The Social Secrets of BBC Springwatch

29 September 2017

Posted in: Social

Thanks to our recent excursions at BBC Bristol – the staff tour, the Bristol Big Ideas talk, and our interview with BBC Radio Bristol’s Adam Crowther – we’ve been lucky enough to meet some lovely people at the BBC who know more than a thing or two about audience engagement. And you guessed it, here is another one!

Meet Chris Hitchings: Social Media Producer at BBC Springwatch and ‘tweeter of tweets about things that tweet’. We met up with Chris to chat all things Springwatch, social, and ‘nature’. Here is what we learned.


The man, the mystery

So, who is Chris Hitchings, you ask? Chris is a Journalism graduate from Leeds Met who started his career at BBC Radio Cumbria. In August 2015, he moved all the way down to Southampton to start a job at BBC Radio Solent. It was a love of radio, the sea and being nearer to London that brought him all that way.

Alongside working in radio production and as a reporter, he found himself drawn into managing the radio station’s social media presence.“I did a piece on people’s coming-out stories – that’s when I really got into it,” he tells me over his cappuccino. “You can use social media to spread a message, and the result is instant. I love that”.

Chris has since joined the BBC Springwatch team here in Bristol, where his mantra is: “if you don’t ask, you don’t get”. When it comes to social media, he loves to try new ideas and has strong opinions about what, why, and how those ideas are spread.


Chris’s favourite native bird is the dipper, renowned for its ability to dive and swim underwater

How user engagement has changed

Since Chris came to BBC Springwatch, a few things have changed. “There’s been a lot of growth from video – some of them have done extremely well,” says Chris. “We shared a 7-second video of a hedgehog being pushed into a water bowl by another hedgehog, which was viewed around 5 million times”.

“Above all, it’s about getting the community involved,” says Chris. Since they started running Instagram takeovers, BBC Springwatch has received 15,000 new followers in just two months – a following that continues to grow.

“We work closely with partner organisations like BTO and the National Trust, who often share our posts on various platforms. When I first joined BBC Radio, you would rarely find someone from outside of the BBC writing content for the BBC website, but recently we also had a guest post from the Wildlife Trust. It works well, since there are a lot of common themes”.

The future is video

Chris is quick to stress the importance of video content. “All of our biggest posts were video, that’s where the growth is on Facebook and to an extent Twitter,” he says. “Cute and informative videos both do really well, but you’ve got to get the balance right. People will share cute stuff, of course, but they also want content they can join in with”.

At this point, we deviated slightly to talk about wildlife. “British wildlife is awesome, so many people don’t appreciate or understand it,” says Chris. “You don’t have to go out to the Lake District, you can see it right on your doorstep. With Springwatch, it’s very much about sharing that message”.


Chris’s favourite native small mammal? The hedgehog

What makes a post shareable?

According to Chris, there are three types of posts that are inherently shareable. There’s the cute stuff, like this video of a fallow deer, which was viewed 118k times.

Then you’ve got the more informative stuff, like 3 facts about kingfishers, which was viewed 156k times – they do just as well. “If a video performs well once, it’ll perform well again and again,” says Chris. “Having a series of evergreen videos is really important, since you can just reuse them. A lot of brands do this”.

The third type is funny stuff, such as the hedgehog video and chick chat, which is one of their highest performing videos to date with 9.2 million views. Check out this recent one of a kingfisher getting ready for a date.

“You’ve got all your different audiences there who respond to different posts,” says Chris. “Sometimes it feels like Buzzfeed. Sometimes we might say ‘tag a mate’, which feels very Lad Bible. Other times it’s a lot more BBC, giving people advice and such. So we tend to adapt between different voices and styles”.

Know your audience: the Springwatch demographic

On Facebook and Twitter, BBC Springwatch’s main demographic is women aged 45-55. On Instagram it’s a little younger, around 20-30 – and still mostly women.

“When we launched the new series, we featured a Facebook Live of a blackbird and for the first time, one of the main audiences was men around 20-30. Young people are on their phones much more and when it’s live you get a notification, which accounts for the difference”.

As with so many brands nowadays, reaching out to a younger audience is always a top priority – since these are the people who will stick around and keep using social media for the next 10 years or more. But for a clearly defined brand like BBC Springwatch, Chris says “we don’t specifically target new demographics – we know our audience and we know how to talk to them”. It’s all about delivering for the existing audience and continuing to foster engagement with content they’ll enjoy.


At this point, we were treated to some ‘nature’ in the form of a passing Red Admiral

Inspiring people to take action

BBC Springwatch does a great job of inspiring its viewers and followers to take action and help nature to thrive in their local area. According to Chris, the best way to inspire action through social media is to show people how to do it.

“It really is so easy. I live in Redland and was walking through the suburbs one night when I saw two foxes, right in the middle of Bristol. So with BBC Springwatch, it’s showing people that nature is right on their doorstep. We’re not on a reserve anymore – you don’t have to travel far to experience wildlife”.

Once a month, Springwatch creates a short video called Wildlife SOS, which they sometimes broadcast on the TV programme as well. During one Wildlife SOS, they showed viewers how to create a reptile rockery in the garden. In another, they introduced the campaign ‘Say No To The Mow’, which is aimed at encouraging people to stop mowing their lawns and instead sow wildflowers for bees, bugs and birds.

