How Chief Digital Officers can use Storytelling for Successful Content Marketing – with Top Gear, Dr. Who, and the BBC

Amanda Hill, Chief Brands Officer, Chief Digital Officer Summit, CDO Summit, CDO Club, BBC Worldwide, London, 2014

Amanda Hill, Chief Brands Officer at BBC Worldwide giving a keynote at the Chief Digital Officer Summit London 2014

“Great brands are the same as great stories,” said Amanda Hill, Chief Brands Officer at the BBC Worldwide, at a keynote presented at the inaugural U.K. CDO Summit at the BBC in London, England, on October 29, 2014.

The BBC has told engaging stories for the last 90 years. Yet the conversation has been purely one-way for most of that time.

“We made, and people watched. We talked, and people listened,” Hill remarked.

Today, content can’t rely on good storytelling alone, but must include the audience as active participants in the narrative. In a case of the chicken coming before the egg, some of the BBC’s most popular programming was initially built on an organic relationship with the audience.

“All that social media has done for me,” Hill explained, “is enable me as a brand owner to find new ways to amplify the stories my brands already tell and allow the people — my audience — a part in shaping that narrative.”

During her keynote, Hill described the digital marketing efforts behind Top Gear, Doctor Who, and BBC Earth Unplugged. Chief Digital Officers who have to deal with content would do well to emulate the successes (and avoid the failures) of these three striking case studies.

Before going into details, however, Hill offered a warning: Honest storytelling must be at the heart of what you’re doing, or your audience will not participate.

“A lot of brands try to be something they’re not — especially when a new, exciting platform comes out. And it just looks fake, and audiences spot it really fast,” Hill warned. “People know who you are. You deviate from that and they spot it really quickly.”

Amanda Hill, Chief Brands Officer, Chief Digital Officer Summit, CDO Summit, CDO Club, BBC Worldwide, London, 2014

Amanda Hill giving a keynote title ”DALEKS, CARS and STAR NOSED MOLES!” at the Chief Digital Officer Summit London 2014

Top Gear

This hit comedic take on car culture entered the Guinness World Records last year for being the most-watched factual show on television. More than 350 million people watch in over 200 markets, and over 2 million tickets have been sold for live Top Gear events.

Digital outreach to fans plays a huge part in the show’s success, Hill noted: “Digital has been an incredible way to distribute that content and reach the maximum number of people around the world.”

Using social media, fans quickly rebroadcast many of the show’s viral stunts, such as when one of the actors stole an F1 car and later bungee-jumped it at a live event. Done in seclusion, the stunt would have had little impact, but fans at the event quickly recorded and shared what they saw on social media.

“The marketing message is truly secondary to telling a story,” Hill declared. “The one thing we are passionate fans of are our fans.”

Fan-created content plays a big role in promotional material as well. For example, when fans saw the show’s stars driving on the highway, they recorded the encounter as well as their excited exclamations. That video ended up being used in a TV promo.

“A lot of our fans clearly know a lot more than I do about what they’re talking about,” Hill said. “We’ve had more ideas from them than from any brainstorm when we locked ourselves in a room.”

Check out some more Top Gear promo clips: Ariel Atom: Insane Speed MachineLego Stig, and The Stig in Supermarket Shocker.

Amanda Hill, Chief Brands Officer, Chief Digital Officer Summit, CDO Summit, CDO Club, BBC Worldwide, London, 2014

Amanda Hill, Chief Brands Officer at BBC Worldwide giving a keynote at the Chief Digital Officer Summit London 2014

Dr. Who

In the integrated, global world of digital marketing, the audience conversation sometimes happens without the storyteller even being present.

“We weren’t part of that conversation for a long time,” Hill admitted, referring to the hit science-fiction show Dr. Who. “We just started to facilitate their (fans’) love of the show.”

So, for the 50th anniversary of the show, BBC digital attempted “one of the most ambitious, ridiculously brave things we ever tried to do”: a simulcast around the world in 98 countries, in more than 14 languages, and on some 1,500 cinema screens. “How the hell do we do that, if we have no marketing budget?” Hill said the staff wondered.

So the marketing department created a Facebook app that allowed fans to share a video of the show with their name and picture in the credits. The initiative resulted in 386,000 invites to fans to participate, over 200,000 Facebook likes in only three weeks, and the app being used in 178 countries. An astounding total of 30 million fans participated in the live global event.

Fan-created content also plays a huge part in Dr. Who promotions. The BBC held a contest for fans to upload their own Dr. Who–inspired music videos to YouTube. Fans loved one of the videos so much that the uploader was later hired to work at the BBC.

BBC Earth Unplugged

Unlike Top Gear and Dr. Who, two shows with a ready-made and enthusiastic audience, interest in the BBC’s nature programs was waning. The marketing department could not figure out how to tap and increase fan interest even by using all the new methods of digital engagement.

Then they discovered a popular YouTuber with the user name “Zefrank,” who made hilarious remixes using the BBC’s nature footage. So the BBC contacted Zefrank and gave him (or her) access to original content. The resulting video, “True Facts About the Naked Mole Rat,” received almost 3 million views.


“A lot of people talk about content and brands as very separate things, and I actually view things completely differently,” Hill explained. “I can only deliver growth, and certainly measurable growth, if I can mesh those things together.”

Content marketing has become a two-way relationship largely due to digital innovation. Good, authentic stories still lie at the heart of all good content, yet to be truly successful, the audience must play a part.

The BBC has succeeded not only because of the quality of shows like Top Gear and Dr. Who, but because it was able to tap into the relationships that made those shows successful. Giving your audiences way to participate in the narrative, whether it’s through social media marketing or user-created content, is something every Chief Digital Officer should aim for.

View the video below of Amanda Hill’s Keynote at the UK CDO Summit 2014:

– By Andrzej Sienko

— #30# —


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