Customer questions that can save local news

September 4, 2013 01:30

By Brandon Mercer, RTDNA Region 2 Director
 
Just like videotapes, the milkman, film cameras and phone books, local news is dying. You are the doctor.

Newspapers struggled to change their print-based model in the early 2000s, and today TV is facing a ratings and advertiser erosion that will not slow down.  It’s just a question of how much profit we can squeeze out during the long death spiral. Or, can we save the patient?  First, the diagnosis:

Ignore the Nielsen report showing America is watching more TV than ever, at 41 hours per week. We’re not watching news.

●     Local news viewership is down by six percent or more across the board. last year.
●     Among adults under 30, just 28% admit being regular news viewers. That’s down from 42% in 2006.
●     Fewer Americans can even see local television news. The number of NIelsen “zero TV” homes has nearly doubled, to more than 5 million homes, up from just 2 million in 2007.
 
It seems bleak, but a holistic approach adapted from the business world could save us, and help us adapt the TV-first model to a future-proof “content provider” strategy.
When I became a News Director, I transitioned from the typical Executive Producer paradigm of choosing content and crafting a rundown, to thinking about the big picture, including revenue and the overall vision. I began reading about success in various businesses. After finding story after story of what made some businesses succeed and others fail, it’s time to apply the same principles to our newsrooms, newscasts, and the content we choose to create for our customers.
 
“WHY DID YOU HIRE THAT MILKSHAKE?”
Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen lectures on this game-changing approach where a researcher, fed up with lack of progress in milkshake marketing, decides to spend 18 hours observing milkshake buyers at a fast food joint. By asking a simple question of what job the drinks were performing for customers, he divined a new approach to selling shakes.  He learned people bought milkshakes in the morning, because they wanted a long-lasting and filling treat on long commutes.  Christensen uses this example in his business world “must-read” about disruptive technology, The Innovator’s Dilemma.

Talk of “disruptive technology” dominates conversations at just about any company over 10 years old.  In newsrooms, however, we’re so focused on getting the news on the air that we tend to forget to stop and think about why viewers “hire” our newscasts, or more importantly, why 95% or more do not watch.
 
QUESTION 1:
WHAT JOB DO VIEWERS HIRE OUR CONTENT TO DO?
Engage in REAL discussions with viewers, not just a glance at a handful of Nielsen spreadsheets.  Do real research studies, and most important, find a way to WATCH real viewers consume your product.  In that occasional magic moment when someone is actually in front of a TV--AND it’s tuned to your product--consider how does a family watch local it, at 5 a.m., 5 p.m., or 11 p.m.? Have you watched someone watch your news in a real setting, not a focus group?  How do you apply that experience to your daily content and show stacking decisions? Why customers “hire your newscast” will vary by station, based on your brand, network demographics, style of news, market, and your abilities to deliver. 

●     Is TV content a distraction from talking with their family at the dinner table?
●     Do customers use TV news to inform them of inherently useful things, like whether to carry an umbrella, or whether their commute to work will take longer today?
●     Do they “hire us” to make sure they don’t get embarrassed at cocktail parties when someone says, “Can you believe Kim Kardashian did that?” or “Wasn’t that last-second touchdown pass amazing?”
●     Is our content a means to learn about the world, like whether terrorists are threatening us,  whether our 401(k) is going to trend upwards, or why property taxes are going up?
●     Are anchors their friends? Do customers use newscasts as a voice in a silent house or maybe news provides an emotional connection after leaving the bar alone? 
One of the smartest people I’ve seen step in front of the camera, KTLA’s Chris Burrous, suggested to me, “People are inherently lonely. Fill that need for companionship whichever way you can, and they’ll love you.” 
 
QUESTION 2
WHAT CONTENT DO CUSTOMERS WANT?
Do you start editorial meetings by looking at what content you can deliver, or do you examine what the customers are asking for and then try to serve their needs? Some newsrooms go by their guts, and this can work if you have the right mix of staff.  Unfortunately, this more often involves a newly relocated 30-something executive producer and apartment dweller with no kids making content choices for a 40-something mother of two with an upside down mortgage and recently laid off husband.

Before you “go with your gut,” consider whether your team adequately represents the hot zips in your DMA, the outlook of your target viewer, and the concerns of your community. If you don’t have a manager with a keen eye for the customer, consider the free information at your fingertips. Never in the history of journalism have we had so many empirical tools telling us what our customers want and when and how they want it.

●     SocialMention:  This site was a powerful tool demonstrated during Doug Haddix’s recent #EIJ13 session on digging deeper with social media.  It lets you search a term, and see how often it’s discussed, how strong the passion is on the subject, who’s talking about it, hashtags associated with it so your reporters can use the best tags, and more.  For example, you could see that with Syria, a hashtag associated with #Syria is #Pray, and maybe talk to churches praying for the country, or notice the source, SyriaTube.com and report on the propaganda wars being waged online.


 
●     Facebook Impressions: We have real-time tracking of how many people have seen every post we make, whether they share it on their own pages, and whether they like it, and whether they feel compelled to comment on it.  How often do we discuss this powerful data in our editorial meetings?



●     Twitter Trends:  We get instantly updated data on what people are sharing, broken out by geographic region.  How do we apply this to choosing our reporter stories?



●     Google Trends:  See what people are searching for at the moment and decide which big story gets the most time, or what angle.  Click on “Top Charts” to see a breakdown by category.  Or, type search terms you would use for the big story, and see who’s interested in it. http://www.google.com/trends/



●     YouTube Trends:  I especially like the Trends Map. Pick your market, and see what’s hot! http://www.youtube.com/trendsmap



●     TrendsMap: Track Twitter #hashtags geographically. http://trendsmap.com/


 
NEXT IN THE SERIES: 
QUESTION 3:
IS OUR PRODUCT PALATABLE TO CUSTOMERS?

QUESTION 4:
HOW SHOULD WE DELIVER OUR PRODUCT TO THE CUSTOMER?

QUESTION 5:
WHAT HILL CAN WE ABSOLUTELY NOT GIVE UP?

QUESTION 6:
IF WE WERE TO BUILD A COMPANY STRUCTURE TODAY TO EFFICIENTLY MAKE AND MARKET OUR PRODUCT,  WHAT WOULD IT LOOK LIKE?
 
 
Brandon Mercer is a content innovator, former news director, and social media consultant, who also serves on the board of RTDNA. Email Brandon.