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June 22, 2023updated 28 Jun 2023 10:09am

GB News digital chief: ‘We’re in the foothills of what we’re hoping to achieve’

Former Express digital guru Geoff Marsh discusses GB News' digital journey.

By Aisha Majid

GB News digital boss Geoff Marsh has told Press Gazette the broadcaster has a “very ambitious plan” to take on the UK’s biggest news websites, as it marks its two-year anniversary.

GB News has had some high-profile troubles since its launch in 2021. But as the channel turned two last week, its recent digital growth and ratings suggest it could be turning a corner in its bid to win over audiences.

In May, gbnews.com was the fastest-growing national news website in the UK, according to Similarweb data shared with Press Gazette by the broadcaster. Visits to the site grew 535% year-on-year to reach 14.2 million. Data for June to date, chief digital officer Geoff Marsh told Press Gazette, suggests a similar trend.

“We’re pivoting the whole business to be digital-first,” explained Marsh, who joined GB News from Express.co.uk in October. “A lot of companies, newspapers, broadcasters and brands say that – but we’re deadly serious about it.”

No ‘cap’ on GB News’ potential digital reach

Often mentioned in the same breath as News UK’s TalkTV, which itself is just over one year old, GB News has some of the country’s biggest newsbrands in its sights as it hopes to become the UK’s number one news channel by 2028.

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According to Press Gazette’s latest top 50 ranking using industry-recognised Ipsos iris data, in April GB News’ UK audience of 5.7 million placed it ahead of more established UK news names including Reach’s MyLondon (4.7 million) and National World’s The Scotsman (3.1 million).

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Marsh says the company is hoping to surpass the audiences of bigger brands such as Metro and Evening Standard too, although, according to Ipsos iris data, it still has some way to go. Metro reached 14.2 million people in April, while the Evening Standard’s audience was 9.8 million.

"There are some big regionals in the UK that we'd like to outgrow, and then hopefully, especially with my background, it would be fun to take on the nationals and see how far we get," Marsh told Press Gazette.

"But we’ve certainly got a very ambitious plan not just to take on other broadcasters, but to take on the really big news websites. We've had spectacular growth, but we're in the foothills of what we're hoping to achieve."

Lessons from The Express

Marsh helped turn the Express into one of the biggest websites in the world, particularly through a successful SEO strategy, during his time as editorial director at the brand.

Asked how GB News has managed to achieve triple-digit growth, Marsh said that having access to 18 hours of live television a day is a major advantage in creating online content.

The company’s granular approach to data looking at which topics and people are driving interest, as well as the specific elements within stories that are resonating best with audiences, also drives what the company is doing digitally, he said.

"If we're utilising that [live TV] properly and the data properly then we have huge potential to grow digitally and to be many so many magnitudes of where we are now," said Marsh, who believes there is no "cap" on how big the channel’s digital reach could get.

"I don't see why there would be a limit because we have several edges that I didn't have when I was running a national newspaper website. The biggest single one is we have talent, for example, we have a broadcast brand. Our company is controversial, we're disruptive, we’re talked about a lot.”

Behind the Express' SEO growth, he said, was a large number of stories driven by topics not just the news agenda, an approach he is applying at GB News too.

"Breaking news, rolling news is obviously important," he said. "But at the same time, build authority for keywords you want to dominate."

A successful website, he said, depends on working out what are the several hundred thousand keywords a brand wants to rank for and then working to ensure that what is offered to audiences on Google is better than content they can get elsewhere.

One of the biggest lessons that Marsh said he has learned through building audiences is trusting his team.

"That's not meant to be trite, but experiment within the team and let them fail," he said. "I have thought for a long time that the only way you can really scale big, free websites consistently is to figure out who's good at what and then give them quite a lot of independence and let them go with it."

Around 20 people work for GB News’ digital operation currently but the company has plans to expand the team to 60 to 70 within the next 18 months.

Rapid growth on social media

As well as a growing web presence, GB News has invested in social media. GB News' former head of digital Rebecca Hutson helped rapidly grow the company’s accounts on Tiktok, Youtube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

GB News currently counts 907,000 subscribers on Tiktok – an increase of 87% in one year. The broadcaster also counts a bigger following on the platform than TalkTV (405,500) and Global's LBC (189,900), although along with subscribers to Piers Morgan's Uncensored channel, TalkTV's total count is around 1.5 million.

It also beats its News UK rival and LBC for Youtube views. According to data from Social Blade, there were more views of GB News content on Youtube in the week to 15 June than to the TalkTV and LBC channels combined.

