Icflix is witnessing a phenomenal growth spree, with new offices opening in North Africa and Europe in the next few months, and the freshest content hitting the platform earlier than ever. Digital Broadcast speaks with Carlos Tibi, CEO of Icflix, to uncover the company’s plan to shake up the market
Video streaming websites have popped up over the years in increasing numbers. Netflix and YouTube are perhaps the most famous of the bunch and every year millions of viewers are turning to streaming movies and TV series, instead of watching it through linear TV.
Perhaps the biggest reason for this change is the freedom it gives users to watch the content they want, whenever they want and on whatever device they want to watch it on.
Icflix is the first video streaming platform of its kind in the Middle East. At just $7.99 subscribers can watch a huge library of content as well as the latest TV series and recent movies.
The business model is also evolving to offer pay-per-view content and Super Premium content, which are movies shown on the same day of international cinema releases. Carlos Tibi, the CEO of Icflix told Digital Broadcast about the challenges the company faced and the methods it devised to overcome them and steadfastly reach for success.
“We launched and ever since then we have learned a lot about the market itself. No one had done anything like this, especially paid as VoD, from the region. We did not know what to expect. We knew there is demand for the service and the content, but once we launched we had to cross a lot of hurdles. Some being localisation and others monetisation of content.
“We read a lot of industry reports for the UAE, which said that 70-80% of customers use their credit card online, but in reality we have seen only 15%. Most of the credit card holders we have met are expats, which have come to Dubai with their credit cards from back home, and are hesitant to use those cards for local purchases.
That was on its own a challenge, the other was dealing with local payment gateways. Our payment gateway was handling local and international credit cards but they had to be of a specific denomination for transactions to go through.
We then developed a platform called Icpay, which addresses the local markets across the MENA region. Now for every market we have its payment instruments and credit card issues resolved, so that helped our growth and strategy,” says Tibi.
The second challenge that Tibi faced was around content. While Icflix had a fairly large library of content, it was not completely sure what people’s tastes were, and what age groups would be interested.
“We had an idea that it would be the younger crowd, then when we launched we saw that it was not just the younger crowd, but the older generation was also very interested too because of Jazwood – the Arabic content.
“We were learning that people showed different tastes towards our content. People were starting
to tell us that they preferred action, drama, horror and Sci-Fi a lot more than comedy. Hence we had to tailor our content to that.
We’ve also seen a huge interest in Jazwood content, especially across the MENA. We’ve had people excited by the fact that they can watch all these titles in one place,” Tibi says.
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The age demographic that were eager to watch Jazwood content were in the range of 40 and above. The challenge with that demographic was how to allow them to seamlessly access the service. They did not necessarily want to go on the web and register and go through the process.
They simply wanted to turn on the TV and watch the content, according to Tibi. “This prompted us to devise our OEM strategy with our partners, where we go to these demographics and help them set up their account, and get them to access the service. As soon as they overcome that hump then they start actually enjoying the service,” Tibi explains.
He says: “With the younger demographic we didn’t have many issues, but they are definitely more demanding. They want newer content, and all of it. I wouldn’t say it’s impossible but it’s extremely challenging to get every single piece of content out there.
We gathered the masses and started speaking with our studio partners to add content, and during that process we’ve established a lot of studio relationships. We’ve signed up with nearly 50 studios from Hollywood, both independent and major studios.
Some of the content is on the site, and some is still not on there, because when we take on any piece of content, we need to localise it for each country in the region, because every country has different language preferences.”
Language preferences were considered key to make subscribers feel comfortable while interacting with the platform. Icflix currently offers its users audio in Arabic, English and French. Portuguese will also be offered soon. More than navigational preference, it was also important to get the subtitling right.
Tibi says: “In the Middle East, a lot of it is in Arabic and English. In North Africa a lot of it is French Spanish and Arabic, while the Levant speaks mainly French and Arabic. So with each country we localise the content to that user’s preferences. Same with the titles themselves.
Some titles which you see in certain countries in the region are not available in other countries. This may be because of licences, but more possibly because of censorship rules that we have to follow.
