The BBC has been told it should look to the success of Buzzfeed as it attempts to double its a global audience to 500m by 2022.
Director of news and current affairs James Harding commissioned a report by Sir Howard Stringer last December. The former chief executive of Sony was reported this month to be a favourite to replace Lord Patten as chairman of the BBC Trust.
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As well as suggesting the BBC should consider native advertising and an expansion into North Korea, the report, published today, recommends that the corporation should take a digital-first approach in all countries other than the UK.
Stringer said the BBC is “punching well below its weight in the digital world”, noting that its peak online audience figures outside the UK stand at 150m monthly unique users in March 2014, “a big news month”.
While he noted that this is more than CNN and around the same as the Mail Online’s exclusively English-language traffic for a month, he pointed out that Buzzfeed’s peak stands at 160m.
“Given Buzzfeed, for example, was only founded in 2006, this raises the question of why the BBC’s global digital reach is not more significant,” he said.
“It is impossible to escape the conclusion that the BBC is punching well below its weight in the digital world.
“If the target weekly reach of 500 million is to be met, digital is going to be very important and a [steep] change needs to be made to make the most of it.”
Looking to the success of Buzzfeed, Stringer called for the BBC to be “bold” and “innovate” as it aims for a mobile-first strategy.
“This means identifying the interests of the audience and tailoring the news offer to reach those; the young aspiring classes are more interested in softer, or ‘near news’ content which has social currency, such as entertainment, technology trends, health, and accessible business stories,” he said.
“The publishing cycle should be continuous and the writing of the stories should be punchy and concise, reflecting the way the audience reads stories on mobile.”
He said: “Buzzfeed’s impressive 140-160 million monthly unique users worldwide has been built up on the principle of social sharing; that is: people passing stories on to friends and those friends coming to read them on the Buzzfeed website.
“By comparison, whilst the BBC is the most tweeted news organisation globally, this doesn’t automatically translate into hits on the website in the same way as Buzzfeed. The conundrum for the BBC is how it turns that recognition into greater reach.”
He suggested the answer is for BBC journalists to write more to the “shifting needs and tastes” of their audience, saying that the headline should “cut through”.
“This is not about dumbing down,” he said. “It is about having an acute understanding of the audience and making news relevant to them in the same way Newsbeat and Newsround write stories online which, while never deviating from the core journalistic values of the BBC, present each story in a way which is particularly relevant and engaging for the target audience.”
Elsewhere in the report, Stringer recommended that the BBC should consider expanding its service into countries most in need of it, such as North Korea (pictured below: Reuters), “which is generally accepted to have one of the least free media industries in the world”.
He added: “Although there are significant obstacles put in place by the government, an impartial, accurate news service would be enormously valuable to the people of North Korea.”
He also suggested the launch of a TV channel in Africa, highlighting the continent’s second most popular country, Ethiopia, as somewhere in need of the BBC.
Stringer also said that the BBC should adopt a “commercial mindset” outside of the UK, where it is funded by the licence fee.
He said: “Broadly speaking the BBC’s position has been cautious as it has sought to ensure that operations abroad have not damaged the BBC’s reputation at home. Commercial revenue has been a welcome addition rather than a core part of the BBC’s income.
“It is right that the BBC has taken an approach which seeks first to protect its reputation but in many markets the BBC is now operating as a commercial broadcaster and it needs to embrace the local norms of the markets it is operating in; it needs to be happy to mark money that can be invested in providing better quality services at home and abroad.”
Stringer suggested that one of the most significant ways the BBC could go about making money abroad is through native advertising, which he estimated could make around $2m a year.
Elsewhere, Stringer suggested the BBC should consider partnerships with other national and international news organisations to improve its service.
In response to the report, Liliane Landor, acting director of the BBC World Service Group, said:
We welcome Sir Howard Stringer’s report – it is stimulating and ambitious, and asks refreshing, sometimes provocative, questions of the BBC.
As we build the BBC’s global news services for the future we will be looking carefully at the report’s proposals. We do not regard this as a blueprint and the ideas are there to pick and choose from, but they will all help open up the debate about how best we can serve our audiences.
There is a real, and gratifying, overlap between our thinking and many of the ideas in the report, some of which we are already embracing.
In some of our markets TV remains a reliable driver of reach and quality and we will continue to invest in TV bulletins and make the most of video for our audiences globally and through partners.
We will continue to harness social media as well as focus on digital-first and mobile-first markets, and adapt our journalism accordingly. And we will continue to explore editorial partnerships as well as top-up commercial opportunities, as we have been tasked to do by the Trust.
We are extremely grateful to Sir Howard for having given his time, experience, and insight into the future of the BBC around the world.”