Monday July 6th saw the second of this year’s external supplier briefings from BBC Online, with the first being held in Salford on June 17th and featuring similar content*. This event, hosted in inimitable style by Connected Studio’s Robin Cramp, was a more intimate affair than previous briefings, held not at the BBC Radio Theatre but at the storied Whitechapel Gallery in London’s East End. As a consequence the event seemed to me a much more interactive day all round.

The first of the afternoon’s presentations was from Holly Goodier, the Director of BBC Marketing & Audiences, whom I’d seen just a couple of weeks previously at the BBC Leadership “Digital Playlist” event I’d helped organise for the BBC Academy (and which, yes, I need to get round to writing up…) Holly’s presentation was entitled “The Emotional Web”, and charted the web’s move from purely functional to increasingly, well, emotional – and talked through BBC Online’s response to this shift. She identified several key themes:

Personal, not just personalised Speaks for itself, really, but the watch words here are intimacy and authenticity. (She cited women discussing their morning routines on YouTube, a fitting meme, I thought.)

Conversation Nation The 1,9,90 model long regarded as the paradigm for participation levels online has changed dramatically; up to 77% of online users are now active participants, although that of course ranges from full-time vloggers to people simply posting Facebook updates. The challenge for the BBC, Holly said, is to make content that is inherently social.

“The Zone of Disappointment” Regular readers will not be surprised to read that I pricked up my ears at this one, as Holly reminded us that it’s not all unicorns and rainbows out there, and that the BBC’s online work exists in an ecosystem that includes bullying, trolling and public humiliation. (Shameless plug: my post “Technology and the Young” addresses some of these points and my overall concern for millennials – and those who follow them.)

“Hooks” Yes, utility and function are still essential for the web’s users, but the balance between function and emotion online skews very differently for the under 35s; I’ll let you guess which way.

Holly returned to her opening remarks, that BBC Online was about bringing the nation together. Yes that could be the Olympics or Wimbledon or global new events, but it could be Bitesize, too. What remains essential is that everything BBC Online does – in keeping with the overall organisational mantra “audiences are at the heart of everything we do” – should be life-enhancing in some way or other.

Next up was Paul Crowley, the Head of User Experience and Design (UX&D). The BBC’s Director General Sir Tony Hall has said that the BBC should be “Internet First”; Paul talked about how the BBC’s Global Experience Language or GEL needed to be re-thought to reflect this.

To illustrate what “Internet First” might actually mean, he gave some examples of (relatively) recently launched services: BBC Taster (more of this later), the iWonder Guides, and BBC Live (a platform for multi-headed live events like Wimbledon and Glastonbury that builds on the legacy of BBC Online’s groundbreaking Olympics coverage). And yet, Paul said, things were only just getting started.

So here was the question for the GEL: what is the role of consistency among such proliferating services? And how could the GEL allow more and more stuff to be done with less and less resource? The key was to think less about things looking the same and more about them working the same way – providing consistency in terms of functionality and allowing greater levels of re-use. He drew interesting parallels with the development of the UK’s national electricity grid in the 30s which might seem grandiose until one considers that bbc.co.uk is currently receiving a staggering 35 million unique visits per day.

Paul concluded by talking about the creation of the UX&D roster, which has seen 7 suppliers (from a pool of 270 applicants) chosen to each work with a specific BBC Product area, allowing for a much more “productive, effective relationship” between both parties. More on the roster later.

After a short lunch break, attendees were invited to join either a “technical” or “editorial/procurement” break out. I attended the latter – no surprise there – but for the record, the former included talks by Roux Joubert (General Manager, Platform), Chris Yanda (Executive Product Manager, TV & Mobile Platforms) and David Buckhurst (Technical Architect, Platform Test).

Upstairs, the afternoon kicked off with an excellent presentation from Damian Kavanagh, the Controller of BBC3. Much has been written about BBC3’s proposed move to online only, which has just been approved, provisionally, by the BBC Trust. Whatever the drivers for the move are, Kavanagh made a clear argument for its strategic sense.

In terms of content, the channel will continue to build on “what is already great about it”, concentrating on two strands: “make me laugh” (scripted comedy) and “make me think” (hard hitting documentaries). There will be no formatted factual, no panel shows, no talent shows, no (or very few) acquisitions and, of course, no repeats. Indeed, this last point is key; an on-demand only channel avoids the need to fill hours and hours of schedule.

Addressing the question of whether the move was “ghetto-ising young people”, Kavanagh made the point that the network was simply moving to where the young people already are. In that sense, the young are “ghetto-ising themselves”. He also pointed out that to some extent this was already happening, citing a short film about transgenderism that they posted on Facebook and went viral.

