“We commissioned this research because we know that another billion people will be connected to the internet by 2020 and they are largely going to be on social or mobile platforms and come from emerging models,” said Dmitry Shishkin, BBC World Service digital development editor, speaking at the last Digital Editors Network meeting.
The World Service’s digital reach grew from 42 to 85 million from 2012 to 2015 and the aim of the research conducted with Next Gen is to further establish what drives people's digital habits and news consumption.
“We wanted to understand what different segments of young audiences in different parts of the world think, and crucially how they engage with news in general,” said Shishkin.
“But it is not only about growing – it is about reaching people who don't have any idea about what the BBC is, or people who go on Facebook or WhatsApp and stumble upon news, and it is really important for us to be there when they are.”
The study took place six months ago and included qualitative, quantitative and desk research across several countries in Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America. Here are five of its key findings.
Focus on WhatsApp, and less on Twitter and Instagram
“This finding was a little bit strange for us because we [now] understand that we need to focus on a platform that doesn't want to be a friend to media at all – WhatsApp wants people to talk to each other, but they don't want media to get in the way,” said Shishkin.
Seventy-seven per cent of respondents to the research had used WhatsApp, as opposed to a combined 44 per cent of them having used other popular messaging apps.
However, Shishkin noted it is important not to forget about other chat apps.
Slides courtesy of BBC World Service
“The beauty about chat apps is we've got about six, or seven or eight large chat apps across the world, which are actually quite interested in dealing with news and news organisations,” he said.
A month after launching the BBC Persian account for Iran on Telegram, the broadcaster not only gathered 150,000 subscribers, but noticed some posts reached almost half a million people, as users copied and pasted the content to others.
“It is a powerful thing if you think about it, because BBC Persian, as a whole, reach about 3 million people, and you suddenly have an ability to reach 15, 20, 25 per cent additional to that.”
The research found that although more people had used Facebook (91 per cent), WhatsApp is the service they would miss the most if it were not there.
Additionally, 16 to 24 year olds were much more likely to check WhatsApp than Twitter as soon as they woke up in the morning.
Although the BBC World Service tries to innovate on different chat apps, including LINE and WeChat, WhatsApp is dominant.
“The question is whether we can we make any sense of that dominance for the future,” said Shishkin.
According to the research, WhatsApp was found to provide a meaningful social experience, as a place where people go to connect with others and have conversations, as opposed to discovering news.
As a result, Shishkin noted that there is an uncertainty as to whether WhatsApp can be successful in the future as a distribution platform and be able to offer more than a way to gather user-generated content and thoughts from the public.
Show visitors from social networks what is relevant to them in their current state of mind
“This is about appreciating that your audience is coming to your website in all sorts of different ways, with different frames of mind and needs,” said Shishkin.
He added that the BBC’s website currently has the same ‘furniture’ on its site for every visitor, displaying the same onward links and top stories.
However, he said that unlike ‘search audiences’, who are engaged visitors looking for news, viewers coming from social networks will not find this offering particularly relevant to them because they are keen to read a specific story.
“What if at the entry point of a referral, your story looks different? What if you start promoting different things, what if you create your onward journeys in a different manner?” Shishkin said.
“[For example], a person coming from social is not interested in your top story, they are interested in a piece of content – what if you surround that story with similar links, stories that are trending on social in a much bigger way?”
As a lot of the younger audiences are coming to kill time rather than specifically get news, he said the BBC needs to make changes to the way it presents its content by reacting to the different mindsets of the audience.
Different platforms should be doing different things to fit the needs of new young audiences
The third key finding from this research was that news organisations need to treat content differently for different platforms in order to appeal to the younger generation.
This could mean a short 15-second video for Vine, a longer video for Facebook or a different style of delivery for a different audience – such as producing satirical content or interactive online news games.
Forty-three per cent of under 35s agreed that although there is much news around, they still don’t feel they clearly understand most issues.
Slides courtesy of BBC World Service
“Something which we have started thinking about at the BBC a lot is how you explain news to people in way that is not condescending,” said Shishkin.
“What we have learnt so far is that you shouldn’t write for yourself or peers – write for the audience.”
He said that sometimes articles which may seem simple, or even obvious to journalists, can be popular with people who are looking to catch up on an issue or learn about it from scratch.
The research highlighted that audiences are dipping in and out of ongoing events at different times and from different angles, so they may lose context.
“Don't be afraid to deconstruct explainers to the bare minimum – the analysis and all the fact boxes which we do are quite important for audiences on the news site,” Shishkin said.
Site content for younger audiences is different to content geared towards encouraging sharing
“The fourth [digital finding] is quite counter-intuitive, because what we are saying is that sometimes sharing doesn't mean popularity,” said Shishkin.
“Sometimes people will share stories but they won't read them, sometimes people will read stories but then don't share them.”
The research analysed the interests of a range of people, and compared them to the type of stories they were most likely to share.
Slides courtesy of BBC World Service
It found that people over the age of 35 are more likely to share stories relating to health, and people under 35 are more likely to share content about pop culture.
However, science stories are roughly even across the different age groups and are shared by all.
“Analysing your content not only for popularity, but for shareability too, is quite important,” said Shishkin.
It isn’t enough to just tell the news – audiences want solutions
The research found that 64 per cent of under 35s want news to provide solutions to problems, not just news that tells them about certain issues.
As opposed to news organisations trying to solve problems from around the world, they can help by providing audiences with the knowledge to try and address problems themselves, moving beyond what has happened and looking to where to go next – giving guidance to viewers, rather than solutions.
“This is what we have been doing at World Service on quite a few occasions, where you take a problem and then you try to explain how the problem is being solved in different parts of the world,” said Shishkin.
He pointed out that these five digital findings are applicable to the global news industry, as well as the BBC.
“The sooner we start reacting to these findings, the better for the whole industry,” Shishkin said.
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