So for all these things, we acted very quickly and from the time we launched up until late December we decided that we resolved a lot of these issues and decided to launch our outdoor campaign.
We have done all the creative design and media buying in-house and then we launched our campaign in the UAE and some other GCC countries. However UAE was the primary objective that we wanted to use as a launchpad.”
Tibi says that since the company started advertising the service through billboards, it has seen a massive jump in subscriptions, with the UAE being the highest in terms of number of subscribers.
“We have 45,000 paid subscribers overall at the moment, and this is only growing. Nearly 40% of the subscriber base is from the UAE, followed by KSA, next is Algeria and Tunisia which are huge markets for us and this is followed by Egypt,” explains Tibi.
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He credits a few factors to this overwhelming success. “Our price point is extremely efficient, our content offering is extremely good, and the accessibility is great. These are the three things we focused to get those subscribers – convenience, accessibility and affordability.”
Tibi explains convenience as accessing the content anywhere on any device of your choosing. It is through this accessibility that Icflix has apps on 400 native devices, with plans to expand to 1,000 native OTT devices by the end of the year. The company has scored partnerships with Microsoft, Nokia, Samsung, LG, Panasonic and Apple TV.
“The other side of the accessibility for the customer comes with set-top boxes. Right now we’re in talks with the top 10 hybrid set-top box manufacturers. We’re working with Ericsson Media room, which is what people are used to in the living room today, with IPTV providers.
By the end of the year we hope to be available on at least five extremely popular set top boxes from manufacturers such as Ericsson, Huawei, LG and Samsung. We need to be in front of the customer for any given device of their choice. We will also be launching on Chrome cast by Google, so you will be able to watch Icflix using a Chrome cast dongle,” Tibi says.
Icflix initially launched its beta service with a price point of $11.99. Whilst studying the market’s reaction, Tibi says it was clear that this wasn’t an appealing price for subscribers in the region. This is why it dropped its price to $7.99 as the official launch price.
“For this amount, the Icflix platform allows access for up to five different devices, as well as five different sub-accounts, which means a family of five can pay $7.99 and each family member can watch a different show on a different device without having to disrupt the viewing of another family member,” Tibi says.
Tibi says when Icflix first came out in the region, and even till today, certain linear TV broadcasters were disturbed by the platform. Subscribers are growing from every country in the MENA, and the UAE is still way ahead in terms of subscription, with KSA soon catching up.
“As a result of all this IPTV and linear television channels felt the threat, and started putting roadblocks in our way however they could. We were able to overcome most of these roadblocks by extending the hand of friendship. We’re not here to take away anyone’s business, we’re simply here to provide an affordable form of entertainment on people’s time, rather than allowing viewers to be dictated what they should watch.
“People today are so used to their independence. Freedom and independence is one key thing that you can’t take away from anyone, and they want it in everything they do today. Especially when it comes to entertainment. It’s no longer the age of someone telling you what to watch, when to watch and how you have to watch it. It is the age of you saying what you want to watch, how you want to watch it and when. So we’re giving that flexibility to the user,” Tibi explains.
Tibi thinks broadcasters should give their viewers the freedom to decide. “I feel they should allow the customer to decide. In some cases we’ve seen broadcasters buy outright output deals from some major studios and they just shelve them.
They don’t even broadcast it to the public. They only do this so that no one else can get rights to the content. This is one of the reasons for piracy in the Middle East. Users have said they pirate content because it’s not available in the market. This is where traditional players don’t see the bigger picture. A service like Icflix is helping them curtail piracy,” he says.
As for competition from players like Selevision, Tibi encourages others to enter the field and educate people about streaming TV. He thinks competition is healthy and it is only with competition that viewers can decide what service they want to subscribe to.
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“Our platform is second to none. Content-wise we are much better than the competition with Jazwood and Hollywood content and with S-VoD OTT. We want competition to come to the market because it will help us sell our product faster,” Tibi says.
Icflix is continuing to invest all its profits into the company, and top-level management have decided that over the next five years they don’t want to take a penny in profit. That is the key to success, according to Tibi.
