How the music of Ed Sheeran and Adele can help fund the BBC’s journalism

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

The BBC plans to use its reputation for championing music artists, such as Ed Sheeran, Adele and Jay-Z, to strike commercial deals around the world that will add to its growing revenues from brand partnerships.

For the first time, branded content created by the BBC’s commercial studio contributed more than 50% of advertising revenues to BBC Global News Ltd, with notable brand partners including DHL, Dubai Tourism and the UK’s Department for International Trade. This was an increase of around one third, from 38% last year, and shows that branded content has become critical to the BBC’s international business model in a highly competitive digital advertising market.

The BBC now plans two new key global platforms, BBC Music to highlight the broadcaster’s exclusive music content portfolio, and BBC Reel to showcase its best short-form video from natural history clips to entertainment. Both services on the BBC global website are expected to provide major opportunities for branded content partnerships and sponsorship deals.

The BBC has not previously been able to exploit advertising opportunities around its role as a music champion but is now looking for commercial deals to tie in with its BBC Live Lounge vertical (which began on BBC Radio 1 and has featured Jay-Z, Taylor Swift and Foo Fighters as well as Ed Sheeran and Adele) and its renowned festival coverage. It hopes that its reputation for supporting musicians, often early in their careers, will prove attractive to potential brand partners, record companies and artists.

Revenues generated by BBC Global News are used to support the BBC’s network of international correspondents and the production of global services such as BBC World News and the BBC website, which are both carry advertising outside of the United Kingdom.

The BBC is to introduce 30-second adverts into its podcasts when they are accessed outside of the UK.

The plans come after a recent National Audit Office report showed that BBC Global News faces a “significant challenge” to remain profitable and must cut costs by £12m-a-year, despite headline profits of £2m in 2016-17.

BBC branded content

In an interview with The Drum, Richard Pattinson, head of the BBC’s content marketing studio BBC StoryWorks, says branded content is becoming “increasingly important” for the BBC. “We are very proud that more than 50% of our advertising revenue at BBC Global News is now coming through content-led revenue for the first time ever. That’s a very big shift – we are up around 30% from last year.”

StoryWorks has recently extended its operations to Beijing, Mumbai and Dubai, all regions where it has seen a high degree of client interest. The studio already had a presence in New York, London, Singapore and Sydney.

Speaking after the annual NewFronts pitch to agencies and clients in New York, where the BBC presented under the theme ‘Truly Global’, Pattinson talks of his excitement at the potential of monetising the BBC Music and BBC Reel services.

“As Brits we have grown up thinking about the BBC as a place that showcases fantastic music performance and talent but around the world people aren’t as familiar with that. We haven’t until this point had a very cohesive international music offer. We are very excited about this from a brand perspective,” he says.

“Obviously we work with some extraordinary talent at BBC Music and so there will be some very attractive people that we are working with that will form the bedrock of this new offering and there will be an opportunity to extend the kind of work that we do with our brand partners.”

Aaron Tabas, director of StoryWorks for North America, is heading preliminary discussions with potential partners for bringing branded content to the new platform. Pattinson says there are “different permutations” in which the BBC could potentially “work with people who have been on Live Lounge and some of the fantastic artists we work with”. Any deals will have to be “done the right way”, he says. “I want us to be showcasing great musical talent and this is a great vehicle for that and if it will allow us a degree of brand voice as a part of that that would be fantastic as far as I’m concerned."

Music has already proved to be a powerful theme in BBC StoryWorks branded content. Rapper and producer Rendel was among the subjects in a series for Dubai Tourism that highlighted interesting residents in the Middle Eastern city. A campaign for DHL featured the German family business Thomann, the world’s largest online supplier of musical instruments.

As a new platform for short-form video, BBC Reel will offer opportunities for pre-roll advertising, sponsorship and branded content. The service is overdue, Pattinson admits. “Where it comes to our shorter form content I think that we have been less good than the sum of our parts in terms of how we are offering our video content to a global audience.” The short-form video service is a recognition of the need to serve the vast international audience that accesses the BBC website (which has 97 million monthly browsers) via mobile devices.

Seeking sponsorships

The BBC used the NewFronts to highlight its recent work in virtual and augmented reality and it sees commercial possibilities in developing these technologies. The broadcaster is seeking sponsors for World of Wonder, a series of immersive 360 documentaries that allow the user to traverse the globe and experience remarkable natural events in the company of on-the-ground BBC correspondents. It also wants commercial partners for World Kitchen, an augmented reality app that ‘brings’ famous international chefs into your kitchen to teach you recipes.

But Pattinson says that branded content made in VR and AR formats must have “credibility and authenticity” and would only be approved if it was deemed to “add value” to the experience of the BBC audience. “Our rules around our advertisement features specifically talk about the need to add value for our audience,” he says. “We know that if we are not creating something interesting, useful or entertaining for audiences it’s not going to perform as you would want it to and that’s not going to be to the benefit of our partners.”

BBC Global News follows different commercial standards to some of its competitors in the international news industry. Client propositions must be rejected if they offer any hint of editorial influence.

The BBC StoryWorks pitch is partly based on the high levels of quality and trust in the editorial content alongside which its branded work will sit. It operates a content management system which ensures that branded content is continually identified as such. Pattinson says this approach is appreciated by audiences. “Not only do we want to be whiter than white when it comes to transparency with our audiences but our research demonstrated that it was better for brands if they were open about their association and not surreptitious.”

The BBC has been using facial coding as part of its Science of Engagement audience research project in order to determine the emotions experienced by users of BBC editorial and commercial content. Pattinson says that the work has shown a “clear correlation” between “serious” emotional responses and the impact of a branded story. The project has shown that certain emotions - notably happiness, fear and curiosity - are clearly linked to a user’s propensity to share content on social media. By identifying the moments when these emotions are felt, clients can maximise the response to campaigns on social platforms.

Pattinson, who worked for 12 years as a TV producer and commissioner of news before switching to his commercial role, says the films made by BBC StoryWorks compare in quality to the content produced by editorial colleagues. The money they make, he says, is ultimately beneficial to the BBC licence fee payer because it strengthens the BBC’s newsroom. “The revenue we create with our partners allows us to invest in our international journalism. It’s a great virtuous circle.”

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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