How BBC is creating voice-first news to meet audience needs

By Shelley Seale

INMA

Austin, Texas, USA

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The rise of voice technology will undoubtedly change the way audiences discover and consume news — but is your organisation ready?

BBC is meeting the rise of the voice technology age head-on, with its Voice and AI division, the newest department in the BBC family that is responsible for developing user-centred experiences for emerging Voice AI platforms.

Zoe Murphy, news development editor at the BBC, led INMA members through an in-depth look at how her organisation is tackling voice and AI in a Webinar on Wednesday.

“For me, the sweet spot has always been working at that intersection of digital storytelling, public service, and new and emerging technology,” Murphy said. “[BBC Voice and AI] feels to be a bit of a start-up within a 100-year-old organisation.”

One of the first products to come out of her department is “Beeb,” the BBC’s own public service AI voice assistant. The name Beeb refers to the colloquial nickname that the BBC has in the United Kingdom.

Zoe Murphy of the BBC Voice and AI department leads INMA members through the organisation's journey into voice-first news.
Zoe Murphy of the BBC Voice and AI department leads INMA members through the organisation's journey into voice-first news.

Why voice matters

Murphy explained the BBC’s journey into voice technology began in 2017, when then-director general Tony Hall said, “Voice is going to be a key way we interact with media, search for content, and find what we want.”

These words were a call to action for the BBC team, Murphy said: “There was a recognition that voice assistants, or rather the underlying AI that powers them, will without a doubt change the way people get their news, what they expect of it, and what they will require from providers like the BBC.”

Access to voice technology in the U.K. is quite high, with 87% of adults having access to it by June 2020. This is driven mostly by mobile, with the integration of Siri, Google Assistant, and the like. However, only 5% of U.K. adults report using voice tech on their phone daily.

“Where our attention has really been is on the smart speaker market,” Murphy said. “The growth there has been exponential in the last couple of years. Smart speaker mass adoption has reached a third of all adults claim to have at least one device. But the difference is in the usage. It’s really sticky. Half the smart speaker owners use their device daily, and more than 80% use it at least once a week.”

She shared some data from voicebot.ai that gives insight into how many people are adopting multiple devices throughout their homes. For the BBC, what’s most interesting is that consumers are mostly placing smart speakers in their kitchens, living rooms, and bedrooms — traditionally places where one might find a radio or television.

Consumer usage of smart speakers is high, and the BBC aims to get into that market.
Consumer usage of smart speakers is high, and the BBC aims to get into that market.

“As an international broadcaster with 42 different language services, we’re also tracking the global adoption of voice tech,” Murphy added. Penetration in the United States is even greater than in the U.K., and rapid adoption is also happening across Asia.

“When you really drill down into the ways people are using these devices, right up there is listening to news.”

Opportunities and challenges in voice

This massive adoption, growth, and usage of voice technology offer a huge opportunity for news media organisations — along with challenges. In the Western hemisphere, the space is dominated by Google, Amazon, and Apple, which places constraints on what publishers can do within these systems, how they can innovate, and how they can develop a direct relationship with their audiences.

“Increasingly, we as news organisations might find ourselves competing with Big Tech for direct connection with our audiences,” Murphy said.

Over the last two years, the BBC has been experimenting to try and understand how voice could fundamentally change the way its journalism is distributed, discovered, and consumed. Editorial tone of voice was highly important to the organisation, which wanted to develop a brand identity that would feel native to the conversational voice AI environment. The company wanted to appeal to a new, younger generation without alienating “heartland” audiences who tend to be older and traditional.

“Part of that tone of voice is addressing many of the pain points we know people have with news,.” Murphy said. “Making the news accessible, like we’re talking with people and not at them. It’s also about our story selection and how we frame narratives so we don’t leave people feeling like this:”

Many audiences find news upsetting and depressing, which the BBC hopes to alleviate.
Many audiences find news upsetting and depressing, which the BBC hopes to alleviate.

Since 2016, when the first smart speakers hit the U.K. market, the BBC has been the default news provider on Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, and Apple Siri. At that time, the BBC news summaries through these devices were basically lifted from its radio bulletins. Eighteen months ago, however, the BBC pulled together what Murphy said was likely the world’s first voice-first news team.

“We have a team of young, diverse journalists who are now dedicated to creating these news services. In the last 12 months we’ve served tens of millions of news bulletins — but that’s just linear content.”

It’s the “one to many” voice distribution model that radio has always used. This poses a very important question in today’s voice tech age: “What happens when our audiences can talk back?” Murphy asked.

Interactive news service

To address that question, the BBC launched its first interactive news service in October 2019. This was the very first step in reinventing news for voice platforms.

