Wherever our audiences are discussing our brands that’s where we want to be a part of the conversation

“Wherever our audiences are discussing our brands that’s where we want to be a part of the conversation.” Alex Ayling, head of BBC Worldwide Digital Studios. Continuing our series of interviews with speakers at the upcoming Power to the Pixel: The Cross-Media Forum, Alex Ayling, head of BBC Worldwide Digital Studios, talks about his work at the oldest broadcaster on the planet. 

By Melanie Goodfellow 

It is unlikely the BBC’s first director-general Lord Reith ever envisaged a day when the broadcaster would be putting out short form content revolving around questions like a How does deodorant work? and How often should I wash my clothes? on a digital platform called YouTube.

But 95 years after the world’s oldest broadcaster took to the air, these are among the growing archive of short-form videos to have been commissioned by the BBC Worldwide Digital Studios team for the broadcaster’s dedicated YouTube channels.

Both items were produced for topical science channel Brit Lab. Alongside BBC Earth Unplugged, Brit Lab (originally called Head Squeeze) is one of two BBC YouTube channels launched at the end of 2012, after securing investment from Google/YouTube as part of its $200m drive to kickstart 60 new premium channels across Europe.

BBC Worldwide Digital Studios head Alex Ayling was first recruited to BBC Worldwide — the commercial arm of the BBC focused on monetising the broadcaster’s top brands and content — to oversee their launch.

“It was just me and one other, or eventually, one other guy,” he says.

The BBC signed a first partnership deal with YouTube in 2007, but Google/YouTube’s 2012 investment drive was a game-changer, he says.

“Previously, BBC Worldwide had regarded YouTube simply as a platform for the exploitation of archive clips,” says Ayling. “The turning point came when Google started investing in channels.”

Three years later, there are 15 channels, generating more than 75 million views a month, and Ayling – who was promoted to the position of head of the newly created BBC Worldwide Digital Studios unit in September 2014 – leads a compact team with a growing remit to maintain and grow the BBC’s audience through online content and audience engagement.

“We merged the YouTube team with the social media team and added an in-house production unit – most of what they make is short form video but it could be about anything and for any platform,” says Ayling. “Wherever our audiences are discussing our brands that’s where we want to be a part of the conversation.”

Another part of the team focuses on digital distribution. Beyond YouTube, the digital team works with several other third parties. The unit recently set-up partnerships with Spotify, for its fledgling news and entertainment video service, and Skype, to provide archive clips for its new Mojis service enabling people to send short videos while chatting.

“It lets people send little three-second videos. It could be Doctor Who telling you to shut up, for example, or David Brent doing a silly dance in The Office,” says Ayling.

The third important prong of the Digital Studios’ work is community engagement on the BBC’s major brands Top GearDoctor WhoSherlock, BBC Earth, which encompasses all the BBC’s natural history output, and BBC Brit, a relatively new male-skewed, factual entertainment strand, not linked to a specific TV programme but aimed rather at extending the BBC’s reach into other territories.

“Within the team, everyone has their own roles but I don’t like to have too strict a hierarchy. In digital, the budgets are so small that for every TV production that would have 10 people you’re going to have one person,” says Ayling.

“We have to be able to multi-task. Our term for it in-house is that we’re digital Swiss army knives. Often if someone has an idea for a show, they make it, shoot it, edit it and sometimes star in it too.”

Aside from managing chat rooms and forums, the audience engagement team has also designed initiatives like ‘Throwback Thursday’.

“It’s one of our most successful campaigns which we run for Doctor Who and Top Gear. We go on all the social platforms and ask people to tell us their favourite clip. We choose one of the suggestions and then put it up on YouTube. They do well and have much higher engagement because we’ve asked people to join in,” he says.

His team is also involved in the ambitious BBC Earth Capture, a joint venture involving BBC Earth and collaboration platform Seenit, encouraging people to share their own videos and photos of the natural world.

“We work a lot with UGC. We’ve even paid for UGC on occasion,” says Ayling, citing the example of a Minecraft/Doctor Who hybrid created by fans.

“We learn a lot from what fans are doing with our brands and IP,” says Ayling. “We decided to produce a Doctor Who Minecraft episode but we knew that anything we did would never live up to the work of the fans – who would pour their lives and passion for the brand into the project. So we thought why don’t we get them to do it for us.”

Ayling admits expanding the Digital Studios strategies into the wider BBC can be challenging.

“It should be an easy thing but people in television are used to telling people what to watch and when to watch it and getting people in on a schedule,” he says. “When you’ve got a two-way platform like YouTube, you’ve got to listen to your audience.”

One area where Ayling and his team have been successful in tweaking behaviour, he says, is in getting the crews on the BBC’s natural history shows to start vlogging about their work.

“A piece of content shot by them about the making of the programme can be as engaging as the show itself,” he says.

He cites a behind-the-scenes video of zoologist Mark Carwardine discussing the elusive nature of whales, while shooting the recent show Big Blue Live, which takes a hilarious turn when a huge whale surfaces on the sea behind him.

The video went viral after the Digital Studios team posted it to the BBC Earth Unplugged channel as well as other sites.

“It went gangbusters. We gave it a really great title, put it on a channel with an already engaged audience attached. We also did some outreach, seeding it in various different places,” says Ayling.

“It got picked up by Reddit and as a result went mental. We got two million views within a week which was amazing promotion for the show which was coming out on BBC 1 and PBS in the States.”

Ayling will be sharing more of his experiences as head of BBC Worldwide Digital Studios in a talk entitled Digital Growing Pains at the BBC at The Conference. To catch him and other innovation experts, buy your ticket here.