How BBC Worldwide is tapping facial recognition, predictive analytics to drive creativity

Head of research and consumer insights shares its ongoing quest to marry technology with human creativity around content

Facial emotion recognition and artificial intelligence tools that can predict whether content will be well-received in a new market are just some of the ways BBC World is supplementing its creative output with technology.

Speaking at a Sydney breakfast held by branding agency, Landor, entitled ‘Man versus Robot’, BBC Worldwide VP of research and consumer insights, Joe Lynch, said the broadcaster is increasingly partnering with external experts and startups to better understand who is watching, what they’re viewing and what’s creating positive content experiences.

One of the biggest challenges Lynch highlighted for marketers and insights teams is bringing in data that is both predictive and automated in a way that’s useful for the business. An example of how BBC Worldwide is tackling this is with New Zealand-based vendor, Parrot Analytics, and its predictive analytics product. Using artificial intelligence on social sentiment and activity, the platform helps predict where there is strong global demand for its content in any given geographic market. This could help teams prioritise where BBC Earth is likely to launch more successfully, for example.

But what is often missing is how consumers feel emotionally about content, Lynch said. To bridge this gap, BBC Worldwide has struck up a partnership with tech startup, CrowdEmotion, to gauge how people respond to its content on an emotional, rather than rational level.

The partnership, which has been in place for 18 months, came out of the broadcaster’s Worldwide Labs program, which sees it working with six media startups each year on new ideas that could disrupt and benefit the industry. Over a six-month period, startups can utilise the larger company’s resources to build their offerings.

Using facial coding smarts and the individual’s Web cam, CrowdEmotion can read every movement in their facial muscles as they view content sent to them by BBC.

“In isolation, it’s meaningless data, but in combination with other data we have, it’s insightful,” he said. Data in this instance is broken down into six basic emotions and helps understand product response depending on the genre, Lynch said.

“Responses to David Attenborough are going to be very different to Dr Who, but we can predict what the strongest emotions are of people viewing that content,” he said.

Lynch admitted not everyone on the creative team has immediately warmed to using cutting-edge technology in their roles, noting three types of critics: Those in fear of technology replacing them in their jobs; those afraid of the unknown; and those simply fearful of change and stuck in the times.

“We had trouble and battles getting traction with this technology, and we had to prove ourselves by going out and doing lots of projects that show how technology can work,”Lynch said. “It aids the creative process, it doesn’t replace it.”

With CrowdEmotion technology for example, demonstrating the emotional response to content isn’t something the creative would have known without that data, Lynch said.

There’s no doubt, however, that technology can free up staff from a range of more manual or process-driven tasks, driving significant change in roles and day-to-day work. Lynch said BBC Worldwide is actively looking into the skills it needs to capitalise on that time. Marketing and insights is also taking on a bigger role as data navigators in the business.

“Our skill now is to be storytellers… helping my stakeholders, teams, or the sales team be able to tell better stories and navigate the data,” he said. “We’re passionate about creating evangelists around the business who can see data in more interesting ways.”

More widely, the broadcaster is looking at who has the skills of the future, Lynch said. This involves overhauling training programs, how BBC Worldwide on-boards people, checking in with staff on how they feel, what skills you need, and talking about their health and wellbeing.

“We’re using technology to achieve that from a skills perspective, particularly around digital, as we don’t have a lot of that skill in the business, and we’re having to go out and retrain people,” he added.

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