“We’ve got hundreds of millions of data points”

We began by discussing what Channel 4 does with its data. A picture emerges of a broadcaster that is on the cusp of truly data-driven engagement with viewers.

“We’ve got five years’ worth of first party data,” says Rose, “from 15 million registered users, for whom we have age, demographic, email and postcode, then obviously their viewing history and that’s really really rich now – it’s hundreds of millions of data points.”

The work that the data science team does with all this data falls into two categories – commercial and creative. Rose describes the commercial side as pretty well understood in the market now- trading models and trading products for the on-demand service (All 4) which enable the serving of targeted advertising to audiences.

Whilst some of this commercial work, according to Rose, is still “groundbreaking and innovative”, she adds that much of it is becoming more mainstream now. It’s on the creative side where the exciting stuff is really starting to happen.

All 4 now segments its audience not by age and socioeconomic group but by tastes and viewing habits. Rose says: “We’re serving nine segments using content curation, content promotion and tailored content communications which reflects your viewing history so it’s more relevant to you.”

However, personalisation doesn’t stop at nine different segments – Rose says that the company has “just completed algorithmic work on recommendations so that we’re not just curating content for the nine segments but we are also making recommendations to every single user based on their individual history.”

This truly personalised content is surfaced on the All 4 homepage, enhancing both the consumer’s experience and monetisation opportunities. It’s a turning point for the platform. “Actually, it’s really exciting,” says Rose, “the longstanding work of our data science team is finally coming to fruition within All 4 and we can see it working. We get the results every day, we’re able to see what works and what doesn’t and then iterate again. It’s a genuinely exciting process.”

The data science team that makes it all possible is currently twelve-strong at Channel 4. It’s made up of a mix of more experienced data scientists with graduates and PHD students who split their time between academia and industry. (NB. if you’re interested in applications of AI, Econsultancy’s Supercharged conference takes place in London on May 1, 2018 and is chocked full of case studies and advice on how to build out your data science capability. Speakers come from Ikea, Danske Bank, Just Eat, Age UK, RBS and more.)

What’s particularly interesting at Channel 4 is the role of data strategist. The company employs two people in this particular role, which Rose describes as “the bridging point between the data science team, who work on the models that we put into our products, and the rest of the business.”

“That provides a language,” Rose continues, “between two otherwise quite disparate departments in Channel 4, to make sure we do something that’s meaningful and impactful and can actually be launched into our products.”

sarah rose

Sarah Rose, Director of Consumer Insight at Channel 4

“We’re not doing what Netflix does.”

The logical question to ask Rose was about how this behavioural data – viewing habits, completion rates, demographics etc. – how this is fed back into the commissioning process. Does it actually impact what Channel 4 commissions?

“It will be part of it,” says Rose, “broadcasting has been around for a very long time and we have all sorts of research that informs what is commissioned and how we should schedule those programmes, not least professional experience, never mind the data we give the commissioners. So it’s definitely used but I wouldn’t say it dictates what we commission.

Rose expands on this idea: “We’re not doing what Netflix does which is working out a supposedly magic combination of a particular setting, length of film, actor etc. We’re not there and I doubt whether we’ll ever want to get there.”

Though perhaps overegged in the media, the methodology that Netflix uses during commissioning has fascinated those in the industry for a number of years. Famously, the company had identified Kevin Spacey movies as having broad appeal amongst its audience before it decided to get involved with the House of Cards remake.

Netflix’s ability to pinpoint tens of thousands of very specific film genres is impressive, but Channel 4’s approach is something a little different, more suited to its position as a UK brand with a distinctive output.

Rose says “We are more broadly creative – we’re calling our work with All 4 ‘smart curation’. We were trying to find a term that captures the fusing of algorithmically-driven computer science with editorial overlay and a human taste palette, if you like, to help decide what makes sense rather than simply what a computer churns out.”

“We’ve got a combination of the two at the moment,” she says, “and that’s as far as we’ll ever want to go, we’ll always want Channel 4 overlay. We want to be curator of choice, but we also want to inform that curation with what we’re able to track of individual viewing habits.”

To put it as clearly as possible, Rose sums it up thus: “Are we commissioning based on data alone? – no. Are we using data to help understand what viewers like and what else they might like? – absolutely.”

house of cards

Netflix’s data reportedly revealed Kevin Spacey’s appeal across viewer demographics

“On-demand is falling seamlessly into… living rooms.”

All 4 is available on a variety of platforms – iOS, Android, PC, smart TVs, (all of which require viewers to register with Channel 4) or through gatekeepers Sky, BT and Virgin (which are closed platforms with no Channel 4 registration, much like traditional linear TV).

According to Rose, the broadcaster uses “some data modelling which helps determine what big screen viewers like, without having them registered,” though she adds that “obviously our ultimate ambition is for registration to be everywhere.”

Despite being limited to household data for some big screen viewing, the insights that Rose’s team can draw from All 4 viewing data are fascinating.

“I could talk about this forever,” she says. “It’s really hard to sum up in a couple of sentences what’s happening with on demand services, and this will be the case with all broadcasters now, not least iPlayer. On-demand is now so widely used and the breadth of audience demographic is so vast, that it’s no longer about ‘top shows’ being watched on the platform.”