Being a broadcast operation means that different parts of the TV schedule help generate the right kind of content to serve different platforms, Marsh explained.

While the channel’s more controversial prime time presenters such as Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees Mogg and Dan Wootton, generate material that resonates well with web and social audiences, the channel’s appeal is wider, he added.

"To focus just on that would be wrong," he said, adding that clips from shows by less divisive presenters such as Mark Longhurst and Patrick Christys also do well digitally.

"If you look at it across the course of those 18 hours of broadcasting people would be quite surprised by some of the content. What we're seeing on social media in particular is that actually people do really engage with lots of it and people do want to share it and you can't define that simply by its polemic or its narrative about certain topics because that's not what I see," he said.

Broadening appeal while remaining 'true to who we are'

This broad range of content appeals to different types of people on different platforms, Marsh continued. He said the broadcaster’s coverage of TV presenter Phillip Schofield’s affair for example helped win over a younger and more female audience on Tiktok, while GB News' exclusive interview with former US president Donald Trump on his recent UK visit also brought in new eyeballs.

While broadening its digital audience "makes complete sense" from a commercial perspective, Marsh underlined that GB News aims to stay "true to who we are".

"We don't want to dilute the content just to reach a mass market and be the same as everybody else. That’s the opposite of what we're trying to achieve. But we do believe that there is a bigger audience for the kind of content that we're producing," he said.

GB News’ coverage of mortgage rate increases is a recent example, he said, of how GB News brings its own perspective to a story with wide appeal.

"Now that may sound like a very conventional Sky or BBC kind of thing and it's a big story that's got mass appeal for the whole country, but we might cover that in a slightly different way," Marsh said.

"The moniker ‘the people's channel’ is a real thing and it’s about getting out on the streets and talking to real people about how it's impacting them. It’s finding those kinds of real stories that make it resonate with people rather than just focusing more on what the Bank of England are saying or what’s coming out of the City."

International expansion

As well as ambitious UK growth aims, earlier this year GB News launched a dotcom website to replace its UK domain as part of its plan to expand into other English-speaking markets such as the US, Canada, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.

"We're just at the very beginning of that journey and it is something that we are actively looking at right now. One of my top priorities is to figure out the best way to expand globally, but specifically in the United States," said Marsh.

Although the US has no shortage of right-leaning and conservative outlets among them Fox News, Marsh believes that GB News’ approach to news fills a gap in the market.

"This is not a relocation of GB News to America but we do believe that if we take the approach that we've taken in the UK which is that concept again of a people's channel, trying to tell the stories that matter to people in a more down to earth, relevant way to them, and to be fed by the insight, listen to people and not just preach, we think there is a market for that both in politics and more broadly in the States," he said. "That's what we're looking at very actively in the next two to three months."

GB News TV and radio ratings

While the company has seen digital growth, linear reach has grown more slowly. In May, according to BARB, the TV channel reached 3.4 million people, which while ahead of TalkTV on 1.8 million was behind Sky News (8.7 million) and market leader BBC News (10.7 million). In prime time it sometimes however, reaches a similar audience to Sky News. This month both channels have averaged 71,000 viewers in prime time.

GB News is also reaching audiences through its radio simulcast, which launched in 2022. While lower than other commercial rivals, it recorded a weekly reach of 319,000 people in its last RAJAR results which although up on the previous quarter was below its Q4 2022 peak of 415,000 weekly listeners.

The challenge is to convert a growing audience into profit. GB News, which launched with £60m in investment in 2021, made a loss of £31m in its first year on air according to recent filings. The channel has invested in talent but also suffered from an advertising boycott by brands turned off by some of its more divisive content. The company has also fallen foul of Ofcom rules twice.

While advertising remains its main income, there’s no revenue source that the channel is not looking at, says Marsh. Although the site will remain free, Marsh reveals that GB News is looking at a membership tier "in the near future".

The company is also working on a new app to be released later this year which Marsh hopes will help the company find "the sweet spot in the market" between a digital publisher and a broadcaster.

"We're trying to do something a little bit different," he said. "We're trying to have everything in one place so that it's easily accessible and shareable whether you want to read a story or whether you want to catch up on your favourite programme or watch a short clip."

Update: this article was amended shortly after publication to include the subscriber counts to Piers Morgan Uncensored.

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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  • Senior Executive/SVP or Corporate VP or equivalent
  • Director or equivalent
  • Group or Senior Manager
  • Head of Department/Function
  • Manager
  • Non-manager
  • Retired
  • Other
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