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The BBC’s Quest for Relevance in a Digital World

David Nicholson

Ian Wolfe studied English and International Economics at UCLA and, later, an MSc in Business and Strategic Leadership at Cranfield University. He worked at The Walt Disney Company, blinkbox and PayPal before joining the BBC in 2015. His current role includes driving consumption of the BBC’s digital services, CRM automation and performance marketing.

Key takeaways:

  • In a cookieless world, the BBC has an inbuilt advantage
  • The corporation works closely with Google and Meta
  • The giant media companies are protecting their own ecosystems
  • Digital marketing is crucial to the future relevance of the BBC

As a publicly-funded broadcaster, the BBC reaches 90 per cent of the UK population every week, through its television, radio and online channels. In its Royal Charter, the corporation has to act in the public interest, serving audiences through impartial, high quality and distinctive output which informs, educates and entertains.

Ian Wolfe is the BBC’s Head of Digital Media. With a background at Walt Disney and PayPal, he sees his role as delivering value for money to UK licence fee payers and helping people navigate and use the BBC across its many platforms.

As a result, the work of BBC digital marketers is completely different to that of their commercial counterparts. “They find people buying their products and persuade them to buy more,” says Wolfe. “My remit by contrast is to find people who we don’t serve. The people we’re not reaching.” 

In the current shift towards a cookieless world, the BBC is in a fascinating position. Due to its public service remit, the corporation studiously avoided third party cookies, on the grounds that monetising its users’ data went against its ethos. “Instead, we built out our first party data,” notes Wolfe. “In 2016, if you wanted to access iPlayer you had to sign in. It wasn’t about the licence fee, it was about personalisation and giving people relevance and value for money.”

Google and Meta

A consequence of Wolfe and his colleagues forgoing third-party cookies was reduced optimisation, he admits, but working closely with both Google and Meta, the corporation found solutions that guard users privacy while identifying behaviour, measuring social media activity and how it relates to use of BBC platforms.

With Meta, the BBC tested Private Lift, using privacy-enhancing technologies (PETs). These ensured that both the BBC’s and Meta’s data remained confidential: neither party could access each other’s data. The project found that ads on Instagram and Facebook drove viewing figures for the iPlayer show ‘Conversations with Friends’ up by 12 per cent. BBC was also able to see where in the UK its audience was based, their age and gender.

“Private Lift…enables us to see how well our ads are bringing people into BBC platforms, without ever compromising their personal data,” says Wolfe, noting that Facebook and Instagram reached people who seldom consume BBC shows otherwise. 

Wolfe has also worked with Google on a data privacy sandbox project, once again seeking out underserved communities and aiming to optimise media spend against the corporation’s KPIs – reach, diversity and value for money. 

Given the BBC’s long history of targeting and measuring consumer behaviour without using third-party cookies, there are potentially valuable lessons for other businesses. “They’re now learning to do what we’ve been doing for years,” says Wolfe. 

However, commercial counterparts’ lack of access to cookies will not necessarily level the playing field, he believes. “It’s too early to say. We have challenges, to be relevant to all audiences, especially younger audiences who haven’t grown up with loyalty to the BBC and have a much more distant relationship with us.”

The BBC’s commercial competitors include global media behemoths like Netflix and Disney+, with enormously deep pockets and massive troves of data on their audiences. “We’re punching above our weight,” observes Wolfe. “We only have the UK.”

A hidden agenda

While the ostensible reason to ban third party cookies is to protect users’ privacy, in line with GDPR, Wolfe suspects that there are other motivations at play. 

“I think we are seeing a blurring between the commercial benefits and statistics on privacy and GDPR. Although from a conceptual point of view, GDPR has improved privacy, there has been a blurring between this and commercial issues.”

“Basically, they [large media companies] don’t want to share information with each other. They want you to stay within their ecosystems. I see these big companies having their ecosystems protected. We’ll see if they outlast one another. It’s going to be more challenging for smaller companies as they move to first-party data.”

For Wolfe and the BBC the goal is “a privacy solution where everyone shares data and we know whether our campaigns are successful.” Whereas Google and Apple are trying to gain market share, with Meta competing in a turf war as they collect and harvest user-level data. “We’re watching from the outside,” notes Wolfe.

