How DramaFever gets people to pay for Korean soap operas

DramaFever has built a passionate audience off an underserved niche: people hooked on Korean TV soap operas and other foreign movies and TV shows.

That’s allowed it to not rely solely on ads, offering an ad-free subscription option for more than five years. This summer, the New York-based video service, now owned by Softbank, has moved to a tiered subscription model that is as much about the additional perks it can offer to satisfy its fans as it is about advertising, accessibility and price. The goal is to grow the number of people who subscribe directly to DramaFever, which claims 21 million viewers of its content across its owned-and-operated platforms and syndication partners like Hulu, YouTube and iTunes.

DramaFever’s library has more than 15,000 episodes of TV shows from more than 70 foreign content providers and is curated across four different tiers: a free, ad-supported version; a “Rookie” option priced at $0.99 per month (and billed annually); an “Idol” subscription, which runs for $4.99 per month; and a “Superstar” subscription, which costs either $9.99 per month or $99.99 for a full year.

If the names of the different subscription plans sound like DramaFever is offering a membership to a special club, that’s the intent. “Most people have key categories that they are passionate about and want to dive deeper into,” said Seung Bak, co-founder and CEO of DramaFever.

“We crafted our tiers around the audience — both our existing super-fans and our not-yet-converted extended family,” said Rob Kamphausen, DramaFever’s head of product.

Take, for instance, the Superstar subscription option. It has the usual selling points: no ads, access to exclusive movies and TV shows and Chromecast support. But there are other perks, as well, including exclusive invites to events hosted by DramaFever, which in the past has produced events ranging from screenings to an annual awards show. Other perks include a 20 percent discount for merchandise on its e-commerce hub FeverShop.

“Superstars are the fans that want it all; and we do our best to match that expectation,” said Kamphausen. “We are constantly dreaming up new ways to enhance this experience to ensure it’s fulfilling the promise.”

DramaFever employed a similar approach for two subscription services it’s powering for AMC Networks. The services, the horror-themed Shudder and the documentary-themed Doc Club, feature subscription plans that offer physical perks such as tickets to festivals and screenings and exclusive, limited-edition merchandise.

“When we were developing these services, we approached membership as a community,” said Linda Pan, svp of new digital business at AMC Networks. “A membership is different from a subscription — the benefits go beyond just [the act of] streaming video.”

Of course, users only interested in streaming have the option — or options — on DramaFever. The service’s mid-tier Idol option also comes with no advertising and Chromecast support, just none of the physical perks. The Rookie option promises “fewer ads” than DramaFever’s free version.

While declining to provide exact subscriber numbers, Kamphausen said a “bulk” of DramaFever’s audience is watching content on the free version, though subscribers are growing at a “robust” rate since the tiered model was introduced across platforms between April and June.

ComScore data pegs’s U.S. viewership at 1.3 million in July. That number doesn’t capture the “significant increase” the service is seeing in Latin America and on mobile and connected-TV devices, said Yale Wang, head of marketing for DramaFever.

“We have some of the most passionate and engaged users in the [streaming] space,” Wang said, adding that ad-supported users stream more than 10 hours of content per month, while subscribers in the three “premium” tiers are averaging more than 35 hours of streaming per month.

Going forward, the company is focused on catering to the super-fans, and wherever possible, converting those who are sampling the service for free to paid, committed subscribers.

“This is not just about video; when you pump into a passionate community, they want to interact with other fans, they want to follow [their favorite] titles, characters and actors,” said Bak. “You need to create an outlet that keeps people engaged with the brand.”

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