Why the BBC plans to use facial tracking to measure branded content

As the BBC attempts to carve a space in the native advertising arena with its content division StoryWorks, Mumbrella Asia's Eleanor Dickinson talks to its VP Richard Pattinson about making the media giant stand out through high-tech measurement

BBC’s StoryWorks  is just one of a vast number of media owners trying to scratch a mark on an increasingly over-saturated content marketing field.

Though the global news network has the legacy of a name and motto – Inform, Educate and Entertain – going back nearly a century, the company is nevertheless competing with the likes of other major players in Asia like Fox, The New York Times and CNN. And that’s just the media owners: elsewhere across the spectrum, there are the agencies – creative, media and PR no less –, the specialists like Brand New Media and lately even the brands themselves.

So how does a house like BBC StoryWorks even begin to stand out? Especially when all players whatever discipline toot the same horn of ‘great creativity’ and ‘knowing our audience’.

It was party this over-saturation that led BBC StoryWorks to pool two years worth of research – and an unspecified investment  – into developing technology to track a person’s facial muscles, expressions through their webcam, and ultimately deduce their emotional response to a piece of branded content.

‘Borderless’: BBC StoryWorks’ first campaign to use eye-tracking measurement with Huawei

Executed through a controlled study and used in the planning stages of campaign, the tech is aimed at giving StoryWorks an edge over its content rivals: in theory presenting to clients how audiences really feel about the content they’re churning out.  

Explaining the idea behind the tool, BBC StoryWorks’ vice president Richard Pattinson explains: “It we felt was a bit of a gap in content marketing research. Content marketing has obviously evolved out of advertising more generally, particularly in the digital space where the key metrics were clickthrough rates, conversions and all that. But even they are hard to track.

“The content marketing we’re involved with is storytelling so we wanted to test the metrics associated with traditional research in storytelling for audiences, so engagement with the content itself and then to work out the brand uplift.”

Developed in-house, the tool dubbed the‘Science of Engagement’ is shown to a select audience of around 125 people on their laptops and then takes second-by-second measurements of six emotional states – fear, happiness, puzzlement, rejection, surprise and sadness. Meanwhile, eye-tracking follows the subject’s vision across the screen  – thereby showing whether the person is truly engaged as is the goal of any content marketer.

While it sounds nice and techy on paper, you can forgive a marketer, upon presented with such a study, then uttering: “But how does this help my sales?”.

Naturally of course for Pattinson, the study does return “actionable benefits”.

“[Once the study is complete] we can then pick which bits of the content elicited more responses and use them to drive the distribution.”

“This allows you over a long period of a campaign to commission audiences that the brand desires and then test the effectiveness and engagement of the content. You can then use it to commission a second burst of content because you may have seen a significant uplift from the first.

Actionable benefits: VP Richard Pattinson believes there is a gap for better measurement in content marketing

“It gives a fuller picture. We think one of the missing bits of the picture was understanding how audiences engage with content marketing.

“My background was in editorial, and we were always concerned with measuring the impact of the content on audiences. When I moved to content marketing, people were more concerned with brand outcomes rather than the content itself.”

And if the content is boring it’s audience to distraction? “That’s not occurred in any of our studies so far” quips Pattinson. “I’m putting faith in my team of content strategists to deliver really engaging content. That has to be the goal of everything you do and I have confidence that the content we are commissioning is the kind our audience will engage with.

He adds: “It’s true people are subject to distraction all the time, but that’s true for editorial as it is for commercial. But we’re not seeing a lack of response.”

Eye tracking is slowly emerging in the media sphere, largely through outdoor players such as Clear Channel, it remains a relatively new field in content marketing.

So far BBC StoryWorks has used the technology during one major brand campaign with the Chinese phone brand Huawei.

At least four other clients have signed up, and Asia-Pacific is expected to play a significant role in the operation’s growth. “In Asia, content is touching 50 per cent of our revenues,” says Pattinson.

Yet like with any media owner or publisher, delving into content marketing or native advertising as a means of generating revenue never fails to raise questions over the ‘Church and State’ paradigm between sales and editorial.

Although BBC StoryWorks sits separately from BBC News, the blurring of editorial lines has emerged as a serious industry problem over the last year. In Asia, Forbes recently pulled a number of columns by PR man Chris Chong for unsubtly promoting his clients. The ever-vocal

Bob Hoffman even went as far as to call native advertising “a fancy term for advertising masquerading as news”.

So how does StoryWorks avoid falling into the trap that even a legacy brand like Forbes was  susceptible to.

“I would say that one of things that came out of our studies was that the response was even higher when you are transparent about the relationship between you and the brand,” says Pattinson. “We’re very clear on our church/state separation and if the labelling is really clear, it’s a far better tactic than just having banner ads popping up. And obviously I know if you tried to surreptitiously insert brand content to my journalist colleagues, you would be laughed out of the building.”


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