Saskia Baaij-Verhoeven – ViacomCBS

Saskia Baaij-Verhoeven – ViacomCBS

Saskia Baaij-Verhoeven is VP Digital Strategy at ViacomCBS, a leading premium content powerhouse with a global scale. Saskia: “Thanks to the merge between Viacom and CBS in 2019, we have brought a large library of content together to cover all targets from kids to adults and a great variety of genres. Alongside that, we focus on creating and growing brands. Commercial products and merchandise are very important, as well as real-life experiences from events to theme parks and hotels, all contributing to bringing the experience, content, and characters of our brands to life.” Saskia is responsible for the digital strategy for Europe, Africa, Asia, and the United Arab Emirates, focusing on social media for the network brands MTV, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, and Nick Junior.

Main KPIs for growth

According to Saskia, sales is the overarching KPI: “We look at how we can make our content, the brands and the characters that appear in it, commercially interesting. For my role, it means having as many people watch the content as possible. Every division has its own KPIs, for us, it is monetizable views. Social media can be used to attract an audience, but you can also use it as a revenue stream through advertisements. Secondary KPIs to realise those views are things like engagement and reach, but I believe it is important to have one main goal. A concept in growth hacking is to choose the one metric that matters (OMTM). All the others are subordinate to it. If you focus on too many things at once you will end up losing yourself.”

“Compelling storytelling is our main driver for growth”, Saskia continues. “Telling surprising, interesting stories, that’s what our fans want, and expect from us. In the practice of my role, it means understanding what social media platforms expect from you, making sure your story fits that, so the platform serves your content to your fans. If I make a great 1-minute video, but the algorithm prefers content over 3 minutes, your fans will not see it. Facebook or Instagram will not show it in the timeline of its users. Your video might be exactly what fans want, but the effort is wasted if they don’t see it. So, you need to know the rules of the platforms you operate on.”

“You can measure absolutely everything, but we are also in a creative business. It is about finding that balance of prioritising, and doing what feels right.”

Data as the starting point

Saskia shares how data plays an important role in telling stories: “Data is the starting point. You can think of it yourself from behind your desk because you think you know your audience, but I believe that is not the way to do it. You must look at the numbers, and start from there. Which stories are fans liking, what are other players in the market doing? We use tools like Tubular Labs, social data, but also more qualitative data through panel discussions and research into our target group. It is something Viacom has always held in very high regard. For social, we built a dashboard with native data from Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube. With Tubular Labs, we can look at what is happening in the market, but also follow what content creators further removed from the entertainment business are working on, as they are important influences in the lives of our target group.”

“At ViacomCBS, we are very good at creating a certain brand feel, due to the fact we set-up very target group-specific brands and TV channels”, Saskia shares. “Comedy Central is very different from MTV, and it comes from a need to build strong brand propositions with a very defined target group, in some cases even considered niche: Nick Junior caters to children from 2 to 3 years old. We let data and research take the lead in finding out what is important for our target group. And because we have done that so early on, even in the non-digital world, it has worked out for us and still is our main advisor. Having high brand awareness is not a goal, people need to know what the brand stands for and what the brand values are. It’s not enough to know a brand by name, knowing that Nickelodeon is a safe space for kids, is a big part of that.”

Drivers of success

Saskia is confident the company will continue to do more with data: “I notice that some companies focus more on small wins and little tweaks, that is where the idea of growth hacking comes from. Changing a button on the website from blue to yellow, resulting in a conversion growth of 1%. It feels like a small tweak. But when you take 20 of those tweaks together, it leads to better business results. 2 years ago, when I had a role within the Benelux, I started the idea of doing these small experiments with the Research Director. Doing small A/B tests and experiments to ensure more fans watch your content. It is an interesting concept, especially when you can implement that throughout the whole organisation.” Saskia believes that when you run social media in a company like ViacomCBS, you need to work together with the entire organisation: “In theory, the social team could analyse the data all by themselves. However, you would not get everyone on board. Work closely with business intelligence, the research department, marketing, PR, and production, this leads to richer insights fed by every department. For me, it is about working together with data specialists and connecting social media creativity to those insights to get the best reading of data.”

Biggest challenges

“A big challenge of data is that people find it difficult to make mistakes”, Saskia continues. “Which is very human. When we make a mistake, we prefer to move on and focus on something that is going well. But if you want to look at your business from a data-driven perspective, you need to investigate those mistakes, because those are the areas you can learn from most. Being open to self-criticism when working with data is crucial.” When it comes to the transformation companies are going through to become more data-driven, Saskia tells us that the main challenge lies in prioritising: “You can measure absolutely everything, so intuition and creativity must be involved. The challenge is to not go overboard, especially in the business we are in. First and foremost, we are a creative company that shares great stories. Perhaps we all remember the experiments back in the day where they tested different endings to a film among audiences, people not reacting very well to a certain ending, and the director being unhappy with the story needing to be changed. That is the essence of what we do, you can measure and analyse everything, but at the end of the day, we are also making creative products. Sometimes that means letting creativity flow without needing a dataset at the ready. It is all about a good balance, on the one hand prioritising, which you can do with data, and on the other hand, letting go and doing something that feels right. Those things can conflict, but I don’t think that is necessarily wrong. If things don’t match, it leads to a great discussion. Sometimes you go one way, and sometimes the other, it only makes the outcome stronger.”