Anna Rafferty began working in digital when it was still a buzzword rather than a given, joining internet darling, lastminute.com, in 1999 as head of customer experience U.K. She has since risen to become managing director of Penguin Digital, and director of product creative and content at JK Rowling’s digital publishing company Pottermore. In January this year, she joined BBC Worldwide, where she is charged with owning and managing its vast digital audience, including running BBC Worldwide Digital Studios, which creates original online content. We began by asking her what role Digital Studios is playing within BBC Worldwide.
Anna Rafferty: BBC Worldwide has a very mature digital-first content proposition. We were the first European partner of YouTube over a decade ago, and today we run 15 YouTube channels, many of which publish original, digital-first content. Digital Studios creates content to engage the audience where they are, particularly the youth audience. We create original content for a variety of social media and emerging content distribution platforms. We don’t just make content for the internet, but “of” the internet, I prefer to say.
One of the things the BBC is good at, and what I am really enjoying, is innovation. The organisation is continually inventing new formats and thinking about new ways to tell stories. It is part of its culture, so everyone is very much up for trying new things. It is an interesting mix because you are often working with creative teams from a traditional production background, as well as developers.
CMO.com: What is your personal remit within Digital Studios?
Rafferty: The role of my team is to craft that mix of backgrounds and experience, and be able to pull people together and make sure their skills are complementary. We can quickly create ways of working so they start being a catalyst for one another and not a fundamental mismatch. I like creating interesting, different teams that can learn from each other.
CMO.com: You mention content “of” the internet. What exactly do you mean by that?
Rafferty: There is a big difference between video that is optimised for a linear channel, such as TV, where you can have a slow build and tell a story gradually, and video for digital, which needs to grab people quickly when they are scrolling through a small vertical screen. People behave differently on different devices, and, if something is “of” the internet, it isn’t just about sticking a TV commercial online—it is created for that specific format, with that audience in mind.
CMO.com: Can you share a recent example of such original content creation?
Rafferty: Earlier this year, we created a Snapchat Discover show in the U.S. Essentially, these are shows that are optimised for that platform and for the Snapchat demographic. With “Planet Earth II” set to air, we created the “Planet Earth II Discover” series on Snapchat. It was completely new footage, which had never been seen anywhere else, and it is vertically optimised for the phone, telling stories in snaps and using a short-form format, with the titling and animations we expect from that platform.
It was really exciting, creating a completely different kind of TV show for that audience. It was a first for Snapchat and for us—they had never worked with non-fiction natural history content.
CMO.com: How did Digital Studios contribute to October’s premiere for “Blue Planet II?”
Rafferty: The premiere itself was broadcast live on Facebook from the blue carpet with Sir David Attenborough and His Royal Highness Prince William, and, even though it was an exclusive event, digital allowed us to scale it and bring the audience in, making people all over the world feel that they were there too. We were able to release it all over the world simultaneously in what we call a SimTX moment. There is something wonderful about using digital to gather together a global audience.
We then created something called “The Prequel,” a fantastic short film which bridged the gap between “Blue Planet,” which started production 20 years ago, and “Blue Planet II.” It communicated the fact that it is one ocean, and we are all connected by this one theme. We had 40 million views in the first three days.
CMO.com: You also used Artificial Intelligence (AI) to create content for “Doctor Who” earlier this year.
Rafferty: Yes, we created a “Skype bot,” which was an interactive story engine within Skype. It was a scripted adventure, so you, effectively, become a companion and help the Doctor solve a mystery and save the world. It is intelligent, so it can understand what people are saying using linguistic programming, then give appropriate responses. We used writers who have written “Doctor Who” book narrative before, but it was a different type of creative for them—they have to think about storytelling in a different way because the audience is moving it along by their choices. That was very interesting.
CMO.com: What have you learnt from these projects?
Rafferty: My background is one of working in agile methodology, so it is very much about testing and learning. When creating the content for Snapchat, for example, we applied that methodology over the six-week period, and, by the time we got to episode four, we already had learnings from episode one. It meant we could modify our creative and do things differently because we used the data to make creative decisions even more suited to the audience. That is baked into that process—observe, test, learn, and keep iterating.
The benefit of digital is that you can learn quickly and change quickly, making sure you build a process that is flexible enough to allow you to quickly tweak it or pull it if you need to. That is an advantage of working in digital, but it is also a responsibility because you need to factor that into how you do things and be brave enough to change things if they aren’t working, at whatever stage.
CMO.com: You’ve worked in digital for nearly 20 years. How have you seen the space change, and how has consumer behaviour changed?
Rafferty: I can use my mobile to watch a movie, which might have cost £150 million to make, and I can play a game on the same device. Consumer expectations have been raised—we are all in the same space together. You need to think about the context. I am very focused on quality of work. It used to be that if you were doing animation because you were promoting a toy, for example, there didn’t need to be the same level of quality as a 90-minute feature film, but now the consumer sees those side by side so you are exposed. It has raised everyone’s game. Consumers expect incredible quality and high production values, and it is incumbent on brands to fulfil these, otherwise you quickly disappoint.
CMO.com: How important is technology such as Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) going forward?
Rafferty: I think people are learning about how much work consumers actually want to do. There was a time when everything was interactive, interactive, interactive, but it turns out that people still want a lean-back or passive experience sometimes. We have been thinking about voice and how you might have an interactive narrative, and I don’t think we know yet if people want to just sometimes listen to a story such as a radio play or audio book, or whether they want to participate in it. We are still learning that. I think the truth is that different stories will need different treatments, but not everything needs to be interactive.
I think this is true of VR, which is still nascent. I’ve had a lot of conversations about how VR is interactive and how people can do this and that, but I am not sure everyone wants to do stuff all the time—sometimes they might just want to feel something or be somewhere.
We are starting to get a bit more relaxed, with just creating something amazing that people can enjoy vicariously—that feels like an exhalation from the industry.
CMO.com: Where do you see the biggest opportunities to make a difference in future?
Rafferty: I am excited by increasing AR and mixed-reality products. I have worked in books, movies, and now TV, and one common thread is people wanting to immerse themselves in another world, and they really want it to be true. They want to pull back the curtain, and tap the brick, and go into Diagon Alley; they want to walk onto Platform 9 3/4, and that is what AR can do—it can reveal the magic that is around you, and I think that is very interesting. I anticipate more of it.
CMO.com: Is there one golden rule you have learnt within digital?
Rafferty: Focus on the audience. There is always a temptation to do this new thing with this new technology, but why are you doing it? Keep the audience front of mind and really invest time in clarifying why you are doing something and who you are doing it for. Don’t get carried away in the joy of artistic discovery because that is self-indulge, and you will find yourself spending a lot of money on something that won’t help your business.
CMO.com: How do you see customer demands evolving, and how will BBC Worldwide continue to anticipate and deliver on these?
Rafferty: Technologies, global connectivity, and new devices all play their part in changing audience behaviour. I am thinking a lot about the storytelling opportunity available in AI, mixed reality, and voice right now. BBC Worldwide has commercial innovation in its DNA, and we will continue to work with the greatest talent in the world to help realise their vision and bring it to a global market in the most appropriate and innovative ways possible—it’s just business as usual for us now.