Is our news product palatable to customers?

September 11, 2013 01:30

6 CUSTOMER QUESTIONS THAT COULD SAVE LOCAL NEWS
STARTING WITH ‘WHY DID YOU HIRE THAT MILKSHAKE?’
A multi-part special series on serving our news “customers” and growing our business
PREVIOUS ARTICLE:  QUESTION 1: WHAT JOB DO VIEWERS HIRE OUR CONTENT TO DO? and
QUESTION 2: WHAT CONTENT DO CUSTOMERS WANT?


By Brandon Mercer, RTDNA Region 2 Director
 
Our business of content creation is exploding into new networks, new aggregators, new websites, new "dot two" and "dot three" TV channels, and even company-created branded “content.” Conversely, local news as we know it is dying a slow death from increased ratings competition, diluted advertising revenue and viewers finding news updates without using a TV set.

Some innovative leaders are breathing new life into the patient, while others just work to make the death less painful. Which side you chose to be on may depend on what questions you’re asking yourself, your staff, your managers, and your direct reports about the customer. Just as a fast food joint manager wants to sell more milkshakes, we want to engage more viewers.  In this section, we’ll first focus on keeping and growing traditional TV viewers.

The burger stand owner asks “why do people buy milkshakes?” and “what attributes do people prefer in a milkshake?”  For TV viewers, we need to ask the same things about news, and not just rely on our “journalist intuition.”  This doesn’t mean we need to spend $10,000 on a research study immediately (but of course, you should do research when you can).  It just means to think less like a journalist, and more like a viewer.

Why did viewers turn the TV on in the first place?   What do they hope to see on the TV, and what needs will that TV program serve when they turn it on? If our goal is to craft relevant and emotionally-connected content, then the paradigm in our newsrooms needs to change from old fashioned “Journalism” to data-driven “content marketing.”   We discussed what content to choose and why viewers need our newscasts last week. Today, we look at how we present that content.
 
QUESTION 3:
IS OUR PRODUCT PALATABLE TO CUSTOMERS?

Ever get a dirty glass at a restaurant with someone else’s lipstick on the rim? No matter how tasty the product, the presentation can instantly turn your stomach, and you’ll never go back to that place.

At the peak of news viewership in 1969, the big three monopolized the screen with 85% share for their network evening news. When we all went to local news at the same time, viewers only had two real choices: Watch news or turn off the TV.  If we told viewers what happened that day, in an order of importance derived from our omniscient “guts,” we did okay and profits poured in.  Today, network news has a 29.3% share, and it’s a vastly different game. 

Content is now available 24/7, in any form and format with as much geographic specificity or generality as you like. Viewers don’t NEED us anymore to be informed, so how do we make them WANT us, especially if they already know what happened that day? Morning news may be the exception here, as morning viewers have not been consuming news all night.  For p.m. news, however, this is a steep uphill battle against an increasingly well-informed customer.

We do have a few advantages. There is inherent value in trusted, personable anchors, especially when they are both engaged and involved in the community.   There is also inherent value in urgent, live content and in TV, we have absolute “air superiority” of live local content (for now).  A live SWAT standoff can be compelling, and often important TV.  Just don’t keep running a VO about a standoff six hours after it ended peacefully.  Where the value of our content becomes increasingly subjective is in the work of the producers, EPs, and our ability to “show doctor” the rundowns.

Many companies still cling to the quaint notion that as “Journalists” -- note the capital “J” -- we must simply present the facts of what happened, without theatrics, dramatic graphics, flashy touchscreens, whiz-bang editing, over-the-top reporter stand-ups, or any other “gimmicks’ maligned as cheapening the news.
 
I’m not saying those things are necessary or good. I’m just saying if you’re going to dismiss them, don’t dismiss them because YOU think they cheapen the news. Dismiss them if -- and only if -- viewers don’t want them.

The Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How are like vegetables.  We know we should serve them, and we know people need them, but customers don’t necessarily find them palatable in their unadulterated form. Sometimes vegetables and the 5 W’s need some treatment before people get excited.  It’s the difference between serving boiled beans and spicy garlic sesame oil-infused edamame.

Don’t make decisions based on 3 emails or your GM’s gut instinct.  Use real research or at least examine what’s working for other content providers.  ESPN continually pulls eyeballs from local news, and they have eye-popping, information-overload graphics, rapid-fire delivery, and innovative production.  What’s more visually appealing, your newscast, or ESPN?  If the answer is your newscast, then you’re there already. Now’s the time to focus on your website.
 
APPLYING IT TO DIGITAL

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos just bought the Washington Post, and if you know the definition of “data mining,” then you know what a serious competitor this is to all other content out there, especially our digital brands.

Bezos told his newspaper, “We’ve had three big ideas at Amazon that we’ve stuck with for 18 years, and they’re the reason we’re successful: Put the customer first. Invent. And be patient. If you replace ‘customer’ with ‘reader,’ that approach, that point of view, can be successful at The Post, too.”

Amazon thrives on one of the most powerful databases ever assembled, third only to the Library of Congress and the CIA, tracking what and how people want to watch and read, and what they want to buy, and now Bezos owns a newsroom.  Amazon’s granular, individualized database is light years ahead of the “scientifically weighted” handful of Nielsen meters that tell we, the television managers, whether our newscast got a 1.4 in the demo, or a 0.8.

The intersection of content creation and customer relations is here.  Merging the two, Bezos can tailor news to what each user wants, and assign stories, beats, and special coverage based on what best connects advertisers to their customers.
 
Now, think about Amazon Prime’s Instant Video offerings and Amazon Studios. Bezos’ news operation could deliver strategic video content to viewers’ home TVs in a way that local stations can’t even fathom, if the company realizes this three-way synergy. Imagine applying your best Amazon experience to your local newscast.  The “What other customers are looking at right now section,” becomes “What news stories your friends watched today,” instructing what producers select for the lead, or second story. On your station digital video player, Amazon’s “What Other Items Do Customers Buy After Viewing This Item?” becomes “What stories you’ll like based on what you normally watch.” It can keep going with more and more subcategories as the data gets parsed.  Netflix’s uses the same concepts for recommending movies.

A form of content recommendation already exists thanks to companies like Taboola https://www.taboola.com/.  Most of us have never heard of them, but they’ve heard of you.  They describe their business as “surfacing” the “Content You May Like” on major sites nationally. Bezos and Amazon are just going to be better at it, and unlike Taboola, they directly control what content gets produced, and the means to distribute it.
 
We know what content our customers want, in fact, we’re learning more and more about  PRECISELY what content they want. Now, how do we super-serve it to them, in a customized way on digital?  For television, how do we refine our newscast style to be appealing to the majority of our target demo?
 
COMING LATER THIS MONTH:

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.