In-depth: Gill Whitehead at Channel 4

by Jessica Ramesh

Gill Whitehead, Director of Audience Technologies & Insight at Channel 4, will be among the speakers at the Figaro Digital Marketing Conference in London on 18 July. She explains how Channel 4 is using data and viewer insight to inspire new ideas and to maximise its commercial competitiveness.

Talk us through Channel 4’s viewer engagement strategy – how are you building closer relationships with viewers and what’s the value of those relationships to advertisers?

This is a journey we started on two years go. Television is becoming far more connected and that allows us to have a two-way relationship with our audience. Instead of simply being a one-to-many broadcaster, we wanted to embrace that connectivity. There are two reasons for that. In part it’s in line with our public service remit. Channel 4 is publicly owned and we wanted to get closer to the public who own us. Secondly, it’s about being commercially self-sustaining, planning future growth, ensuring we can maximise our ad revenue and reinvest that in content.

We’ve approached this by building our relationship with the audience first and then seeking to monetise that. There are four ways in which we’re extracting value from that relationship. Firstly, we want viewers to be more aware of our programmes. We’ve launched playlists, recommendations and ‘favourites’ features for people to store things. When people Tweet us to bemoan the end of a series, we store that information on a database so that when that series comes back six months later, we can tell them. Essentially, this is really good customer services. We’re making it as easy as possible for people to watch programmes and we’re seeing increased views because of that. Secondly, the database allows us to market more effectively and efficiently to our audiences. Thirdly, we get much more valuable insights about who our audience is. And fourthly, of course, we use that data for advertising revenue to build data-driven, targeted ad products.

What sort of data is valuable to a broadcaster like Channel 4 and how do you collect it?

In terms of the actual information we collect – and this is something that sets us apart – we’ve gone for first party data. We invite our audience to register with us and in return for that we give them a range of benefits such as exclusives, access to private screenings and so on. We ask for name, email, date of birth, gender and full postal address. We’re very up front about privacy, which is such a prominent issue at the moment. We’ve created a viewer promise, fronted by Alan Carr, explaining that we’re absolutely transparent from the outset about why we’re collecting this data and what we’re using it for. When we ask people to enter their postal address, we tell them that we’ll be using this for targeted advertising. And we’ve been amazed, because 75 per cent of people are opting to give us that information. It’s a very clear value exchange. When we ask for that data we’re clear about how we use it, and we make sure viewers get something back.

What impact is increased connectivity having on viewer engagement? 

We understand a lot more about the role of social media. We know how to predict which shows will have greater engagement – in a variety of ways, not just on social media but across online. We focus our investment on a number of select shows, rather than adopting a broad brush approach. 

How do you assess which programmes are likely to generate greater interaction?

We use listening tools, but we colour that in with minute by minute data so we get a very accurate picture of what’s going on in a live environment. Twitter, for example, is such an of-the-moment medium and it’s great for engaging with a programme which will be consumed live, but less relevant for something that viewers are likely to record and watch via DVR [digital video recorder.] Facebook, on the other hand, is a better tool for pre-transmission engagement – for generating excitement about past storylines, presenting exclusive content and so on. Each medium has it own USP.

How are advertisers adapting to increased viewer connectivity?

Every now and then there are brilliant moments when you can tie TV and ad creative together to get really talked-about moments. A good recent example is The Returned, a French, sub-titled Zombie drama going out at 9pm on a Sunday. All the adverts in the first episode were in French and the Twitter response was phenomenal. Over 10 per cent of the Tweets around the show were about the ads. That’s an example, I think, of how you can create event-like moments and convert programme engagement into brand engagement for advertisers.

In terms of targeting, we can also allow different types of creative to hit different audiences. The SUV is a classic example. With a product like that you’ve got one group of people who want to chuck a surfboard in the back and head off for a wild weekend. For another group of people it’s all about the practicalities of running a family vehicle. We can potentially target two separate audiences for the same product with different creative. That’s not going to work for every brand, of course, but for a campaign with clearly segmented audiences the connectivity of TV can really help deliver a big brand campaign and at the same time reach audiences with a more targeted, relevant message.

What do you see as the biggest challenges facing commercial broadcasters as they adapt to new technology and viewing habits?

One of the biggest challenges is cost. Generally, television is using the power of connectivity successfully. Compared to print and radio advertising, it’s looking quite robust. One of the challenges however, is a lack of harmonisation across technology platforms. At the same time as we’re shoring up the top line, it’s becoming more and more costly to distribute content to different devices because each one requires us to configure our content differently, so before you know it your distribution costs have gone up a lot. The top line is looking good now, but the cost of delivering it has to be kept down. That, I think, is an industry-wide challenge.

Interview by Jon Fortgang