BBC Global News, the international and commercially funded arm of the news corporation, has attracted record-breaking traffic these last few months – but ad revenues have failed to match such highs. Its chief executive, Jim Egan, explains to The Drum how the news giant is navigating the coronavirus crisis.
Jim Egan has been at the BBC approaching 13 years. In this time he's never seen web traffic so high. In other words, the BBC's news content has never been more relevant to audiences.
In March, BBC Global News attracted 179 million unique users worldwide, up 80% year on year. If it were a nation, it would be world's eighth-most populous, bigger than Bangladesh.
“We generally saw an increase in all markets," says Egan. "This was predominantly because of the coronavirus. Especially when it really started moving to Europe and North America.
"January was a record for us, then so was February. March was massive but April hasn't been quite as big."
April's lag, perhaps as coronavirus coverage fatigue set in, only delivered the not-quite record-breaking 158 million uniques. US unique traffic was up 37% year-on-year in March. APAC up 110%.
And this was all despite BBC's ever-reliable sports traffic being smothered by the cancellation and delays of European football "at the business end of the season".
Though many in the publishing industry scoff at page views as a vanity metric these days, at the scale the BBC plays at they remain significant. Because for one thing, while the corporation may be funded by the licence fee payer in the UK, its international income is primarily derived from advertising.
“I don't want to dismiss the significance of audience as an end in itself," Egan says. "It matters to the BBC. We take both international responsibilities and opportunities seriously as well.”
And here we come to the crux of the issue.
Like most publishers, BBC Global News isn't converting record audiences into record revenues.
The pandemic marketing lull has already forced The Washington Post’s commercial team to deprioritize selling ads and The New York Times has suffered a 55% ad shortfall. Tens of thousands of media job cuts and furloughs have been initiated these last few weeks.
"We haven't seen a corresponding revenue increase in line with audience numbers," Egan confirms. "There was a significant drop in advertiser demand as we were going through the initial shock of the pandemic, and there was a corresponding massive increase in inventory. The straightforward economics of that is if demand is down and supply goes up, the rates fall."
When the lockdown was first implemented, clients went quiet to assess the lay of the land. Budgets froze, messaging and creative became instantly outdated, and this was before even factoring in changes to consumer habits and business supply chains.
So, like many media owners, the BBC used its surplus of stock to do some good. It joined CNN and Euronews in setting aside $50m worth of inventory for use by national health ministries, UN agencies, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and more. It proved quite the pulpit to spread guidance.
Behind the scenes, the team hoped to reignite client conversations. Early talks looked to assure huge advertisers that it was indeed safe to appear next to (some) coronavirus stories, which naturally made up a huge proportion of BBC output.
“Clients were just very, very wary of their messages appearing around coronavirus content. Yes, audiences are coming to sites like the BBC to follow coronavirus but it’s not all grizzly, brand unsafe content. We’re telling the story from a global perspective, often with simple explainers and what you need to know type stories.”
Egan hopes the media buyers who moved so quickly to block their ads from pandemic stories perhaps consider how vital their support is to the news ecosystem, before hitting the nuclear button. In April, Newsworks, the body representing UK newspaper publishers, said that coronavirus blocking would cost UK publishers £50m in just three months. Ironically, this doesn't include the BBC, given its ad-free status in the UK, but is indicative of the damage brand safety can do to quality news titles. Now it appears as though agencies are evaluating the issue.
The news, for the most part, hasn't become a daily ticker of the death toll. People need guidance, and BBC's guides and explains have been seeing high volumes of returning users. People are relying upon this coverage.
Digital advertising is facing huge changes with consumer tracking and targeting set to be stymied by the third-party cookie deprecation. Egan is hearing clients once again showing interest in contextual advertising solutions, adopting more traditional approaches in publishing.
“I detect a bit more interest in context," he says. "Clients are becoming more interested in the sort of environments they are appearing in. Trust isn’t just a buzzword people throw into a conversation to make themselves feel better, they are genuinely very interested in trust and environment.”
To deliver on this, Egan is promising clients the "best possible targeting techniques" to protect them from unsavoury story juxtapositions. Right now, there are particular sensitivities to stories about death or tragedy.
But to derive better digital advertising rates, many publishers are entering into huge alliances to scale audiences, co-develop product and share learnings. The BBC is not one of them, although it came closest with CNN’s Pangea Alliance.
Egan keenly awaits the replacement of the third-party cookie and hopes for a better way to earn from his organisation's huge, trusted environment. “Organisations like the New York Times deserve a lot of a lot of credit for the way they've been at the forefront of a lot of these developments," he adds. (Last week it phased out third party data advertising solutions)."
Good news from the east
China, Korea and others in APAC are seeing businesses return to action, and according to Egan, they are cranking up marketing spend.
Even airlines and tourism firms are talking to the BBC, keen to be front of mind for the inevitable holiday surge, whenever that may be. Egan amusingly branded these pieces of creative “pre-post lockdown campaigns”.
He hopes these "greenshoot” conversations indicate a return to the norm across the globe.
"We can’t generalize about sectors and geographies in certain terms because even recent history feels like a very, very long, long time ago and many are resetting their financial plans. We're trying to be mindful of the fact that people are generally pretty wary. Right now, there's not too much rushing in.”
Spend will return, and audiences will atrophy, but Egan hopes trust has been built and that the scale remains higher than it was. Trust is a huge part of that.
The position of the BBC in the UK and internationally are clearly not the same, as Egan acknowledges.
“Around the world, we operate in markets where the BBC market share is generally much lower, but often the availability of reliable trust trustworthy news is itself much lower."
Meanwhile, at home, the form and function of the BBC is quite the political football, its coverage constantly under close scrutiny. “Interestingly," Egan notes, "during the coronavirus crisis, some of the heat seems to have gone out of that political debate in the UK."
In many respects, trust can be built with rigorous fact-checking and efforts to debunk misinformation, but Egan's "very wary" of over-egging that strategy.
While BBC Global News does monitor and address trends, memes, themes and misinformation spreading on the internet, Egan doesn't think it should be the world's fact-checker, publishers should focus more on being fact-writers and hope that people use that information to fight these battles.
He concludes: "Internationally, we very much trade on our trustworthiness and the reliability and impartiality. It is the bedrock of the BBC.”