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The future of online publishing with Kym Niblock, MD, BBC.com

Social & Digital

The future of online publishing with Kym Niblock, MD, BBC.com


Marketingmag.com.au chats to Kym Niblock, managing director, BBC.com, about the launch of what was hailed as the worlds largest start-up. Niblock is based in London and was recently in Sydney for ad:tech 2009.

What is the difference between BBC.com and BBC.co.uk?

They’re actually exactly the same website. You actually can’t see BBC.co.uk in Australia – when you see BBC.co.uk in Australia, you’re actually looking at BBC.com. You actually have to ignore what the URL says. We geo-locate what site you see, and everyone outside the UK sees BBC.com.

The launch date of November 2007 for BBC.com seems quite late. Why did it take so long to realise the offering of an international market?

Well, I mean I think the BBC understood for a long time the value that an international market has, but it was quite a controversial subject here in the UK actually using a site that had been paid for through licensee funding, but then to go on and commercialise. There was a lot of very careful planning and work that went into that and putting the right level of principles and rules and regulations around how and what kind of advertising it would accept. The website itself has been running since about 1996. All that happened in 2007, was that it went commercial outside the UK. It was always visible outside the UK, and it’s quite interesting, because the number of markets we take quite a large market share, but obviously up until 2007 that market share was non-commercial. Now, we’re busy translating that market share into advertising dollars hopefully.

Youve said that you could consider it the largest start-up in the world. Why is that?

I think we are arguably the biggest star-up in the world. Most businesses in their right mind wouldn’t launch with over a billion page impressions. As a commercial business, we launched with a billion page impressions. But it brings with it a whole other set of complexity around what do you do when you’re actually ramping up your sales business and you’ve got unsold inventory. It’s a nice problem to have but it definitely causes a headache in lots of different ways.

What kind of website stats is BBC.com receiving at the moment per month?

I’ll talk from global and then about Australia. On a global basis, we take around about 27 million unique visitors per month, and we generate just over a billion page impressions per month. In Australia, I think we’re doing about 1.8 to 1.9 million Australians; that’s a Nielsen stat, and I believe we do about 300 to 350,000 New Zealanders.

What’s the time on site like? Is it increasing as well?

Yeah, it is. I mean we know that our users are fairly – a lot of them are news junkies to be honest with you. So they do tend to use our site, not necessarily as the first reference check, but as something to add to the experience. There may be a story that they’re following overseas and they look at what the BBC has got to say on it. So we’ll be the first port of call for international news. We wouldn’t kid ourselves for a second that during the coverage recently of the bushfires and things like that, I doubt very much that people would turn to us for that kind of coverage. But when it comes to what Obama’s first 100 days in office are looking like, what is happening now, rebuilding Gaza, things like that, I think that’s where we really come into our own and provide a unique and disparate voice to perhaps some other media operators.

Theres a lot of demand on journalists now to produce quality content with limited resources.  How do you manage the trade-off?

Well, I mean we’re in a very unique position that the BBC public service website is not run for profit; it is run for a very specific reason, which is around creating a purpose for public use inside the UK.  Outside of the UK, that particular usage transfers, and that BBC provide a global news service. Global news has been running now for some time. The BBC has a purpose mandated by the government to take the UK to the world. So we’re very fortunate in that we acquired the rights to be able to take that information out into the world and commercialise alongside it. But make no mistake, we pay for it; it’s not something that’s given to us, it’s not like an arm length deal with a sibling company or anything like that. We pay full and fair market rates to acquire that material and then go ahead and commercialise it. I mean one of the really interesting trends that we’ve seen, particularly in the US, is that a lot of local operators are actually downsizing their international news coverage, and that’s just as a result of the economy and the things that are going on across the globe. But that really offers us a fantastic opportunity to take what we do, just by nature, by cause, that we have no intent on sort of slowing down on, and actually open up the perspective of people who haven’t necessarily seen us in that view before.

With the long tail and niche media being increasingly relevant, how do you cope with an online offering that’s got the world as the audience?

