How BBC World Service Approaches Digital Strategy

We spoke with Dmitry Shishkin, Digital & Video lead for BBC World Service


Dmitry Shishkin serves as Digital & Video lead for BBC World Service, Dmitry is an experienced digital leader in news and content creation, specializing in driving editorial changes in newsrooms, growing audiences across the world and adapting the way organizations work in digital space, especially around content innovation and audience engagement. 

What, in your view, are the key tenets of effective digital transformation?

Digital transformation of any company or business, like any change project in general, is successful when two basic yet important elements are in place.

Firstly, if you are running a digital transformation as the lead change agent yourself, then the person above you, a CEO, for example, or CDO, must be openly and demonstrably supportive of your actions and you personally. I’ve seen many change projects failing specifically because transformation was either not fully endorsed by the board or key directors or supported in a way that allowed naysayers room to wriggle out of it.

Secondly, you are not going to be running such a project alone, so you have to have your direct reports bought into the whole thing too – this will ensure that while you are away, on holidays or traveling, for example, the process continues exactly the way you’d want it to. So in simple terms, two crucial layers have to be on the same page with you.

Clarity and something which I call “singularity of purpose” is another crucial thing – change is hard anyway and the majority of people are change-averse or are threatened by change. The easier the message, the better it is for you. Being able to explain why certain things are to change in a sentence or two is incredibly helpful to the majority of staff, in my experience. Sometimes transformation projects either over-pitch or under-pitch their activities, being either too complex for an outsider to understand, or too simplistic, omitting crucial pieces of evidence or reasoning. In my view, every change project needs to have a mission statement, like most companies do, describing in a sentence or two what is changing, why, and what the benefits are for customers and employees.

Getting people on board by actively listening to them and adapting your tactics where needed is very important too – the times of “tell, sell, yell” approach are long gone, we all are living in a much more nuanced world, whereas change is often seen by those who oppose it as something binary, which it is not.

Financial backing is crucial too – transformation in itself is leading to something that is only going to be tangible and real years from now, and diverting resources from current to future priorities is difficult to accept, but it’s very important.

What metrics does BBC World Service look at when gauging the effectiveness of its digital strategy?

There are many metrics and they all are used for different things by different departments.

My role is a typical “bridge role”, which we see becoming a trend in the digital sector lately – my team and I are sitting on the intersection of many departments and interests and have a birds’ eye view on what’s happening with the digital transformation business as a whole. If you take the departments that we work with the most, they are likely to have narrower, sharper views on their own field, but successful companies will have invested in units similar to mine, that care and pay attention to many activities and thus KPIs and metrics as a whole.

We are of course in the content creation business, so the effectiveness of our reach and engagement with audiences is paramount to us – how many people we reach on all our platforms and what those people do with our content and how often is very important. The focus is very quickly switching to the quality of reach metric. We spend lots of time with our editorial teams trying to adapt their ways of working by introducing data literacy and best practices to their workflow.

So there are things that we care about on an annual, monthly, and weekly basis – those are your typical ones, like unique browsers and page views. There are also others that we care about on a daily basis, like best-performing articles and crucially those that did not perform. And, still, there are different ones for hourly attention – depth of scroll, recirculation, and others.

Another really interesting aspect is the overall production levels metric – from experience we have been able to prove that for smaller teams which are unable to produce lots of content regularly, being picky and focusing on a smaller number of items is actually a good thing. For example, just recently we addressed plateauing traffic by cutting the number of items produced from 100 to 60 a week, yet the overall number of unique browsers grew substantially. If you can’t do a lot, really pay attention to what you are doing and the results will pleasantly surprise you.

In what ways does data influence product development and innovation at BBC World Service?

Data informs what we do in a massive way, editorially, and from the product perspective - it would have been suicidal otherwise. I have three of my favorite quotes that I am using in almost every talk I have done while working with various BBC teams in the last several years, and one of them is from an engineer and statistician W. Edward Deming: “Without data, you are just another person with an opinion”. It’s absolutely crucial for digital transformation and change and I highly recommend using it. Being in the editorial sector, I am almost always asked about famous editorial “gut feeling”. To which I reply – we are not being dictated by data, we are informed by it. I am still considering myself a journalist and editor, because I am influencing what we output on a continuous basis.

In product, which is the area I am not responsible for (I am a senior editorial stakeholder for product development, which I absolutely love doing!) the culture of using data had been in place much earlier than in the editorial sector. Taking roadmap prioritization decisions based on data, building growth models based on user behaviors, running multi-variant and A/B testing – all these things have been a part and parcel of what product managers, designers, and other sister professions do for a long time.

Innovation, though, is interesting, as it sits exactly in the middle of content and product. Innovation is based on assumptions and many assumptions that could be wrong, for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes an innovation, and I use this term in the broadest sense of doing something new differently, sometimes it’s too complicated, sometimes too early for its time, sometimes it’s just not proven to be a thing. So I prefer always going into running innovation projects with a very specific set of KPIs, once you analyze them, then you take a decision of dropping it or going further. It’s something I have been involved for many years now, and I love this aspect of my work.

BBC World Service reaches an audience of 166 million globally. (Picture: Flickr)

What are the key challenges involved in launching in new markets across the world?

We at BBC World Service, being a public service broadcaster, are incredibly privileged and tremendously lucky to be expanding globally in such a spectacular fashion – we have just launched 12 new digital teams in nine months, from August 2017 to March 2018. These new teams joined earlier existing 28 teams, so now BBC News foreign language digital portfolio consists of 40 editorial teams reaching around 35 million people each week (not unique browsers, but people!).

Launching them in such a short period of time was a massive challenge – editorially, technically, operationally. Leaving aside the logistics of opening brand new offices in Delhi, Lagos, Nairobi, as well as modernizing many more, there were so many things we had to get right at the same time. From finding the right candidates and training them, packing so many things in, building teams from new recruits, getting them up to speed with numerous BBC guidelines and systems, challenging them to be editorially ambitious and inventive – it was the hardest yet the absolute best year of my career to date.

What are you going to be discussing in your presentation at the summit?

I’d like to share the most important things I learned by helping to transform BBC World Service language teams with wider industry – and don’t get me wrong, this process has just only begun, we are not even nearly done. I know a lot about what’s happening in other digital sectors – be it retail, travel, industrial or banking - and I can see lots of similarities in terms of challenges we are all facing, externally and internally. I hope that my experience, mistakes, findings, and insights would be useful to my counterparts in Britain and internationally. Our sector is still very young by other standards and arguably one of the most dynamic out there, so sharing our insights, being open and honest about the way we do things is something that will make us all collectively stronger. 

Hear more from Dmitry, along with many other industry-leading digital executives, at the Chief Digital Officer Forum, this April 25 - 26 in London. To see the full schedule, click here.

Online presence small

Read next:

Why Even Established Companies Shouldn’t Neglect Their Online Presence