opinion


From public service to mobile service

BBC Worldwide is tasked with generating revenues from the content created by its public service mother company. This year it launched an advertising proposition on its mobile site and mobile marketing looks set to become a key part of its offering.

The website of the BBC is one of the most widely used online resources in the world. Less than ten per cent of its traffic is generated by search engines and it has one of the most loyal audiences on the web; 80 per cent of the website’s users log in on a daily basis. It was also one of the first organisations to embrace the mobile web, with its mobile site launching over a decade ago. In terms of frequency and reach, two key advertising metrics, the BBC is hard to beat.

But in its home market of the UK the BBC is unable to sell advertising of any kind, as it is publicly funded. But internationally it labours under no such restrictions and Tom Bowman, vice president for strategy and operations at the BBC advertising unit, is responsible for monetising the organisation’s digital assets around the world. Two years ago he launched the BBC’s first advertising sales programme for www.bbc.com and, in March this year, a mobile offering was added to the mix.

So how does the mobile channel appear to an organisation that is looking to leverage it as a revenue generator by selling marketing solutions to third parties, based on the abiding popularity of its own content?

For Bowman, the mobile channel is just beginning to come into its own from a marketing standpoint. “Mobile is one of those things that has had a lot of false dawns,” he says. “It didn’t happen for a long time for various reasons. But we’re starting to see everything converge now. Video can be consumed on TV, PC or mobile and, while advertising isn’t the only way to monetise web products, it has been the early thrust and it fits very neatly around the news, sport and weather services that we provide.”

Mobile is following a similar path to the PC-based internet, says Bowman, in that improvements in device usability and functionality and adjustments in pricing strategies to bring all-you-can-eat tariffs to the table have coincided to give a much needed boost to consumption of mobile content. He expresses concern at the cost of data roaming, though, which he worries will dissuade travelling users accessing BBC content online, thereby restricting the reach of his content as a marketing channel.

Despite recent improvements to the mobile offering that have made mobile web more attractive to users, and while the BBC may have been a pioneer in establishing an early mobile web presence, it is reluctant to embrace the range of new functionality available to an organisation trying to sell itself as a mobile marketing platform. “The audience comes to our site with a high level of engagement to find out what’s going on in the world,” he says. “It relies on our ‘updated every minute’ concept and might be using a few spare minutes in the queue at the airport to check the news. Our advertising has to reflect that so it tends to revolve around pretty straightforward banner ads. We’re not in the game of throwing fancy, jumping images at people who just want to find out what’s going on in the world; we don’t have to,” he adds.

Indeed the international popularity of the BBC tends to recommend a more cautious approach to the relative sophistication of its marketing channel offering. In Africa more than 40 per cent of the BBC’s total online traffic is on mobile and, in some markets—Nigeria, for example—more people access BBC content from phones than from PCs. In these markets the handsets are less advanced and are likely to continue to lag the most developed territories. “You should see the amount of people out of Nigeria who follow the soccer blog on a Saturday afternoon on their phones to find out what’s happening with big name African footballers,” he says,

Mobile will continue to be more dominant a means of internet access in developing markets and so the BBC will need to manage the evolution of its advertising offering carefully in the coming years, says Bowman.

Tom Bowman, VP for strategy and operations at the BBC advertising unit, launched the organisation's mobile marketing strategy

Tom Bowman, VP for strategy and operations at the BBC advertising unit, launched the organisation's mobile marketing strategy

“At the moment mobile is a pretty small percentage of our total revenues,” he says, “but obviously it’s a play for us going forward. We see it only becoming more important.” He opts not to put any numbers on the firm’s mobile marketing revenues, saying only: “Without going into specifics I can tell you that we wouldn’t get into the commercial side of things unless we were convinced that we could make some decent money from it.”

That the BBC’s arrival in mobile advertising was as late as the first quarter this year might seem surprising, but it was demand led, he says. “We were provoked into launching the mobile advertising channel in part by our own strategic thinking but also because our advertisers started asking for it, late in 2008.” The launch was reasonably simple, Bowman says, with the BBC using the same sales team to market its offering, the same technological back end and the same invoicing tool.

While the BBC focuses on keeping things simple, the mobile industry can be relentlessly complicated and congested. The sheer variety of handsets and operating systems available is one of the obstacles faced by the BBC, with Bowman suggesting that it restricts the speed and ease with which a mobile marketing campaign can be put together. “There are far too many different browsers, and far too many of the carriers have adulterated those browsers, which makes it quite hard,” he says. “So it’s still relatively fiddly to build a mobile ad campaign; more so than for a PC based offering, which itself is more fiddly than television. You have to stick to the rule that if something is easy to buy, then it’s easy to sell,” he says.

The mobile advertising value chain is a complicated one. There are those companies that own the inventory, those that control the access, those that design the adverts, and those that place, buy and sell them. The mobile carrier community is keen to position itself at the centre of the sector, trading on various strengths, in particular the user data that it can offer and the fact that it sells the mobile service to the customer whose attention the advertiser is trying to catch.

But Bowman isn’t convinced of the carriers importance in the chain. “The carriers may want to control the advertising business but they have to have content in order to have something to sell the advertising against,” he says. For Bowman, content is the most valuable form of inventory and BBC Worldwide, in order to comply with competition law, has to licence content from the BBC in order to have to right to sell that inventory. That puts it in competition with anyone else that might be working with the BBC on a content basis and so, Bowman says, “we don’t have relationships with the carriers in my area.”

So what other opportunities does the mobile channel offer an organisation like the BBC, and its related companies? Could there be an opportunity to sell the content itself—after all one of the BBC’s major competitors, News Corp, has recently indicated its intention to begin charging for content online. Some observers have speculated that this might force other news organisations to follow suit. A micro-payment model for mobile delivery of wider BBC content could be an option.

“It’s possible,” says Bowman, “but it’s not necessarily something that we’d be involved in. That said, we’re in a world where you have to play down both sides of the table quite frequently. I imagine we’re thinking about it, but thinking about something and making it pay are two different things. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should,” he says returning to his theme of caution and simplicity.

There is potential, too, in running, pre-roll advertising (of the kind that has become popular in the PC-based internet environment) should the BBC decide to start running video content in its mobile news and sports offering. At the moment, given the geographical dispersal of its audience, and the huge breadth in handset capability, this is not part of the service, he says. “But I think it’s more a case of ‘when’ than of ‘if’.”

The BBC’s online presence is part of an elite group of sites to which—in a world increasingly dominated by portals, search engines and aggregators—consumers prefer to travel direct. But for many years now the phrase ‘content is king’ has echoed through the halls of the mobile industry and the BBC’s exploitation of the mobile channel as a revenue generator appears to give the mantra some validity.

Check back this week for related features on Lufthansa and BMW


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