What Quibi Got Wrong

It’s hard to imagine what more could have gone wrong for the launch of Quibi. The short-form, mobile-only streaming app set sail amid the worst pandemic in a hundred years that has left people with hours of time on their hands and decidedly un-mobile.

It bet heavily on a technical twist — its Turnstyle portrait-to-landscape viewing feature — that is now the subject of a patent infringement lawsuit that could prove costly, and it suffered a major privacy breach less than a month after launch.

It also baffled and frustrated early users by having no connection to TVs or any other non-mobile platform, and its ad-supported tier still costs $5 a month.

As a result, despite billions in advertising and promotion, including an expensive Super Bowl ad, Quibi has so far managed to attract only 1.3 million active users, most of whom are still on a free trial, and the app quickly fell out of top 100 list of iPhone app downloads.

In an interview with the New York Times last week, Quibi co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg blames the poor showing so far on Covid-19.

“I attribute everything that has gone wrong to coronavirus,” Katzenberg said. “Everything.”

But there was a lot wrong with Quibi even before the Covid lockdown.

The initial lack of a connection to the TV was both a monumental miscalculation (which the company is now scrambling to fix) and a tell. It was a strategic decision premised on the idea that a service provider can dictate to consumers long-habituated to all-platform access to content what the use-case must be and which device they must use for it.

It’s the same way of thinking that led the record industry to believe they could continue to force consumers to buy high-margin CD albums even after Napster had empowered consumers to disaggregate the bundle. It’s as if Quibi’s big-name Hollywood backers have learned nothing about consumers and digital services in the nearly three decades since.

Quibi also raised $1.75 billion before launch and used it to pay A-list talent to create original programming based on the untested premise that consumers want to watch professionally produced long-form content cut up into 10-minute chunks.

In short, there was nothing at all organic about Quibi. Its content is un-viral by design, there is no way to engage with it apart from passive consumption, and it’s not designed for binging.

Compare that with TikTok, which came out of nowhere less than three years ago and has amassed 2 billion viewers worldwide. The platform is mobile-friendly by design but its content is designed for engagement. Unlike Quibi, it’s seen a surge in users since everyone was forced to stay home and is now attracting the same sort of A-list talent to create content organically that Quibi has paid so handsomely for.

Quibi needs to go back to the drawing board.