A lot of headaches, but a good headache to have. Our traffic is the classic long tail curve, and the majority of our traffic looks at news and sports, weather. Did you know that hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world look every single day at the weather in London. I have no idea why because it always says it’s raining. But every day, from all over the world, hundreds of thousands of people check the front page of the weather. But hey, if it works for them, I’m very happy to work with them. People look at us for news, sport and weather – there’s no question. Sport does really, really well for us in Australia. Australia takes a lot of coverage of the premiership league, it’s really obvious. Some of it is ex-pat, some of it is simply interested in English football. That sort of thing is always going to be forefront of mind for us, and we’re always going to have a news presence. What we’re increasingly looking to do is to share the content; the BBC has huge breadth of content that’s available, and increasingly we want to start to service and curate that information in front of those users, so they can get a better picture of what it is that we actually do, of how to think of us in another way about information they might be looking for on the web.

How are you going to make content more relevant through this personalisation and localisation?

Well for us, localisation is the first step. We’re rolling out what we call an additional strategy throughout next year, where we will look at territories where it’s right and appropriate to curate the same information in a slightly different way. So in every case, everybody will have access to everything that’s on the BBC, but it might be that the version that you see of the homepage in Australia is more relevant to your politics, to the culture, to whatever is going on in the Asia-Pac region in this point in time. Again, Europe is very closely aligned with what’s going on here in the UK, so if anything, their sort of sensibilities are more aligned to what’s happening with Gordon Brown, what’s happening in the UK budget, those sorts of things. But that’s not particularly of interest again in Australia or in America. We just have to be really conscious that we’re presenting a face, but our face just looks slightly different in different territories and different regions. That’s the first stage of our localisation project.

And then we’ll roll out different news spaces, and we’ll start to look at customisation of content; what sports are followed perhaps in other territories that the BBC perhaps doesn’t give a prevalence to. in the US it’s fairly obvious that’s going to be baseball or basketball. In Australia, AFL and Australian rugby. It makes it on to the website but it’s fairly low level, so that needs to be curated in a different way. If you were doing an India homepage, should you perhaps be looking at the cricket?  Things like that.

How do you actually identify these patterns in the interests of your audience, aside from the usual tracking?

We have a research team in London, and we obviously have web analytics across the site. We’re about to look at how to do larger segmentation studies across the site. We’re thinking, at the moment, of joining our research up with BBC World, which is our sister TV channel, and together we share information about what our audiences are doing. We already have a pretty good profile of what our audiences are doing and what they look like, but it’s really just a feeling for that in a way that that’s more appropriate. We have run research studies across the globe over the last 12 months, and I do think we’ll run more over the next 12.

What kind of research studies were they? Are they focus groups?

We do focus groups. We do one-on-one. We do user segmentation studies. We do all sorts of things.

So user feedback is incredibly important as well as getting the user experience right?

Absolutely. We actually have a facility for users to contact us on the website, and they talk to us all the time. We also run several sections on the site called Have Your Say, where people can comment on the particular news stories that are going on. So we do find that our users are very verbose – can you use that term when people are writing? Passionate? But people talk to us at the time about what’s going on. If they don’t like something, believe you me, they let us know in no uncertain terms.

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What initiatives are you doing to engage your readers further?

Yeah, we are currently working with people in the public service on how to better curate the international side of our coverage. Previously the BBC has done a world class job at looking at how to present international news, but one of the things that we wanted to do was to stop people thinking UK and ex-UK, and we wanted to start thinking about each of the different territories. So the BBC has just appointed a number of new staff on the world service teams. And that team will start to look at how to increase the coverage and the breadth of the events that we look at internationally. They are alone responsible for commissioning the coverage of BBC news. We don’t interfere with that. We don’t get involved with it. They have absolute final say and jurisdiction over what they commission, but we’re very comfortable that those people now have a view of BBC news as a global product, not just as a UK facing news that happens to have some international audience.

What about multimedia? Are you increasingly using video and audio?

