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How BBC News is growing non-English audiences in its largest global market

The BBC in India has found success with its investigative and explanatory video content, particularly among people younger than 34. Rupa Jha from BBC News recently described how they are doing this. Aultrin Vijay reports

“It has been a great growth story for the BBC in India. We [India] have become the biggest global market for the BBC,” Rupa Jha, head of India, BBC News, told participants at WAN-IFRA’s recent Digital Media India Conference in New Delhi. Jha is leading the BBC’s language operation in the country. She is also responsible for handling four other language news services for BBC News – Indonesian, Bengali, Nepali and Sinhala.

Increasing female engagement a priority
Consumption of video has gone up. Video made up 82 per cent of all Internet traffic in 2022, compared to 73 per cent before the pandemic. In 2024, India holds the title of the most YouTube users, estimated at 462 million. Video is one of the reasons for BBC’s growth in India. Although it still struggles to generate direct traffic to its videos in its own platform, it is performing well on YouTube. “YouTube is the biggest platform for us as far as video is concerned,” Jha said, adding, “However, we still face challenges in engaging with female viewers. Increasing female engagement remains one of our objectives.”

Videos do perform well, but people will soon stop watching if they are not interesting enough, Jha said. To make it interesting, videos should be visually arresting, compelling viewers to watch. Also, publishers must ask themselves whether the topic/content is unique and why it is better suited for moving pictures rather than still images. Considering these aspects before commissioning videos will go a long way in improving the engagement level of audiences, according to Jha. She also mentioned some points they consider essential:

  • News moments, angled news videos, original ground reports, quick follow-up videos
  • Avoiding cliches and clickbait
  • Making sure the thumbnail is clear and engaging, particularly the size it will be seen on mobile
  • Giving people a reason to keep watching
  • Language and tone in scripting – factual and clear, while remaining engaging
  • Not mixing up narrative text, subtitling, voiceover – people want consistency

Young people spend more time on good videos
To engage with young audiences, it’s important to understand them and identify topics that could spark conversations within that demographic. Audiences spend more time on well-produced videos. For instance, investigative stories perform very well among youngsters, contrary to the belief that they only watch short videos, Jha said. One of BBC’s investigative stories, The Trap, which highlighted the instant loan scam in India, was very successful, with 41 per cent of the audience being individuals under the age of 34.

Provide something people can’t find elsewhere
It is important to know your target audience and cater to their needs. “Sometimes we forget who our target audience is, what we are doing, and why we are in this market,” Jha said. In a crowded market such as India, which has a host of news outlets with digital platforms, BBC had to carve out a niche to stand out from others. “When we began our digital transformation, we aimed to provide something that people couldn’t find elsewhere,” she said. The clarity of whom we are targeting has been the driving force behind our operations and how we’ve managed to attract audiences even in such a crowded market, she added.

“What is most gratifying to see is how much the audience is truly open to experiments and innovations. Sometimes, we underestimate what the audience wants and confine ourselves to news that we believe is good for them. There is a lot of unconscious bias we all suffer from,” Jha said. Publishers are struggling to attract eyeballs, but according to Jha, that’s not enough. What’s more important is meaningful engagement with the audience, the time they spend on the platform, their interactions, and how much content is being shared. To achieve this, the content should be distinct from others and available exclusively on your platform.

BBC’s essential elements of good storytelling
BBC considers three things for storytelling:

  • Tell the audience clearly what the piece is about. It must include clear titling and subtitling.
  • Tell the audience why the stories matter. This means contextualising stories up front showing how it affects the world around.
  • Use storytelling methods that binds the audience in. The flow and structure of the story is key, with a clear beginning, middle and end.

Jha also emphasised three building blocks for storytelling, which are important for digital content:

  • Text and statistics: Both are a shortcut for understanding an issue and are inherently shareable.
  • Eye-catching colours: In a competitive landscape, stories must stand out to be sampled.
  • A clean engaging visual style: Audiences are increasingly design savvy and are critical of visuals and presentation.
A view of the audience.

Authenticity, empathy critical for engagement
Audiences seek a blend of intellectual and emotional authenticity in the narrative. While authenticity is key, empathy is equally important, Jha said. Two things the BBC analysed among its users were that younger audiences responded better to emotional content, which often focuses on lived experiences and first-person commentary. Older audiences responded better to intellectually authentic content – the detailed news often relayed by experienced reporters.

Understanding what really works for different kinds of audiences is essential to improving the engagement. For instance, a story on the political landscape in India can drive more engagement as well as longer read time. But it all depends on the storytelling style. Breaking it down and making it very accessible with a mobile-friendly format works well. The selection of good pictures and layouts to enhance the visual appeal of the story also plays a role in enticing engagement.

This strategy helped BBC in India engage more audiences, so much so that the time spent on some political stories exceeded 4-5 minutes. For context, a story of around 800 words typically garners an average read time of around 56-60 seconds. Interactive formats such as inflation calculators and election live trackers, among others, have proven to be great for engaging audiences. “Our aim is for the story to remain in people’s mind,” Jha said.

(By special arrangement with WAN-IFRA. The writer is a media analyst with WAN-IFRA.)