For almost as long as Netflix (NFLX 2.47%) has had a streaming service, investors and analysts have asked if the company will get into advertising. Every time, Netflix has always given the same answer: hard pass.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings appreciates the simplicity of the streamer's business model, seeing its simple value proposition as a strength. From a consumer perspective, it's very easy to understand how Netflix works. You pay a monthly fee, and you get all the entertainment you want with no ads. He also seems to think advertising would distract from the company's focus on pleasing customers, and potentially attract controversy over data collection, as he said in the earnings call in January 2020. He also believes that competing with ad heavyweights like Alphabet's Google and Facebook would be difficult, as Netflix would have to essentially take market share from them. 

However, the streaming universe has evolved considerably since then, and Netflix needs to be open to updating its business. It faces new competition from a wide range of legacy media companies and others, including Walt Disney's Disney+, Apple's Apple TV+, Comcast's Peacock, HBOMax from AT&T, Paramount+ from ViacomCBS, and Discovery Communications' Discovery+.

A mural featuring Netflix characters

Image source: Netflix.

As Netflix seeks new ways to stay ahead of the competition and deliver value for investors, advertising is starting to look like an appealing option. Here's why.

1. The domestic market is maturing

For Netflix, 2020 was a banner year. The company added 32.6 million new subscribers globally, just 6.3 million of whom came from North America, even with the lockdowns and social distancing policies in effect during the pandemic. In the first quarter of 2021, it added just 450,000 net new members in North America, its weakest first quarter in the region since it launched streaming.

Netflix is maturing in its home market, and it could approach a saturation point soon, as it already claims half of the households in the U.S. and Canada as customers. The company has also reached its target of 60 million to 90 million households in the U.S., as it finished last year with 74.4 million members in North America.

However, Netflix still needs to find ways to grow its North American business, and increasing its subscriber base by less than 10% annually isn't going to be enough. That helps explain why Netflix raised prices in the U.S. earlier this year, increasing the fee on its standard package from $12.99/month to $13.99/month. But raising prices every year isn't sustainable, especially with mounting competition.

That makes an ad-based tier an excellent option for Americans who may not want to pay full price for Netflix. If the streamer had a lower-priced ad-supported tier, it would also be easier for it to raise prices on its ad-free service, as it would still offer something for price-sensitive customers. Netflix has also said it would crack down on password sharing, and offering an ad-based option would be another way to appeal to customers who might otherwise just use a friend's account.

2. Connected TV is booming

The market for ad-driven streaming, or Connected TV (CTV), has surged during the pandemic, as have stocks with exposure to the category like Roku, The Trade Desk, and Magnite. A number of ad tech stocks have reported high double-digit percentage -- or even triple-digit -- growth in the category as the massive linear TV ad market begins to shift over to CTV. At Roku, the leading streaming device maker, platform revenue, which advertising is a significant component of, rose 71% last year to $1.27 billion.

EMarketer expects the U.S. CTV market to grow 38% this year to $11.4 billion, and to more than double from 2020 to reach $18.3 billion in 2024.

Advertisers love CTV for a number of reasons. Video ads convert better than ads on other formats. Streaming also offers a captive audience with ads that are difficult to skip, and it offers a level of granular data that linear TV can't compete with. CTV is also the only way for brands to do targeted advertising on television, giving them a much larger screen than they get with a mobile device.

As CTV streaming options and audience sizes grow, its appeal to advertisers will only increase.

3. Advertising is a high-margin business

Hastings dismissed the potential for Netflix in advertising because it would be too difficult to compete with digital ad powerhouses like Google and Facebook, but the fast-growing CTV market shows that's not really accurate. As the streaming leader, Netflix can offer something that search-based and social media ads can't -- and as the streaming leader, Netflix would likely be the CTV leader if it wanted to be.

Not surprisingly, brands would love the opportunity to advertise on Netflix. One media consultant told Ad Week early last year, "It's such an opportunity for them (Netflix), not just to offer something ad-supported, but to put their own spin on it. There's such a need and a hunger, from an advertising point of view, for brand-safe premium video, and there are so many advertisers that would love to creatively work with them and do it in a tasteful way."

The experience of other digital ad companies shows that it would almost certainly be a lucrative business for Netflix. The content is already in place, and the company has 75 million subscribers in North America happy to pay for it, many of whom watch hours of content each day. At Disney-owned Hulu, the ad business actually brings in more revenue than ad-free subscribers. In its most recent quarter, average revenue per Hulu streaming subscriber was $13.51 per month, compared to just $11.99 for an ad-free subscription.

Building an ad business from scratch isn't easy, but Netflix already has relationships with brands through creative partnerships. That includes product placements and tie-ins through Netflix's social media accounts, including partner products like Subway sandwiches. Stranger Things, the hit '80s-based sci-fi show, had deals with 75 companies.

Hastings has made his feelings on advertising clear, and Netflix will likely avoid it for the foreseeable future. But as domestic subscriber growth slows and CTV ramps up, calls for an ad-based option could get louder. Over the long term as Netflix matures, an ad-based tier seems almost inevitable.