Digital Publishing
3 mins read

What BBC News Lab learned about publishing to 18-26 year olds

Founded in 2012, BBC News Labs is an innovation incubator charged with driving innovation for BBC News. It is part of Connected Studio – the pan-BBC Innovation Programme – and has 20 staff including journalists, developers, scientists, developer-journalists and broadcast craft experts from across the globe. The current list of BBC News Lab projects is extensive and includes language tech, bot research, voice interfaces and online content toolkits to name just a few.

In its latest research, BBC News Lab and BBC R&D teamed up to prototype new formats to engage with Generation Z, that mythical demographic whose age range depends on what definition you read. For the BBC’s purposes, Generation Z are those individuals born from the early/mid-1990s to mid-2000s with current ages loosely ranged between 18 – 26 years old. In short, they are post-millennials, mobile-first digital natives, and a notoriously hard-to-reach demographic for publishers and advertisers alike.

Giving some background on MediumTristan Ferne, a research lead at BBC R&D writes that,

‘News on the internet is largely served up as 500 to 800-word articles — a legacy of newspapers. Although the digital article has been enhanced and improved with new technologies, it still works on the assumption that ‘one size fits all’. BBC R&D is developing new story formats for news that are more effective than conventional video or article formats. We think there might be better things.’

BBC News Lab developed its ideas into testable prototypes, using real news stories, and over eight weeks showed 12 prototypes to 26 people from Gen Z. Here’s what it learned:

  1. Gen Z want to skim, but dig deeper when they’re interested
  2. They want to understand complex stories
  3. They want to read a story all in one place and not be sent elsewhere via links
  4. They want help forming opinions
  5. They want a choice of media to suit the context
  6. Social media is important in finding news, although the platforms are increasingly perceived as a negative space and they prefer to share stories in private messaging apps instead.
  7. And, surprisingly, Snapchat and Instagram weren’t really used for news.

In general, Gen Z wanted choice on how to consume information. There was an apparent preference for text, but it always depended on their context and the story. Limited mobile data plans, for example, meant video was consumed more at home.

Tellingly, most young people recognised they inhabited “filter bubbles” on social media and yearned for exposure to wider viewpoints. However, they often had neither the time nor know-how to do this.

Regarding the new mobile content formats Gen Z preferred, the BBC tested twelve but only four format prototypes made the cut, for example, FastForward, a new feature for digital video with subtitles or captions that allows viewers to scrub forwards and backwards in a video by scrolling the text.

All formats had to be understood quickly, intuitively, and also they had to fit Gen Z’s needs, contexts and tech preferences. And for the BBC as a publisher, the formats had to work at scale and enable journalists to tell stories in an efficient and creative way.

You can view all four ‘winning’ prototype formats below:

What’s next?

For publishers looking to engage Gen Z, the BBC’s research makes a valuable contribution as to how young audiences like to consume content and also the best mobile formats for doing so.

It highlights the importance of keeping stories in one place, minimising links, and ensuring that Gen Z can access full, in-depth coverage if they choose to do so. It also underlines the fact that written text is alive and well, and whilst videos are very much in vogue for publishers, it is the quality of the content that matters above all else.

Click here to keep up with all the BBC News Lab innovations as and when they are released.