Data Professional: Steve Forde

Head of viewer relationship management, Channel 4.

Steve Forde

Marketing Week (MW): How did you get into  data marketing and what attracted you to Channel 4?

Steve Forde (SF): I started off in a direct marketing agency working on strategy for alcohol brands and Ladbrokes. We did their customer relationship management (CRM) programmes. That’s where I cut my teeth and learned about data, segmentation, how to target customers and how to put the right offer in front of them at the right time.

When I moved to Channel 4, there was a nascent digital team. We were one of the first broadcasters to have a digital team when we launched [online on-demand viewing service] 4oD. Then the head of viewer relationship management job came along, which was the perfect mix of brand and digital and my previous experience as a direct marketer.

MW: How important is the balance between data expertise and marketing experience?

SF: As a data marketer, you need to have a creative element. My background as [an English graduate] gives me that, but I also know the power of data.

We have a strong data planning and analytics department. I come up with the outcomes and the strategy of what we want data to do, but we leave it to them to say what the data is telling us. They build the segmentations and create the algorithms to service what we need. 

MW: Channel 4’s viewer relationship strategy won the Grand Prix at Marketing Week’s Data Strategy Awards this year. How does that and your role at Channel 4 fit into the wider business structure?

SF: The strategy sits within ATI – audience, technologies and insight – at Channel 4. There are four parts to that: audience research, which is about helping the programming, commissioning and marketing teams; commercial research; viewer relationship management; and data planning and analytics. The last two functions work in harmony to develop the viewer relationship strategy.

It is central to Channel 4’s five-point strategic vision for the future. It has been given enormous support by the senior executives, mainly chief executive David Abraham and ATI director Gill Whitehead. We have done it because over the next decade, two-thirds of viewing is probably going to be via a connected device. That gives us a return path that we have never had before and that changes the broadcaster’s relationship with its viewers. We want to give them an experience beyond the programme that they are watching.

MW: What are your plans for gathering more insight regarding viewing on offline platforms?

SF: We want all viewing to be visible to us. That means extending the relationship everywhere.

We’re looking at how we can do that. With YouView and the PlayStation and Xbox consoles, where we have a relationship, we will be building out registrations and putting it in other places further down the line. Where we can’t have registration or there is no direct return path, such as on linear TV, we are looking at how we get a connection. We are also considering viewer benefits when they register, and how to build those benefits to create, not a reward scheme, but something in that sort of area.

MW: Channel 4 also made a ‘viewer promise’ as part of its strategy, stating that viewers control their data and can withdraw it if they wish. How does this dictate what Channel 4 can do?

SF: The viewer promise is central to what we do and it is something that I am very proud of. 

Everything always goes back to the promise. If the viewer sat in the room and we had to explain something to them, how would it play? Would it be clear to them, would they understand it and would they understand what value they get out of it?

MW: How are you using the data gathered via the viewer relationship strategy?

SF: On the marketing side, we’re using it to target people with communications. We have the ability to hone it to the individual and what they’re viewing, and give them more of what they like. For advertisers, TV is the medium that drives awareness at scale, but now we have the added advantage of targeted advertising to specific groups of viewers, [with a target of 15 to 20 per cent bought this way on 4oD this year, and 50 per cent in the next three years].

When we test targeting, we get double the engagement and response rates.

MW: How is the viewer relationship strategy shaping the evolution of 4oD?

SF: There are going to be big changes to 4oD in the next few years – personalisation and recommendation are going to play big part, and it will all be data-driven. The ambition is for each of the 10 million registered users to have a version of the 4oD site specifically for them based on what they have been viewing.

In our DNA is the remit of having to champion the new, nurture new talent and introduce people to new things, which is a challenge for a data strategy. We are working on the idea of the anti-algorithm, the algorithm of surprise. How can we create recommendations based on what we know a viewer likes, but also how do we nudge them to watch shows that they don’t know they will like?

That is all in research and development. Right now we are looking to weave data through the end-to-end experience, so we are able to show the right things to people at the right time. At the moment we are email only, but will be moving into iOS notifications soon. It will not be only push communications, but viewers telling us ‘I want to know about that particular show’.

MW: What insight into viewing behaviour has the viewer relationship strategy provided?

SF: In the past, for our VoD (video on demand) and online offering, we had web metrics tools, which could look at a month-on-month snapshot of unique viewers but not over three months. The data strategy has allowed us to see the relationships people have with us on a digital basis. From that we can see a significant number of people who dip in and out and use it for its original purpose, to catch up on shows that they missed. But there’s also a small but growing minority who don’t have a TV and only use VoD.

If they’re watching episode three of a series, we can make a simple assumption that they’re watching the rest of it on TV. We are using that for marketing, the business side of what 4oD needs to be doing next, and to sit alongside the other research for the commissioning teams.

MW: How does social media fit into the strategy?

SF: We have launched Twitter retargeting. It started as a discreet piece of marketing, but we now have 500,000 people on the database who have tweeted about shows. If we say [US series] 90210 is finishing, we get tweets asking ‘When is it coming back?’ and we will say we have no plans. Six months later, when the show is coming back, we tweet back to those people. We have had an amazing response.

MW: Facebook recently announced its ‘anonymous login’ button, enabling users to log in to other sites with Facebook without providing their personal details to the site. Is this something Channel 4 might adopt?

SF: We offer the opportunity to connect Facebook profiles to us. Facebook terms and conditions are stringent in terms of how we can use Facebook data as a commercial broadcaster. Our strategy is that we want people to have a relationship with Channel 4, and our viewer promise is about their having control and transparency.

We have looked at getting more people to connect with Facebook, but if we did that, then as part of the viewer promise we would have additional transparency steps on top of the normal Facebook permissions. We would say here is the data we get from Facebook on you, here’s how you can stop that. It’s an extra layer of safety so we can keep our viewer promise.

Interview by Michael Barnett

Steven Forde on…

…online tv services

Our competitive set is changing. It is going to be interesting to see how those disruptors in the market change things – Sky is doing its ‘box sets’ campaign and we are doing something similar. That’s already starting to change people’s behaviour. But VoD is still very small compared with traditional TV. It’s in the single digits in terms of viewing share. For some of our programmes it is very significant and can be up to 30 per cent of the viewing.

Some people use 4oD to catch up on shows such as Fargo, while other watch all their TV online

…targeting advertising

VoD advertising is still sold via run-of-site or genre packages – so you buy a drama or a comedy package. Within that there is your audience plus other people, so there is some wastage. We can now target specific age groups and social demographics. That is starting to command a higher cost per thousand, but it also delivers better efficiency and engagement for advertisers 

 …live tv viewing

‘Watch live’, which is our online simultaneous broadcast, is getting big leaps in engagement every Monday for certain programmes such as Made in Chelsea. People are coming in to watch live programmes on a Monday. They are probably people who do not have a TV, so they could wait to watch it on catch-up, but there is a real social currency in watching live on any given day. There are programmes that you want to able to talk to your friends about straight away.


2011 – present

Head of viewer relationship management

Channel 4


Marketing secondment, YouView

2009 – 2011

Head of digital marketing & communications

Channel 4

2009 – 2009

UK managing director, Rocket XL

2005 – 2009

Marketing manager, new media, Channel 4

2003 – 2005

Commercial marketing manager, UKTV

1998 – 2003

Account director

HHM Communications (now Crayon Advertising)



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