Influencing Media: Freddie Sayers, CEO of InConversation

On Thursday 21st September, we hosted a crowd of professionals from the worlds of media, entertainment and sports for our inaugural panel discussion and party in the Influencing Media series: "Putting Digital to Work". To kick-off the evening, a panel of entrepreneurs and industry players talked to us about how they've used digital technology to get ahead in the media sphere. In the first of four articles looking at the insights that our panellists shared, we have Freddie Sayers, CEO of innovative data gatherers InConversation, telling us how he went from an agitator for change at YouGov to working with Charli XCX…



As Freddie pointed out, his media business InConversation is relatively unique in the media sphere in that they aren’t content publishers: “I’m interested in the other direction; how do you hear back from the crowd?” This is a question that Freddie has been confronting since his six years spent at pollsters YouGov. Part of his role there was devising questions engaging enough to elicit responses on everything from politics to the acceptability (or otherwise) of wearing red trousers. It was this constant struggle to engage that led to the idea that became InConversation. “I would constantly be sending out emails internally saying ‘We need to make our surveys more conversational!’ When Facebook Messenger opened up to bots, I thought ‘this is how surveying should be done. The whole process of gathering data should be done by chatting!'”

Just ten months on from that kernel of inspiration and the idea has become reality. InConversation now employs five people and is redefining how brands engage with their users by using carefully scripted chatbots on Facebook Messenger to find out what they’re really thinking. Early adopters include The Sun, the National Union of Teachers and Charli XCX, but even though the take-up in the music industry is expanding rapidly, Freddie agreed with our other panellists that overturning longstanding assumptions can be challenging:

“Fifteen years ago, people who were making ad campaigns thought ‘I don’t need data, it’s my job; I’m creative, I understand my audience.’ There’s still quite a lot of that in the music industry in that they don’t like to think of themselves as brands. Some of these artists have millions of social followers, but they know absolutely nothing about them, and the managers and people around them don’t really either. So what we had to persuade them of is to understand those dark people in the night who are just numbers on your Facebook page is not some evil, cynical, capitalist conspiracy where you’re no longer an artist and you’re just trying to flog stuff to them, it’s actually a human thing; you want to know what your fan base is like so you can communicate with them better.”

Charli XCX fans might have seen this new approach in action via a button on her Facebook page which Freddie tells us starts a chat with Charli. “We sat down with Charli and we did this script which was all tied into her latest single. You’re basically chatting with Charli about her video. We found that people really love it; it genuinely is a two way communication between her and her fans.”

Plenty of digital media organisations are concerned with appearing authentic, but as Freddie told us, the authenticity of this new medium of communication comes from the brand or organisation themselves. Take another project with the National Union of Teachers; as Freddie says, “that was a completely different kind of thing. In that case, they’ve got 500,000 members around the country and their whole reason of existing is to represent them and to be their union and yet they don’t talk to them at all.” Their previous solution was an annual survey that a tiny fraction of their members filled in. Now, using InConversation, the NUT is connecting with more and more of its members by asking them directly about what they’re seeing in schools. “The NUT asks directly in their voice, and that’s the authenticity.”

At the heart of InConversation’s approach to their use of digital media is that data shouldn’t be something shameful that happens behind closed doors. Instead, Freddie tells us that his experiences so far show that directness overcomes mistrust. “I think that actually, people are flattered to be asked. And if you make that relationship more open, people will tell you.”

A video of the full panel discussion is available in our event report.

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