Netflix (NFLX 1.39%) blew away expectations for net subscriber additions in the first quarter. Instead of the 7 million new accounts management expected to add, it ended up with 15.7 million.
To be sure, the coronavirus pandemic and stay-at-home orders fueled sign ups for Netflix. Management even warned investors not to get too excited. "Intuitively, the person who didn't join Netflix during the entire confinement is not likely to join soon after the confinement." And management said it expects subscriber additions to come in lighter in the second half of the year compared to last year.
While lockdown orders continued through the second quarter, with many governments cautiously allowing businesses to reopen in May and June, there's a bigger factor at play that could lead Netflix to outperform its expectations to add 7.5 million net subscribers: Fewer people are cancelling their subscriptions.
Research from SunTrust Robinson Humphrey analyst Matthew Thornton shows a decline in searches for "cancel Netflix" as well as promising app download data from Sensor Tower. Both indicate lower subscriber churn, which ultimately supports strong net additions.
Churn can be a bigger factor for Netflix than gross additions
Netflix had 183 million subscribers at the end of the first quarter. Keeping those subscribers happy and paying month after month can have a massive impact on its total subscriber count. A 10 basis point (0.1 percentage points) improvement in monthly churn translates into over half-a-million net subscribers per quarter for Netflix.
Lower churn can be especially impactful in the United States and Canada (UCAN), and other mature markets where gross additions are harder to come by. In the second quarter last year, Netflix lost 130,000 subscribers in the UCAN region. Management blamed the subscriber losses on lower gross additions. It subsequently saw fewer than expected net subscriber additions in the U.S. in the second half of the year before admitting competition from companies like Disney (DIS -0.75%) may be having an impact on its results, noting "slightly elevated churn."
The competition from other media companies is only getting stronger. Disney launched Disney+ in Europe and in India at the end of March and in early April. AT&T launched HBO Max in the U.S. at the end of May. Being able to keep churn low through those launches should help Netflix beat net subscriber addition estimates.
While Thornton's research shows cancellation rates have been low for the last few months, there's still a lot of uncertainty ahead for Netflix.
Netflix is facing a tough third quarter with no big tentpole releases on the schedule. It released Stranger Things season 3 in July last year, but the next season didn't start filming until earlier this year, and it's been delayed due to COVID-19. Meanwhile, post-production may be taking longer than before in the new social-distancing environment, so the third quarter may have a dearth of original content available for release. Combined with warmer weather, restaurants and stores reopening, and new competition, Netflix may not see churn levels remain low through the third quarter.
Investors will want to keep an eye on Netflix's release schedule for the rest of the year. A lack of noteworthy new series or films may be a bad sign. That said, you never know when Netflix could release the next Tiger King. It's capable of producing surprise hits and blowing up their popularity thanks to its expansive reach and the ultimate marketing tool: the Netflix home screen.