FEATURE1 January 2009

Points of view

While stakeholders turn up the heat on the BBC, Helen Normoyle, director of audiences, is firmly focused on viewers, readers and listeners. What challenges does she face? Robert Bain reports.

When Helen Normoyle became director of audiences at the BBC in May 2008, she took on what she and her predecessor agree is “the most interesting job in research”.

These are interesting times for the public broadcaster, which has rarely been out of the headlines recently. Some of the criticisms levelled at it cut to the heart of its editorial practices, but even matters like the departure of a popular contestant from Strictly Come Dancing have proven contentious enough to raise questions in parliament.

Having previously been in charge of research for communications regulator Ofcom and mobile phone maker Motorola, Normoyle is well versed in the ins and outs of public service broadcasting, as well as the opportunities offered by new media platforms.

Research: How does being director of audiences for the BBC compare to the research jobs you’ve done before?

I would agree with Chris Mundy, my predecessor, who said it’s one of the most exciting research jobs in the UK, if not the world, because of what the BBC does, what it stands for, its reputation, its brand… One of the reasons I joined Ofcom was that I’d worked in global telecoms for eight and a half years and I could see that convergence was the way forward, and I was going to get the opportunity to work in broadcasting as well as telecoms and bring both of them together. At the back of my mind was that it would be lovely one day to work somewhere like the BBC. So when I got the call about this job I was blown away.

One of the benefits of working here is that you get to follow the research through from the first focus groups, to seeing the content going on air, to seeing how it performed in the BARB overnights, to looking at our survey data to understand how people fed back on it, to reading the press reports… You’re with things from beginning to end, and that’s a very satisfying feeling for people on the team.

Research: What was it like coming to the BBC from Ofcom?

The biggest difference was actually when I moved from Motorola to Ofcom. They warned me at the time that one of the biggest changes in moving from the private sector to the public sector is the level of public scrutiny that comes with the job. The BBC is similar in that respect – we’re putting our research out there for everyone to review, so it has to be world class, it has to stand up to the highest standards of scrutiny. Four and a half years of that at Ofcom prepared me for this job because, as events of the last few months have shown, what we do is very much in the public eye, it does get scrutinised, it does get raked over.

You can’t go out and do a piece of research with thirty people that you met in the shopping centre and then report the numbers. We have to be working with an accredited research agency, we really have to think about questionnaire design, about sampling, about how we report our data, and we have to make available the base sizes, the agency, the timing etc. In the private sector people do quick and dirty research all the time, and that’s fine, but it’s not an option for us.

Research: How does the nature of the BBC’s relationship with its audience influence your work?

What’s wonderful about being director of audiences is that what you do is very much at the heart of what programme makers and management are doing. Obviously at the BBC we don’t have a profit and loss, but we do have public purposes and service licences, so performance and delivery of those – that’s our currency, that’s our profit and loss. So the data and insights that we in the audiences team provide to the organisation take on another level of urgency compared to private sector organisations, because their audience insights are generally to help develop a product or refine a marketing strategy, but they’re not put out there to show how you’ve performed in the past year.

That also means we have to have a very clear understanding of how we take our public purposes and service licence agreements and translate them into something we can track and measure. We’re accountable to the public for what we deliver, because everybody pays the licence fee, so it’s about ensuring that people appreciate what they’re getting from the BBC.

Research: But the BBC’s relationship with the public isn’t as simple as giving people what they want, is it?

Drawing on my experience in industry, I don’t think it’s ever as simple as giving people what they want. When I worked at Motorola in 1995, cell phones had a battery life of maybe eight hours. In research we did at that time, people said, ‘I’m happy with eight hours,’ but when somebody came out with a phone with 40 hours of standby time it was revolutionary, and immediately the expectations of the market changed. It’s really important to realise that audience insights inform the strategy but they shouldn’t necessarily lead the strategy.

Research: Even if the BBC is giving people what they want, the discussions you see in the media often suggest that it isn’t. Is that an obstacle?

It’s important to understand that what people on the ground think is very often quite different from what’s reported in the papers. That reinforces the importance of primary research with the audience – we’re not just reliant on reading the papers, because we know that when we go on the ground, there’s a more diverse range of opinions out there than the media suggest.

Research: How does research help the BBC move into uncharted areas and pursue new media initiatives?

Research is really, really critical. If you look at the development, design and delivery of a new media service like iPlayer, it’s about understanding the consumer experience and who it’s targeted at, so a key role for research is to help identify who the people are who are likely to take up the service, how do you best target them, what is it that they’re interested in, how do you talk to them…

I’ve never worked anywhere where I’ve seen such a huge appetite for audience insights and data. People actively call up wanting the latest number, the latest figures, wanting to know how they’re performing and how they can do better. It’s a hugely important part of the culture. In other organisations half the battle is getting people to listen to what you have to say and take it seriously. What you find here is that you’ve got a seat at the table, and there’s this pressure to always be on the front foot and anticipate the needs of a very ambitious organisation.

Research: Does it affect your job that people feel a sense of ownership of the BBC and have strong opinions on what it does?

Yes, and you know what, that’s fantastic, because it makes recruiting respondents really easy. It’s not like we’re recruiting to find out what flavour of yoghurt you want or what you want the packaging to look like. It can be a struggle to recruit people to do that type of research, whereas when we recruit people to talk about their favourite TV programme or their favourite radio programme, people love talking about them, it gets them really excited. The focus groups are always really lively because what we do is really important to people. It’s entertainment, it’s water cooler conversation, it really brings people together. People do generally have strong opinions one way or the other about the BBC and what we do, and I see that as a huge plus rather than a negative.

Because I’m a researcher, I like listening and asking people questions, I like to do my own bit of research when I’m out and about. Taxi drivers and people you meet in the queue are generally a good source. People like talking about telly and radio and online because people spend a lot of time watching telly and listening to the radio.

Research: Recent controversies have revealed a wide divergence of views on what the BBC should be doing with licence payers’ money. How do you get a handle on the big questions about what the organisation is for?

Every household pays the licence fee so our challenge is to figure out how we can deliver value across the piste. There is an audience for edgy programming. Equally there is an audience for mainstream family entertainment on a Saturday evening. So we have to understand the different audience segments that exist, what it is that they value and how we can deliver to it.

Just to make clear, what happened recently on the programme with Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross [in which the presenters made abusive phone calls] crossed the line – it shouldn’t have been recorded in the first place and it shouldn’t have gone out. But clearly there is an audience for edgy programming.

For Russell Brand’s programme, the average age of that audience is 50, which is counter-intuitive because there is a belief that it’s just targeting young people. That shows why it’s really important to have the audience insights because were one only to go on what one saw in the media or form ones own opinions about it, you wouldn’t necessarily reach the conclusion that the average age for listeners of that show is 50.

Research: Do you have strong opinions yourself about what you see on TV?

Oh yeah, absolutely. I have great conversations with my family and my friends. You go out for dinner and you just get an earful about certain presenters or programmes. They all say, ‘What’s the BBC doing about x, y or z,’ and ‘I don’t think they should be doing this.’ They all have an opinion on what goes on.
It’s really great to be working for an organisation that generates that much interest and passion, because the media is such an intrinsic part of our lives.

Helen Normoyle

  • 1991 – Infratest+GfK, Germany
  • 1995 – Motorola, becoming director of global consumer insights and product marketing
  • 2003 – Director of market research, Ofcom. Later director of media literacy and convergent media
  • 2008 – Director of audiences, BBC