Our platform rebuild is intended to bring video into the heart of everything that we do. We are one of the world’s biggest broadcasters, and we have every intention of making video a lot more central to our product. Thus far, I think that we’ve done a great job of putting video on the site, but I think we could be better in terms of illustrating our story. I think video working in tandem with text and stills can provide a 360 degree feature, whereas right now, they tend to sort of work off of each other, so we’re working with the teams that they – if you run a piece of video on the site, it shouldn’t necessarily be just a video of the story, it should add  something to the story, and vice versa. We’re also working with our ad sales team. About 80 of them are based here in London which sells to everything outside of the UK and the US, and we have a team of about 40 inside the US, so we’re working with those teams to link up our product sell across platform.  So everything we do there is across TV, digital and radio in some cases.

Do you think it’s important to integrate your online offering with offline channels as well?

There is no question. I don’t think of BBC.com as a stand alone item. I think of it as the BBC – we happen to be the online expression of it.

How are you employing social techniques and building community into your content?

We’re looking at plans for social media across the site over the next 12 to 18 months. I mean I think in some ways, news is hard because it is so emotive, and you need to make sure that the responses that you get out there are a clear dialogue around what people want to talk about, and I think it is possible that on occasions, a website like ours is petitioned, if you like, from both sides of a party, both sides of a message. You do need to be careful to make sure that you’re not just providing a springboard for that. But where it’s right and appropriate to have discussion, then we absolutely should be fostering that.

So you’re willing to go into social channels such as Twitter, Facebook, etc.?

Absolutely. We’ve just been running the Davos. I’m not sure if you guys are familiar with it. The Davos is a big economic conference that’s run in Switzerland, and we did a big piece with BBC World, our sister TV channel, and we ran a bunch of stuff on the website, we ran a bunch of stuff on Twitter, we ran a whole bunch of things in the evening on the BBC World News, and we’re just looking at stats; the stats are looking really promising, so we’re seeing quite an conducive spike on the days where we did stuff around Twitter, in terms of that translating into audience in the evening, or better grand awareness that we did research when we were actually onsite, so absolutely. I think we have to be careful that there’s always a wish to push into these things and make them work, and actually they never really work unless you get the application right, but it has to be something that is intrinsic and gut instinct, that feels right; you can’t force it.

What alternative revenue streams are available for online publishers aside from display advertising?

Well at the moment, we’re looking at all sorts of revenue streams. It’s accordant with display doing what it is at the moment to continue to protect your business. I mean we’re very, very lucky that we’re the second year of a start up so we’re still – really interesting story, people want to talk to us, and fortunately we have a fantastic brand, and that translates to display advertising for us. We’re very, very comfortable, but we’re not complacent. So of course we will look at all the usual revenue streams; we will look at mobile, we will look at search, we’re looking at contextual linking, we’re looking at ad-funded content, we’re also looking around sponsorship, section sponsorship, those types of things.

Where do you think the real monetisation and return on investment lies in the future for online publishing?

I think that search will continue to be important. I think that the parameters around search will continue to change. I think – and using your words, content will always been king; you build it, they will come. You have to provide something unique and distinct, and I think if you do that, people will continue to come and look. Display will remain of course; I don’t see the death of display any time soon.  I think that agencies – one of the upsides of the economic situation is that agencies are getting really, really clever about the creative they’re provided, and we did a fantastic campaign in December last year with Rolex, so Rolex did a buyout of our homepage and we ran two conjoined units across the front page that had a close up of a face of a Rolex watch with a hand sweeping, and whatever territory you used the website from, the date and the time on the watch were appropriate for your territory. And it was a very beautiful creative. Rolex went out of their way to create this creative for it, but it truly – I mean I’ve never had people come up to me and talk to me spontaneously about creative; normally people talk about your website, they don’t normally talk about the ads on your website.  But people repeatedly came up and referred to this particular campaign. So we have an ongoing relationship with Rolex that we hope to continue to do more things with them, and they’re very comfortable breaking some of their own moulds and working with us, because we think the brand sits so well. 

But going forward, I think that better integration and use of display, people are understanding that commoditised display has kind of had its day; commoditised display is where you are if you just want volume. But if you want to protect your brand, you want to look after your brand, you have to be really careful what you place around it.

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