“It depends on the demographic and your habits. We have the Walter Presents service freely available online, though sometimes with a stunt launch where the first episode is shown on More 4. Walter attracts an older demographic, they come in pretty much exclusively for that, they watch a lot of it, the completion rates are extraordinarily high, there’s real loyalty and that’s great for us.”

“Then you’ve got shows such as Made in Chelsea or Hollyoaks where we’ve got much younger viewers regularly coming in for those brands. Some of our viewers only watch those shows on demand because then it’s on their own terms, they’ve got young kids perhaps, and when Hollyoaks is broadcast it’s just not their time to watch telly. They know it’s going to be on All 4 and they can watch it on a tablet in their bedroom or second screen, or whatever it might be.”

“Some programmes, such as Made in Chelsea, see as much as half of their viewing on demand. Other programmes, like eight o’clock lifestyle programmes for example, are still vastly viewed on linear TV.”

One major trend that the broadcaster has noticed over the last year has been on-demand viewing on the big screen, often enabled by devices such as the Fire Stick or Chromecast. Rose points out that this is a market trend and says that “When people can get a show on to the big screen, they will do, with mobile and tablet becoming a second option either when you can’t get to your TV or when you’re out and about.”

Rose stresses that though her team thought this would happen, “it’s really happened in the last year.” She adds that smart TVs and casting are great for Channel 4, because the viewers must be registered here and therefore the broadcaster can serve them what they like, but on the big screen where they’re happy to keep watching.

“On demand is falling seamlessly into audience viewing habits in their living rooms,” she says. “It’s a complement to linear TV; our audience are learning to consume content in a multitude of ways which suit them and their lifestyles.”

amazon fire stick

Amazon Fires Stick – casting is a big trend

“One of the key battlegrounds… is the discoverability of our content”

From discussion of casting devices such as the Fire Stick, it seemed obvious to ask Rose about new user interfaces such as voice control. Is Channel 4 ready for a change in the way people ask their device for content?

“We’re watching the rise of voice with interest. Sky Q has already adopted a voice recognition technology, which is great, and good for us on that platform. YouView has just adopted Alexa, so it’s definitely coming and therefore we’re looking at it.”

“One of the key battlegrounds for broadcasters in this technological age is the discoverability of our content, then the attribution of it to us, so we have to look at all options to encourage and enhance that.”

GDPR is “not a mindset change..we are here to serve our consumers”

The General Data Protection Regulation has become a pressing issue for most companies. We are less than a year out, at time of writing, from the 25th May 2018, when the regulation comes into force in the EU and UK.

I asked Rose about how Channel 4 is approaching the matter, and although they take it very seriously, it seems previous work on viewer registration and consent has largely stood in good stead.

Rose says she is running a steering group internally that has put in submissions to various consultations that have been run. She says, “People across the whole business are poring over this, thinking about how we talk to our consumers. We take this unbelievably seriously, even before the introduction of this increased regulation, but actually we’re coming from quite a good starting point.”

“Our viewer promise has won awards. We’re very clear and transparent with our viewers about what we do with their data, you can see it all on our site and can opt out at any time. Very few people do, but the fact that some people do is of some reassurance to us that the system is working and when they want to exercise that choice they are able to.”

The viewer promise that Rose refers to was famously fronted by Alan Carr in a campaign back in 2012 that sought to reassure viewers ahead of compulsory registration to view.

alan carr

A still from the Alan Carr viewer promise campaign

It’s this promise and the work that has ensued that leads Rose to say “we’re not starting from zero as I think many others across other sectors are.”

This lack of oversight in some sectors is obvious to see in news headlines from the ICO over the past few months. In June 2017, Morrisons was fined for emailing consumers who had opted out of marketing, inviting customers to change their preferences to receive money-off coupons. Flybe and Honda were fined in March 2017 for similar offences, with Flybe even offering entry to a prize draw for those that updated their preferences.

Despite being ahead of the game somewhat with its pioneering and transparent work on data protection, Channel 4 is looking at reviewing its viewer promise, with Rose saying that “irrespective of GDPR we were already allocating time and creative budget to update that. In time, you’ll see a new version of Alan. When we did it originally, it was to introduce viewers who weren’t familiar with this at all, really, and their question was ‘Why should they trust us?’ Now the market is much more mature.”

Rose adds, “Quite a lot of what the regulations are moving towards, we already do. We’re doing a drains up approach though, we want to continue to exemplify best practice in this area.”

“As a whole, the broadcasting sector is pretty hot on these things because our lifeblood is our audience, we are here to serve our consumers,” Rose says, continuing, “At Channel 4, obviously we are a public service broadcaster. Our viewers are of the utmost importance to us; we have a very strong relationship of trust with them. Preserving that relationship is critical to us

Rose says GDPR is “not a mindset change” at Channel 4. That’s certainly something we’ve pointed to on the Econsultancy blog before – this is a very serious subject, but brands should already be thinking in terms of maximum trust and transparency.

If you’ve enjoyed this article, check out this year’s Festival of Marketing, 4-5 October in London, where the 12 stages of content include Personalisation, AI, Data and Analytics, and more.