How the BBC is harnessing mobile platforms to engage global audiences

First published for TheMediaBriefing. 

How the BBC is harnessing mobile platforms to engage global audiences

Trushar Barot is a busy man.

As Mobile Editor for the BBC World Service and Global News services, his portfolio covers content across the BBC World Service’s English and 27 other language services, alongside the bbc.com website and BBC World News Television Channel.

A key component of his current role involves determining how the BBC can best develop editorial propositions around mobile apps. This includes dedicated BBC apps and third party services, particularly messaging platforms.

Mobile first formats

“I am increasingly looking at mobile first formats,” he told TheMediaBriefing, “as we move beyond reversioning content for other sources for mobile to thinking about mobile as your primary platform.”

Inverting the way that mobile has often been thought of in many media organisations, “this means making bespoke content that works for mobile first, before worrying about it how it works elsewhere.”

As it currently stands, Barot cites three formats which he feels meet these criteria:

  • BBC Shorts – News in 15-second videos, which original began life on Instagram as #Instafax.
  • BBC Go Figure – daily visualised data journalism or captions which are shared on social media accounts such as Twitter and Facebook, acting as teasers for further stories.
  • BBC Minute a 60 second news bulletin produced in a “Newsbeat” style (i.e. short, sharp and more youth in tone) that is updated for a global audience every half an hour.

“So now I have a video product, a visual product and an audio product,” Barot says. “And that’s great because these are three things I can arm myself with as content propositions [for potential partners].”

This image promoted a story on India’s Mars mission

Strategic rationale – the 3R’s

In doing this, Barot says his thinking is shaped by three strategic priorities: reach, referral and revenue.

“Most of these projects tend to be around reach, which is still very important, but we are also thinking about return path and referral potential,” he says.

From a referral perspective, this means “drawing people back from offsite platforms” which he says encourages people “to snack on our content” by endeavouring to entice them “back for a full meal.”

He also suggests that media companies like the BBC need to ask themselves if they fully understand the true value of their contribution to third parties.

“These are the new media giants and players of the world today. I think that sometimes because of the behaviour patterns that news organisations have got into when they deal with social media platforms they just rush into saying ‘we need to be on it, open an account and just get going,’ but they don’t really think about the value they’ve just brought to that platform.”

“As Facebook has discovered, having news platforms on the platform is huge for its growth and audience retention,” he says.

Experimentation and finding value in unexpected places

At the BBC World Service, new mobile propositions are driven by strategic markets like India or Africa, as well as an increasing license to experiment. BBC Shorts, for example, stemmed from the latter.

“The original ideas were to extend reach on a platform [Instagram] which was growing quickly and we want to be where people are inhabiting, and fish where the fishes are.”

On Instagram, he admits, “we weren’t sure what we were going to do.”

“Then we hit on the idea of short video as the main content proposition, we developed it further, gave it a brand name to give it more impetus, and then we realised this is a short video product, a really interesting product to stand on its own two feet.”

This realisation led to the format being deployed across a number of different platforms. The most notable of these is the BBC’s Line Account, which launched in September 2014 and which now has close to 1 million subscribers.

The BBC Shorts videos are their primary content vehicle for that platform.

“It’s helped us to differentiate our content proposition from other news brands” Barot argues, “who are online who are more text and image heavy.” Meanwhile – with this content also being atomised across multiple platforms – “we also get more bang for our buck.”

An early screenshot of the BBC’s Line Service via Tech in Asia.

The growing importance of Chat Apps

The emergence of large-scale messaging apps like Line, WhatsApp and WeChat occupies much of Barot’s time and thinking.

As we reported in our recent analysis of Mary Meeker’s recent internet trends presentation, many of these services already have huge audiences and are continuing to grow quickly.

This space is moving quickly. When Barot first started engaging with chat app providers last year, most of them “had never been approached by a news organisation before.” Now they’re all at it.

The reach afforded by these services is important for the BBC, as is the opportunity to experiment, engage with non-traditional BBC audiences(Line, Barot concedes, enables the BBC to engage a young Asian audience, “one we typically struggle to reach with our existing services”) and the speed with which new partnerships can potentially be put in place.

“If you’re waiting for apps, there’s a three year [build] cycle, whereas these are digital sandboxes which just allow you to accelerate that learning. And because many people have friends and family using these services, they have familiarity with the design and functionality of these apps, so it makes it easier for them to understand how to use it for their jobs.”

BBC efforts in this space include pilots on WhatsApp and WeChat during the 2014 India elections, providing essential health advice about Ebola for audiences in West Africa and providing emergency information – via Viber – for people caught in the recent Nepalese earthquakes.

Each of these services has different strengths and weaknesses, meaning there’s no one size fits all solution.

WhatsApp, the biggest of these services with more than 800 million monthly active users, but no publisher platform. WhatsApp push alerts “aren’t a scaleable proposition,” Barot notes. However, the BBC does find it a useful platform for encouraging user generated content and social sharing.

whatsapp-ugc.png

In contrast, services like WeChat, Line and Viber do have a publisher brand capacity built into them, allowing you to post straight into the app.

“Getting a news app onto someone’s phone home screen is massive challenge,” Barot observes.

It’s a reality “that’s partly driving our strategy with services like WhatsApp, WeChat or Line and getting our content inside these apps,” he says, alongside the commercial viability of launching standalone services.

“We can’t compete with services like WhatsApp in India,” he notes. “If we launch a BBC India news app it will reach a tiny proportion of the people who are using WhatsApp in India or a similar chat app in other parts of the world.”

The implications of this he suggests are clear.

“We are increasingly losing control of the medium and we’re just becoming content creators. It’s part of a long-term strategic vision to adjust to the realities of that world and that future.”

Looking ahead

“I wouldn’t say there’s one big thing coming along,” Barot argues, “but there are niches which are growing where companies taking different strategic decisions about how they want to develop.”

Alongside this, Barot also notes the rise of location-based apps such as Yik Yak and FireChat, as well as country-specific chat apps like Hike in India.

The knock-on effect of this means that “my strategy at the BBC World Service is going to have to be more sophisticated, understanding what’s happening at a local level and thinking how that could potentially work [for us],” he says.

Moreover, all of this needs to be seen through the lens of the fact that many new internet users, particularly in emerging markets, will be doing so via mobile devices.

“The first thing they will probably do is download WhatsApp or a similar chat app. And so their entire experience of the internet is going to be shaped by these apps.

This is why it is so strategically important for us to be aware and familiar with how these apps work and what the consumption is like inside these apps; so [that] we can be agile to deliver products that work inside these services.”

For the BBC that means continuing to experiment and identifying “what’s the next mobile first or mobile only format that could help to push us forward in terms of engaging with audiences.”

This will be supported by international versions of the English news app which the BBC launched in January this year, alongside language service variants built on the same code.

“We know in a years’ time it’s all going to change again,” Barot cheerily admits, but “in many ways it’s really exciting, especially for World Service audiences.”

The key thing for news organisations and media companies, he suggests, is to ensure that appropriate attention is paid to these platforms, so that companies don’t have to play catch-up in quite the same way as they often are on social networks.

“That’s why I want to pay as much attention as possible to emerging platforms,” he says.

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