Audience, it takes more than just building content. To this end, BBC StoryWorks was announced in India in June, 2015. Jamie Angus reveals how BBC is gearing up to tap the Indian digital audience, while focussing on being a trusted news source, in a conversation with BrandWagon’s Ananya Saha. Edited excerpts:
What is the growth plan of BBC Global News in India, especially when the market is witnessing more takers of regional content?
BBC has a global mission to reach half-a-billion people weekly by 2022, which is also a centennial year for the BBC. We are at around 380 million now.
We see headline audience growth in language. We want to grow in English for our TV and digital platform. Indian language growth is very important to us. If we could grow our TV distribution or digital content in Hindi just by a small percentage, it would be a big headline audience growth for us. The big Indian language markets do matter but they are really competitive. We have just entered some of the regional markets where we began with a low digital base, so we are sure we can drive it up pretty quickly.
You have been very vocal about the issue of fake news. With Indian elections approaching in 2019, what steps are important to tackle this?
There is an interesting question around the world about media literacy. The idea is that our audiences, from the youth upwards, are growing to understand what differentiates fake news from real news. The news brand is central to that. The value of BBC news brands is that they are the most trusted new brands. People instinctively trust what BBC publishes. In all markets, audiences, publishers and news regulators have to do more to prevent fake news from being shared. Audiences need not share things that they do not know are true; regulators need to work out what is the proper mechanism to encourage quality provision in their markets and news publishers need to build a trusted brand.
Is BBC planning any new platforms to attract the Indian digital audience?
Not immediately because we have just launched these new language services. At the moment, our commercial strategy here is to work in partnership with local providers to sell programming in the market; for instance, Dancing with the Stars with Colors TV is a BBC co-production. The OTT market is crowded here, occupied by three big players already.
How will Facebook’s decision to rationalise its newsfeed affect organisations like BBC and their social media posts?
It will affect all news organisations but it is too early to tell how. What Facebook has said to us, and probably to other news publishers as well, is that it is not downgrading news content but it is changing the order and focus on that news content that promotes social networking. It is back to the original vision of FB that promotes social conversation. There is no reason that this will lead to a steep drop of news content on FB; but it is asking news publishers to rethink the kind of content they should have — articles that promote conversations and sharing. Now, what that means in practice, only time will tell.
What is BBC’s overall digital content strategy and the organisation’s views on paywall?
The lesson of digital publishing is that you have to concentrate on your USP. BBC is never going to primarily compete on a national news market. We obviously publish national and regional stories from India. One needs to have a content strategy that focusses on their unique proposition, which for us is high quality international news and being in the premium space with impartial and independent content.
The BBC World News channel sits in the subscription package and thus, is premium. But our BBC website is not paywalled. My feeling is that paywall can work for digital publishers only if they have very distinctive and niche content with a very clear value. In the English language market, The Financial Times, The Economist and NYT all do well as paywalled news portals. A paywall is not right for BBC in these markets, particularly because our objective is reach and not just commercial. We are also a public service organisation and are not purely pursuing a commercial mission, but are aiming for reach particularly in South East Asia and other parts of Asia. So paywalling and limiting our audience in this region is not likely.
What are the key platforms for your digital growth?
Like everyone else, we see most of the growth across mobile and tablets. However, it is really important to continue to support and drive desktop.
Brand loyalty and repeat traffic are better on desktop. We have to work on improving brand loyalty and brand impact on mobile. It is not unique to us, but applies to all publishers where readers are only clicking through one article on mobile.
Which markets promise growth for BBC?
BBC is expanding into additional markets. We launched Marathi, Telugu, Punjabi and Gujarati language services in October, 2017 — some are digital and some, for TV. We have also added three Nigerian language services in the last year. We have BBC services in Russian, Spanish and Chinese. Even if we can make a tiny percentage of language users, it would mean a huge number for BBC News because of the base size of the audience. There are 650 million Hindi audiences; even if we manage to drive a small percentage of the Hindi digital audience, it will mean a huge number of people.
Are we seeing a growth of sponsored content on news platforms?
Possibly, but I am quite interested in brand partnerships like StoryWorks. A branded content shop is an important part of our commerce strategy. Our news content cannot directly be sponsored. My perception of the market is that more and more brands want to create content with a media partner. They just do not want to pay for the content, but rather make content with us so that their advertising enjoys the assured quality of a trusted news brand. That is why BBC StoryWorks is important to us. Most premium digital publishers are experiencing the same thing.
Your parting thoughts on where brands are placed at the moment when it comes to publishers?
When we are working with advertisers, brand jeopardy is a big issue at the moment. Last year there were lots of issues about pre-roll videos and ads appearing next to extremist content on YouTube. I think we saw that it became a significant event in the advertising world where brands had to think very carefully about where they would be placed. BBC has a trusted environment for our
Brand safety has become a key concern and we see ourselves very strongly placed towards that.
By Ananya Saha