He applauds Meta’s approach to audience data [in their clean room solution ‘Private Lift’], devising ways to protect privacy and enabling ad campaigns without exposing individual users. “We would love to do more with Google,” he says. “But it’s a very complicated relationship.” For example, the BBC both distributes its programming on YouTube and advertises on the platform.

Time is of the essence

Beyond their differences and scale, the BBC and its commercial counterparts are basically after one thing: people’s time. Wolfe points out that, although some platforms are funded by subscription, others by advertising (so that consumers aren’t directly ‘buying’ content), the one commonality is time. 

Increasingly, people spend their time on a range of different devices, which poses ever more complex demands on Wolfe and his colleagues, as they attempt to track user identities across media. It helps if people install the iPlayer app, but the complexity ramps up every month. 

To make some sense of the cacophony, Wolfe employs marketing mix modelling (MMM), a well-established form of econometric analysis that has come back into fashion. BBC Head of Research Nick North employs a team of consumer data analysts, including a ‘customer effectiveness’ expert and others skilled in attribution modelling, to make sense of the noise.

Wolfe draws on these insights and is developing a playbook, to help him plan and buy advertising, in conjunction with agencies. 

Elsewhere, he’s also busy exploring customer data platforms to gain better understanding of behaviours, relating to paid customer relations management (CRM) for example. It is a full time job keeping track of the many marketing channels and how they interact.

Wolfe now plans to delve into retargeting technologies. “This is going to be quite critical in future, looking at the hierarchy of our decisions. It’s hugely complex, how people navigate news, audio, video… When should I drive you to news, or sport? There are so many facets.” 

He believes that CAI [Cloud Computing, Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence] holds out the promise of helping to make sense of this jumble of data. The BBC has published principles for its use and plans to conduct pilot marketing projects, exploring how to optimise assets, using human intervention.

Critical competitors

For years, the BBC has faced a barrage of criticism from commercial competitors, including Associated Newspapers – owners of the Daily Mail – and News International – owners of The Times, The Sun and Sky TV channels – arguing that public money should not be used to fund certain kinds of content. They criticise the corporation’s politics, its wastefulness, its elitism, its lack of patriotism… Sometimes people say it’s too even handed, giving equal airtime to extremists. 

It's possible that these attacks will intensify, as cookieless regulation comes into force, with the BBC enjoying a potential uplift, given its avoidance of third-party cookies and its investment in audience research. A sober approach would be for the commercial world to learn from what the BBC has done, particularly in its value exchange with consumers.

Most media-savvy observers recognise BBC-bashing as self-interested: of course they would like the UK market to themselves, rather than dealing with a publicly-funded competitor. But it means that the BBC itself has to tread a fine line between relevance, reach and financial sustainability. The UK government routinely threatens to reduce or remove its subsidy, yet its charter restricts its ability to earn revenue outside the licence fee. Monetising its customer data would cross that line, says Wolfe.

A fragmented landscape

He sticks to a trusted formula: “We’re grounded in an editorial strategy of impartiality. The British people feel a sense of ownership of the BBC so of course they want to make sure it’s being run correctly. We have to represent the whole of the UK.”

He argues that, rather than being in competition with commercial broadcasters, the BBC’s remit is to enhance the creative economy and bring people together – a tougher job than ever, given the increasingly fragmented media landscape. 

On one hand, there are large scale events like the Olympics, the Football World Cup, Glastonbury or the Eurovision Song Contest that are ideal for linear television, attracting huge audiences. But Wolfe’s focus is more often drawn to the hyper-relevant, to targeting individuals, especially young people, who are hard to reach.

“Digital marketing is about amplifying things that people enjoy within the BBC and understanding where they drop off. It’s about understanding motivation, using data and insight to identify the genres they like, to help us from a commissioning point of view and to start conversations with them, then measuring our campaigns’ effectiveness,” says Wolfe.

Despite its detractors, the BBC remains one of the UK’s most trusted brands, having served the nation a rich and varied diet of information, education and entertainment for almost 100 years (it was founded in 1927). 

In its ongoing attempts to remain relevant and provide value for money, digital marketing will have a crucial role to play.

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