He says: “We are investing more every day, be it for additional content or expanding our technology footprint. Our growth strategy has been effective. We started in Dubai, opened up our Egypt office, and our Prague office for technology and research and now we have launched an office in Casablanca, Morocco on May 1st.
Next month, we are going to open an office in Kuwait, and on June 1st, we’re opening up a Tunis office, as we’re extremely committed to North Africa, as much as we are committed to the Middle East market.”
The challenges in North Africa are more broadband related, where lower internet speeds can affect streaming, but Icflix has fully considered these possibilities and is prepared for it.
“We have adapted our technology to go as low as 256kbs, and have created special profiles for markets like Africa where broadband speeds are not as high as they are here. Yes the content that will be viewable is not HD, it will be in watchable SD for these markets, with the volume being very good. We are enhancing our sound control by partnering with Dolby.
So in the next two months we will have our entire library in Dolby 5.1 Surround, hence regardless of where the user is, volume will not be affected, the picture will still watchable in SD without any buffering, given the bandwidth constraints.
“We are also downplaying the size of the files, with technologies that allow us to stream movies that would normally stream at 1GB, to sizes which can stream like 100MB. We use in-house compression technology based on H.265 to make it easier and less expensive for the user when it comes to internet usage. This is primarily to give users the option in markets where there are yet no unlimited internet packages,” continues Tibi.
Icflix is also paving its way into Europe and Canada, where it intends to promote its Jazwood content to the local Arab diaspora. With Ramadan around the corner, the company is not resting on its laurels, but rather piling on a library of content from local production houses.
“We are going massive for Ramadan. We’re buying excellent TV shows from Egypt and other markets in the region that are locally produced. It will be a flavour of many shows that will be appealing to people during Ramadan.
“We are also launching a campaign in the UK, where from mid-June to late August you will be seeing Icflix advertisements on bus shelters in London, to appeal to the Arabic diaspora. We are doing the same in France, with a bit of outdoor and digital advertising.
This will be complemented with a local presence, with Icflix employees in the country. We want to push Jazwood to the Arab population. A similar model will also be used in Canada.
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We’ll be targeting Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto, those being the three cities where a lot of Arabs live. We are enthusiastic to push our product with the help of local partners in Canada,” Tibi says.
Peering through the looking glass, Tibi says: “S-VoD is the key product that we have and we’re going to complement it with what we call ‘Super Premium VoD’. This is the term studios use and is day and date theatrical with US cinema. As soon as the product hits cinemas in the US, we get it.
This product will launch after Ramadan and is on a pay-per-view basis because it is a cinematic show. This is not available with all the studios, we’ve got some on board for the service, but others are still studying the results of it. This product will not be available in certain markets because of the cinema industry, but it will be available in a lot of markets across the Middle East.”
He also says Transaction VoD will launch around the same time, and this is content that is available after the cinema window. With TV products, Icflix is buying new TV products, so the majority you see on the platform from TV series is actually recent and running.
The company is also working on bundle packages with certain smart TV and video game manufacturers.
“We have a relationship with LG and Samsung, where every time you buy a smart TV, they bundle an Icflix subscription with it. The terms range from a one-month to three-month subscription. We are working on the same thing with Microsoft’s Xbox One and PlayStation, where you can hope to see bundle deals,” Tibi says.
Furthermore, Icflix will soon introduce retail stands to sell subscriptions. Customers across the UAE can go and pick up a small box which has a six-month or one-year subscription, and furthermore, speak with Icflix employees about the service.
Tibi says: “We believe that interaction is extremely important and we want to educate people about the service. We also intend to take this model to hub markets such as Cairo, Casablanca, Tunisia, Algiers, Kuwait and Riyadh, so you’ll see a lot of our stands popping up over the next 12 months.
“In some instances we will also introduce ‘Icflix geeks’ where there will be people that can help customers sign up, and if you’re having trouble at home on your smart TV or your box, we’ll have someone sent to your home to help you connect and access the service.
So that’s how we’re addressing this by having local physical presence, as well as scoring deals with our partners like Samsung and Film and ComicCon to market all three genres locally, and Jazwood globally,” says Tibi.