Guardian digital director: BBC site is 'state-funded intervention' in US ad market

The Guardian’s director of digital publishing Emily Bell has warned an international industry conference that the BBC News website is “now the biggest online newspaper, not just in the UK but in the world”.

“The BBC is going to be an enormous state-funded intervention in the US advertising market,” Bell said during a panel discussion about British news organisations’ online expansion abroad.

Bell’s comment at the Online Publishers Association conference in London came just after the BBC’s Pete Clifton suggested that the BBC News website, which this year introduced advertisers for overseas users, has around 4 million unique users each week in the United States.

Clifton, the corporation’s head of editorial development for multimedia journalism, said the BBC News website now has around 17 million unique users per week, with about 47 per cent coming from abroad and about half that figure being based in the United States.

Bell acknowledged that the BBC and Guardian were uniquely positioned to expand internationally because of their corporate structures.

Shel said revenue from overseas web users still accounts for an “extremely low” proportion of the Guardian’s revenues but is growing rapidly. She joked that she expected the Guardian’s advertising sales partnership with Reuters would lead to “transcendental growth” in overseas revenue.

Some types of content could be more easily monetised abroad than in the UK, Bell noted. The Guardian’s Comment is Free blog is out of advertising inventory in the United States, meaning that all advertising space has been sold out, despite the conventional media industry wisdom that advertisers are afraid to associate their brands with user-generated content sites.

“There’s a point to be made about the ad industry here, which is it is still inherently conservative,” she said. “It tends to move more slowly than developments that are actually taking place in the media.”

This, she said had trapped news sites in the “bind” where they key metric of success is monthly unique users in the UK despite having a long-term strategy that stresses overseas online expansion.

Other online news executives speaking at the event also downplayed the importance of raw unique user figures, particularly from overseas readers.

FT.com editor James Montgomery reiterated his site’s position that collecting details of user registration was just as important because it allowed the site to track its most loyal readers.

“If you don’t know who these users are and you have no way of knowing where they are coming from or how to track them, you might have a great audience, but not necessarily an equally improving proposition for advertisers,” he said.

New York Times digital operations vice president Martin Nisenholtz agreed, stressing that about 20 per cent of most sites’ visitors account for about 80 per cent of their revenues.

“Just because a ratings service says you have a unique user once a month, doesn’t mean you are accruing much economics from that reader,” he said.

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