“Films like this show people what’s around them, as well as how easy it is to try these things at home,” says Chris.


City foxes are a common sight at nighttime in Bristol

Linking up TV and social media

We asked Chris how closely linked Springwatch the TV series is with its social media activities – the answer is very.

“They’re massively connected,” says Chris. “There’s a really nice atmosphere when we’re all on location in the big marquee, with loads of things happening all in one tent. One of the producers likes to say that Springwatch is like a big fruit bowl. Why just have the apples when you can have the oranges, bananas, and kiwis? Watch the series, then go online and like our Facebook page! Last time one of the presenters did a shout-out on the show, we got 5,000 new page likes in just one hour”.

Chris also live-tweets the shows as they’re on, adding extra context to what’s being aired. “People are often multi-screening, so I like to give them more information. I usually prepare some GIFs and images to use beforehand, then I write the tweets as I go along”. The big difference between the series and the social media channel is that, while Springwatch is only aired seasonally, the social media channels are active all year round.

“There’s not really a UK nature watch,” says Chris. “So in many ways, we are the face of British wildlife. Everything comes under the Springwatch brand, but we are the promoters of UK wildlife all year round”.


Chris Packham, Michaela Strachan and Martin Hughes-Games for BBC Springwatch

Quality over quantity

Ever curious, I asked Chris where he goes for post inspiration. “It’s a good idea to look at other pages to see what they’re all doing,” says Chris.

“My advice to others who want to up their social media engagement is to focus on quality, not quantity. You could be posting 10 times a day – and posting absolute rubbish. This is a huge waste of time. There are so many brands out there – big well-known names – that don’t try anything different. They link to articles all the time, and it doesn’t work. If you want to get good engagement, post less – but post quality content and know what your audience likes”.

Video is an increasingly effective way to grow your platforms, particularly when it comes to Facebook. “The key is to try different things, and not to be afraid of letting some things fail. Ultimately, if you’re afraid to try new things you’ll just end up falling behind the times”.

Creating videos for social media

If you head on over to the BBC Springwatch Facebook page, you’ll find an awful lot of videos, all nicely put together and edited for optimum viewability on the platform. To create these short, snappy videos, Chris uses a combination of Adobe Photoshop and Premier (learning the latter from scratch).

“Mostly I make the videos either square or 16:9. For Instagram, you can do 9:16, which is ideal for a smartphone screen”. Chris also uses Instagram Stories to drive traffic, since you can now add links to the posts. A good example of this in action led to the post 11 insanely beautiful places in the UK to get away from it all – each image depicting one of these places. “You start telling the story, but don’t finish it,” says Chris. This is a good strategy if you’re trying to drive people to your website”.

bugbearsChris’ social bugbears – what do brands need to stop doing?

Social media bugbears

So what are the least effective things people and brands do on social? According to Chris, it’s all about the quality of the posts. “Linking to boring or irrelevant content. Not presenting it well. Adding ‘click here to see more details’ when it’s painfully obvious. We know to click there”.

“The key thing is you need to care and be passionate about social media if you’re going to do it. Don’t tweet photos of your lunch. Not knowing your brand and sharing content that’s not relevant are two of the biggest mistakes people make – a lot of people go wrong here”.

In summary, managing social media is a bit like making a cake. “You’ve got to have all the ingredients there. If you use one egg instead of two, it’s not going to work. And it takes time. You’ve got to really want to do it, and enjoy the process, to make it work”.


You can’t make a social media sponge without the flour of content and the sugar of intrigue

How will social media marketing change?

Finally, we look to how social media is changing, and how this medium will evolve in the future. How can other brands and businesses be prepared?

“I’d like to say there will be more decent content,” ponders Chris. “Also more effort going into stopping things like fake news. I’d like to see brands focusing more on long-term, sustainable growth, rather than quick growth through things like clickbait. For instance, you could have 1 million likes, but does anyone actually look at your content?”

Chris also thinks more brands will be using platforms like Messenger. “People are always sending Springwatch questions – I spend a lot of time identifying birds and bees for people. So I think brands will use Messenger to interact with customers and share things. BBC Earth’s Facebook page has a bot that auto-replies to you with a video each day”.

“I also think we’ll see brands using methods like Instagram Stories to drive traffic to their websites. Snapchat is lagging behind because it’s hard to find out about your audience, but they recently allowed you to start adding links, so this may change things”.

Advice for new brands? “My advice would be to focus on Facebook and Instagram. You can share to both really quickly and easily, which saves a lot of work. I sometimes feel like I work for Facebook, since I spend so much time creating content deliberately for this platform. But if it works across other platforms too, that’s a bonus”.

birdsFacebook and Instagram: two birds, one stone

It’s amazing to have had the opportunity to learn so much about the workings of social media from one of the UK’s proudest institutions and to see British wildlife getting the engagement it deserves on social platforms. Once again, we’d like to thank Chris Hitchings for taking the time to speak to us and share his insights.

 What did you learn from this post? We’d love to hear what surprised you, and what elements you’ll take away for your own business. Start a conversation in the comments.

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