The BBC is driving a range of initiatives, including enhancing signed-in usage and developing data analytics capabilities, to increase consumption of its content by younger audiences.
Head of product Rebecca Salsbury leads a 120-strong team, including product managers, software engineers and other professionals who design, create, integrate and operate the systems that underpin the broadcaster's audience platform.
The team’s key goal is to increase the frequency with which younger users visit the BBC and offer them features and benefits across its products, in addition to iPlayer.
According to Salsbury, the BBC has more than 35 million signed-in accounts, and intends to keep increasing that number. Boosting sign-in is essential because it allows measurement and promotion of relevant content.
“Driving up signed-in usage also means we are able to manage and make sense of the data that we have that’s coming back from signed-in users,” says Salsbury. “That means what content they’re watching, how frequently, how much of that content they’re getting through. If they just watch the opening minutes of Luther, for example, that’s not our aim, but if they watch a box set, that’s very good.”
“Big data technologies are key to scaling all the work that we do”
Rebecca Salsbury, BBC
To achieve that, the BBC is simplifying user registration, so that fewer people drop out at the registration stage. It is also making the benefits of signing in clear to users and rewarding them with features such as content recommendations.
Simplifying the process of switching on a device is another workstream, intended to make it easier for users who may, for example, be sharing a mobile phone with other family members, to switch between them or their child. Children’s account management – enabling parents to manage, monitor and take part in children’s content usage – is another area of focus for Salsbury’s team, as is recommendations.
“Today we recommend television and radio programmes through the iPlayer and BBC Sounds,” she says. “But in the future, we need to recommend other kinds of content and other kinds of experiences, so that signed-in users know what else is available from the BBC and what their next action might be.”
Evolving data analytics
This year, the BBC is bringing in a new digital analytics partner. According to Salsbury, the amount of data the company already collects is “immense”. About a billion data points around customer usage online are captured each day. Now the broadcaster wants to evolve its data set-up to interpret that information and draw insights from it.
To that end, some restructuring of the data platform will be required to enable more automation and more real-time capability, with pipelines becoming more efficient and simpler to manage. That will enable information to be presented to data scientists, analysts and other data users within the BBC in real time or near-real time.
“Big data technologies are key to scaling all the work that we do, to manage large volumes of customer data and match that against a fairly large and growing content catalogue, so that we are personalising the audience experience of our online properties,” says Salsbury.
“That’s the game – a lot of scaling, looking for automation and to simplify the way we join data together in the customer experience.”
Without citing specific technologies that the BBC is using to enable its big data vision, Salsbury notes that given the volume of information the broadcaster needs to handle and the tens of millions of customers impacted by the audience platform, the supporting technology must be very robust – so commodity IT tends to be the choice over bleeding-edge alternatives.
“If we know what our objective is and we are evaluating technologies to integrate into a solution, the main criterion is to determine whether we have got a use case that is crying out for some technology or a service,” she says. “And if we do, we then determine whether that technology or service can handle the scale and volume that we need it to.”
Although the technical challenges in Salsbury’s project agenda are “entirely solvable” thanks to the broadcaster’s partnerships and cloud computing, which becomes more useful as big data services are bundled in, the hurdles are mainly organisational by nature.
According to Salsbury, moving into a new world where data is real-time and used to support daily decision-making is a step-change for the BBC, which is accustomed to looking at data on an overnight basis, even in the news space.
“It’s quite a big shift to get our colleagues around the BBC thinking about more than just the possibility, but how this data might be useful to them in their day-to-day world,” she says. “The maturity of the platform is only one part of it.
“It’s all about education, data literacy, seeing what’s possible, getting hands-on data, being able to partner with a data analyst or a data scientist who is much more experienced in how to read the data, but is not experienced in the business process.”
Salsbury adds: “This idea of having people embedded is a way to help our colleagues become more aware of what is possible and how that might change the way that they operate.”
Working on retention
There are also challenges to face within Salsbury’s team as data analytics becomes more important to the BBC. To illustrate her point, Salsbury mentions the current switch to a new digital web analytics supplier, which could be perceived as maintenance – even though it is part of the organisation’s strategic big picture and future vision.
“For our teams, it may seem really boring, detailed, a lot of reverse engineering of an existing product and trying to replace like for like,” she says. “It doesn’t feel strategic to them, even though these small improvements are going to set us up for a more strategic future.
“But keeping their motivation high and helping them to relate the work that they do every day to that big picture, that future that we’re headed toward – it’s really challenging.
“I want them to feel excited about the work they are doing, and it’s not always obvious how exciting refactoring a data platform or building new pipelines could be.”
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Salsbury is acutely aware of the current buoyant market for high-calibre IT professionals. She knows her staff are highly sought-after because many have “hefty experience” of dealing with technology and data at scale, so making them want to stay is crucial.
“We work on retention by giving staff a picture of how impactful the BBC’s vision could be for the customers, the UK licence fee payers, and that’s what motivates many of them,” she says. “They are also quite excited about the opportunity to work at this kind of scale, so developing their experience is an opportunity for them.”
Salsbury says the main ways to drive staff enthusiasm and make them want to stay are to continue making working at the BBC a rewarding experience and connecting what employees are doing at scale to the broadcaster’s objectives.
“The other part of our challenge as senior leaders is to ensure people have a good relationship with their line manager, who needs to help them develop their careers and translate what they are doing every day into that wider strategic picture that they’re working towards,” she adds.