating analogy is equally cliché but closer to the truth: Streaming has wooed consumers with attractive content to land the first date, and now consumers are seeking the partner that will give them the most satisfying relationship. As the two parties get to know each other better, the terms of the relationship will continue to evolve, with the burden on the streaming services to be more and more responsive to the consumer’s desires. As with any new relationship, it’s often the little things that deepen the relationship most; in the case of streaming apps, it’s things beyond just the content: the ease of managing the relationship — i.e., subscription — and managing restrictions on what content the kids can view.

I’ll stop torturing the analogy and close by saying that streaming is a new behavior for consumers, and as they spend more and more time viewing, their expectations for effective, easy, and emotionally satisfying experiences will continue to evolve. Winning won’t be about getting the most first dates; it will be about developing the kind of rapport and enjoyment that only a long-term relationship can bring.