“It’s a 24/7 operation,” Murphy said. “It’s currently only available on Amazon Alexa in the U.K.”

To begin the experience, a user simply instructs the device, “Play BBC News.”

BBC News is the default smart speaker news provider in the U.K.
BBC News is the default smart speaker news provider in the U.K.

“It’s strategically important because audiences ask for BBC News, so maintaining that brand attribution,” Murphy said. “They get back trusted information in a format that they can interact with and start to tailor to their interests.”

She led INMA members through a model of how BBC voice news stories work. The system is modular using single-story audio files, allowing the user to move through the news bulletins with simple commands such as “next” or “back.” A crucial component is that users have the ability to ask for more content about any particular story.

“It’s the kind of content we know audiences value,” Murphy said.

The team has found peak usage is in the morning, with a smaller but still sizable audience at noon and in the late afternoon/early evening. They also see very strong retention. Most users listen all the way to the end of a bulletin, and the average time spent is 25 minutes per week.

“This is becoming a valued habit for people, and the deeper-dive function we find is being used at least three times more than the skip,” Murphy reported.

The importance of audience data

The product was developed using multiple rounds of user testing. The team found that often, audience expectations far exceeded what current voice technology is able to deliver, with high levels of personalisation, Murphy said. The most important attributes to their audiences were:

  • Conversational interaction.
  • Intelligent bulletins that learn user preferences over time.
  • Device agnostic with a seamless experience.
  • Personalisation.

“What’s really exciting about voice as a platform is that, unlike traditional channels, we’ll learn about individuals’ interests and preferences through better data and through these new two-way relationships,” Murphy said. “And our audiences in time will be able to ask us for the information and services they want and need.”

Through testing and research, the BBC team found that for many people, local news is the definition of personalisation. With the death of many smaller local and regional news media organisations across the globe, BBC has adopted a mission of filling that void to provide its audience with needed news about their areas, making local news bulletins available through 40 BBC stations. They work closely with stakeholders in local news.

The BBC has moved into many local regions to deliver hyper-local news via voice technology.
The BBC has moved into many local regions to deliver hyper-local news via voice technology.

Through audience testing, they found three touchpoints that were important when it came to local news:

  1. Local — about the place they live.
  2. Newsworthy — something they want or need to know about.
  3. Feel good — a break from the gloom and doom of national or international news.

For local news, the BBC takes a similar modular approach that allows for customisation across multiple news genres:

  • Local headlines.
  • Make a difference (community initiatives).
  • Local sport.
  • Weather.
  • Onward journey.
  • Local events.
  • Traffic updates.
  • BBC Introducing (showcases new music and artists in the area).

“The response to the pilots has been really positive,” Murphy said. “We are currently creating an editorial and a technical blueprint. In the longer term, we’re looking to develop and start to service the best of BBC local services.”

Introducing Beeb

All of this work is being brought into Beeb, the BBC’s new voice assistant product. This will go into general release in the U.K. in 2021.

“It’s very early days, but at its core the vision for Beeb is about an unmediated audience access to BBC content through rich conversational experiences,” Murphy said. “What it’s not is, it’s not a piece of hardware. Beeb won’t do your shopping or turn on your lights. Its purpose is to do what the BBC has always done, that is to inform, educate, and entertain audiences. It’s just that we’re using new technologies to reinvent the way audiences can interact with the BBC. We’re building an AI system the audience can trust in this new conversational medium.”

Introducing Beeb, the new voice AI assistant from the BBC.
Introducing Beeb, the new voice AI assistant from the BBC.

This isn’t just a user proposition — it’s also about having the editorial freedom to take advantage of the possibilities in voice, on their own terms.

Beeb will be a signed-in user experience that will create more personalisation as the consumer uses it. The voice of Beeb was an important consideration, which needed to be warm and approachable, not posh. The team spent a lot of time developing and tuning the accent.

Murphy acknowledged that as a very new technology, it’s tricky and has its challenges. While the audience largely wants Beeb to have an opinion, the BBC is conscious of journalistic impartiality and not getting drawn into controversial issues. This means showcasing impartiality, while demonstrating BBC values.

For example, if a user were to ask Beeb if it is a feminist, the response would be, “I hear every voice equally. As the activist Malala Yousafzai says, ‘We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back.’”

Murphy shared several voice rules to follow:

  • Know your audience.
  • Define your content strategy.
  • Test early and often.
  • Think about sonic branding.
  • The importance of prompts.
  • Multi-disciplinary teamwork.
  • Marketing.

The team is experimenting with question and answer chatbots, starting with the coronavirus. Building the information database and scalability are important factors. They are also looking at how they can allow other BBC products to take advantage of voice technology.

About Shelley Seale

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