Given that the room was full of digital media creatives and salespeople, the question of long- vs short-form video was one I felt keenly anticipated by many. I suspect he may have disappointed some by saying that initially the ratio would be 80-20 (long-short). But Kavanagh pointed out that this was vastly more than the industry standard (about 0.05% short-form) and that in any case, this was a merely the starting point – the amount of short form would undoubtedly increase over the years.

He finished with the observation that the channel – which will be a pathfinder for the rest of the organisation in this move to online-only – was already learning a great deal from the digital sector, not least in terms of collaborative working, often a sharp contrast to traditional ways of making TV.

Jon Howard is an Executive Product Manager, Digital Creativity. I was lucky enough to meet Jon a few months ago and was fascinated then by the work his team is doing. He started by saying that Tony Hall wanted the BBC to help inspire a new generation to “become creative with code”. For some this might simply mean teaching kids to code but Jon believes that this needn’t always be the case, and is interested in developing light-weight tools for kids to use in creating their own content, games and services, aping the direction in which much of the creative industries has moved.

He showcased a game-building platform for 8-12 year-olds, indeed, did a live demo, always a risky gambit! His team associated the tool with the Sunday morning kids’ show Technobabble (“the smallest brand on the BBC”) and they’d been delighted with the tool’s uptake. Particularly interesting was how the service faired after the show went off-air. The usage figures of a traditional game would plummet when on-air promotion stopped. However, although usage did dip, it maintained a healthy user base with kids building and sharing games by the thousands for weeks after tx.

The final session of the breakout came from the excellent Maureen Gore, giving what will sadly be her BBC swansong. Maureen was to talk about procurement generally and specifically the performance to date of the Digital Services Framework – a dry subject to be sure, but one Maureen always manages to bring to life.

The DSF is currently in the middle of its second iteration; a third will be announced in Q3 this year. I won’t go into great detail about the process here; instead you can get the full run down on the BBC procurement site or else drop a line to DigitalSuppliersEngagement@bbc.co.uk.

But the headlines for DSF II were certainly encouraging with 299 agencies making the final cut. An initial fear of Maureen’s was that once ITT’s had been matched to agencies’ declared capabilities, they were often going out to 40-50 companies. But in general, of these only around 6 or 7 were responding, suggesting that agencies were being realistic about their capacity to deliver. Finally, something in the region of £4m was spent with agencies on DSF 1.

The final plenary session of the day covered an old favourite of this blog, Connected Studio, the open innovation initiative, and its sister website BBC TasterAdrian Woolard, Head of CS, gave us a run-down of the initiative’s performance so far, and it’s an impressive one: 103 events, the involvement of 2792 participants and 458 companies, 821 ideas generated, 41 pilots and 50 more pilots in the pipeline. Adrian was particularly proud of delivering two projects in collaboration with the World Service in Nairobi and Cape Town.

 Eleni Sharp and Will Saunders then introduced BBC Taster, a groundbreaking area of bbc.co.uk for experimental projects – “a home for new ideas”. It’s impossible to overstate how important this is for the BBC; the understandable expectation of it delivering perfectly working products and services can by an impediment to innovation, where a certain degree of risk is essential. Taster allows for experimentation in a discrete environment, and has worked with most areas of the BBC, including Arts, Radio 1 and Drama; so far it’s generated an impressive 3.5 million page views.

They showcased three Taster projects: R1OT (a social media visualisation tool developed for Radio 1), Your Story (BBC News archival content tagged to your Facebook timeline) and I Am Smarter Than… (a personalised quiz).

Adrian finished off by talking about Connected Studio’s future, which would include more work with BBC Labs, more calls across different themes (and not necessarily broken down by “Product”) and work on immersive tech. Significantly, the early stages of the process will be carried out online rather than at events. As fans of the open innovation process and as a consultancy keen to see large and small companies work together for mutual benefit, we’ll be watching closely.

Naturally the day ended with some networking and the chance to catch up with some old friends. I’ll leave you with this thought. This has been a tough couple of weeks for the BBC, with the government’s sideswipes taken at the corporation increasingly ludicrous – yet nonetheless deeply worrying. Today’s session – as I say, a less state-of-the-nation event than previous ones and more generally down and dirty – left me in no doubt that BBC Online’s work is essential to the health innovation in UK media. My thanks to the Market Engagement team for inviting me down and congratulations to Jake Bailey in particular for pulling off such a packed, but slickly run event.

Simon

*Videos from Salford are going to be available from next week; I’ll tweet when they go live.

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