Why BBC Three and The Independent have to put content first for online-only to succeed

The Independent and BBC Three are officially switching to digital-only channels. But if both brands want audiences to follow, quality content has to remain at the core.


As of today (16 February), BBC Three viewers will have to go online to find their favourite shows. When the BBC announced the switchover in summer last year, BBC Trustee Suzanna Taverne said that the move was in response to changing consumer needs, stating: “The evidence is very clear that younger audiences are watching more online and less linear TV.” Incidentally, its budget was also slashed from £85m to £25m, as part of “financially necessary” cost-cutting moves at the corporation.

To promote the switch, the BBC has invested in outdoor advertising, which can be seen throughout London from today (16 February) onwards.

The Independent, meanwhile, announced last week that it would be halting its print-run after 30 years to focus its efforts on the publication’s website instead.

Jon O’Donnell, group commercial director at The Independent’s owner ESI Media, told Marketing Week it is confident the move away from print will be a smooth transition, pointing to growth in its online users.

According to figures provided by ESI Media, independent.co.uk’s monthly audience has grown 33.3% in the last 12 months to nearly 70 million global unique users, with expected revenue growth of 50% this year. In sharp contrast, ABC figures show that the newspaper’s circulation dropped to 56,074 in December 2015, compared to its peak circulation of 421,829 back in November 1989.

O’Donnell explained: “We believe people will transition over. There is a period until it closes, where people will start to transfer over to the website. It’s a sustainable brand – we’re known for thought-provoking, intelligent journalism in print and will continue to uphold those pillars online.”

Copying Netflix

The Independent and BBC would be wise to take lessons from Netflix, according to Paolo Pescatore, director of multiplay and media at CCS Insight. He says online-only will be a good move for both brands as it will provide them with the growth opportunities that traditional media can no longer provide.

“If you look at some of these online giants today like Netflix and Google, they have clearly shown how successful you can become in online world in a relatively short amount of time,” says Pescatore.

“Now, BBC Three can promote its brand across different digital channels to provide a deep and immersive experience, rather than relying solely on a TV channel. They’re then able to track these metrics, which is exactly what Netflix does. It knows what content works and the BBC should strive to replicate that.”

But it’s not all plain sailing. Both brands will face a tough battle if they wish to succeed and move their audiences across to their digital platforms. Especially against more established rivals.

“When you think of the Independent and the BBC as a brand and the competitive environment they’re in, ‘brutal’ would be too kind a description.”

Ed Barton, head of TV, Ovum

“A lot of online views are now reliant on aggregation and social media distribution. Then there are platforms like the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed and Vice who are experts at accumulating audiences through a whole host of tricks. So I think both brands are starting from a very challenged competitive position,” explains Ed Barton, head of TV at consultancy Ovum.

When it comes to BBC Three’s new route to market, maintaining a clear line of communication could also be a challenge.

“When a channel like BBC Three goes from a traditional to an online environment, anything in terms of how to attract an audience, discovery and knowing when programmes are online, are totally different,” adds Barton.

Quality content remains king

And when it comes to attracting young viewers, it won’t be the platform making the difference but the content. Promoting a wide range of different types of content, including short-form videos or long-form documentaries, could make a real difference to success adds Ovum’s Burton.

“The BBC will have to really invest in its marketing to cut through the noise. When you’re talking about a young online audience, they tend to be very flighty, and brands often struggle to hold their attention for more than two to five minutes. So the content has to be good and have a distinctive voice, which easy to say but very hard to do,” he says.

BBC Three’s focus on comedy could also be a smart tactic.

He explains: “If you look at the brand’s plans going forward they will be putting a lot of focus on comedy, which actually could be a sensible move because that genre lends itself to a lot of differentiation. It’s all about creating the next blockbuster, like Amazon or Netflix, and reducing spending money on license content.”

Ultimately, traditional brands can become digital leaders as long as they put their content at the heart of their strategy.

Pescatore concludes: “Companies like the BBC and The Independent have a strong heritage of being known in a traditional arena, but in a changing society brands have to ensure that they up the ante and that their content shines through. Because if the content is strong, people will follow.”


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