Making, marketing news takes a village

October 2, 2013 01:30

A multi-part special series on serving our news “customers” and growing our business



By Brandon Mercer, RTDNA Region 2 Director

If you are the director for the city metro transit system, do you still drive to work?  If you’re a chef, do you bring a brown bag lunch? If you are a Southwest Airlines pilot, do you fly United? If you work for Google, do you Yahoo!?

If you work in news, do you rely on your own station’s content to stay informed?  For most of us, the answer is “no.”  Consider a typical news producer who:

  • Gets their news from an entry in ENPS, by press release, off the scanners, or during the editorial meeting.
  • Has at least one TV on their desk tuned to an all-news network, all day
  • Watches three or more TVs simultaneously when local news comes on
  • Knows newsmakers personally, and if they have a question, can call the PIO,  councilman, or public relations firm
  • Works in shifts, coming in anywhere from 11 at night to 3 in the afternoon, or maybe the weekend shift

Now compare that to a typical viewer who:

  • Watches one TV at a time
  • Watches 2-3 newscasts each week, if they’re an avid viewer
  • Checks their smartphone within 15 minutes of waking up
  • Leaves the house around 8 a.m., and returns around 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.

While 55% of Americans still get their news from television (Gallup), those of us who create the news do not. We spend our lives in an overly stimulated, constantly connected environment, and that fact hurts our ability to make smart business decisions in what we cover, how we cover it, how we treat customers, and how we strategically plan.

We’re just too close to the product and process.  Getting away from the newsroom, and observing real people changes that perspective.

In this series of articles, we have been exploring how to cater to our customers. Being customer focused is a great concept, but how do you really enshrine a customer focus into the business?  You examine the very structure itself.



What is the role of Creative Services? Is it to produce ads or video promos, or is it to connect with our customers?  Dennis Swanson, president of FOX’s station group has a proven formula that he used to transform the Viacom/CBS stations, and has since applied at FOX too.  “Around the country, the stations that are tops in news and have strong community involvement tend to be the most successful,” he told Broadcasting & Cable.

Connect with customers, and they’ll connect with you.

How much of your station’s outreach is focused on spots and billboards, versus community events and charity?    Instead of “Creative Services” being in charge of outreach, maybe it’s time to name it “Marketing” or “Outreach.”

Does your new “Marketing Outreach” department work on social media or is social just something for the newsroom? Does Sales have access to the station social media?  If not, how do you help a client extend their campaign across your entire news brand, including your amazingly powerful social media brands?  A Facebook post can reach 80,000 people in seconds while a primetime spot, a promo or a billboard might only reach 20,000.  The promo takes 16 hours to create. The Facebook posts takes about three minutes and it’s free to post. How would you prefer to spend your promo budget? How can you help clients in their campaigns?

How often have you used Facebook to invite station followers to a special event in the studio?  Everyone likes to feel special, appreciated, and “on the inside.”  Why not invite them to the studio for chips and salsa and to meet the anchors?  The cost is next to nothing, and the goodwill (and Instagram photos) could be worth thousands!


We’re skilled at creating interesting content. (See earlier article for QUESTION 2: WHAT CONTENT DO CUSTOMERS WANT?)  But what about when we make a mistake, or a bad call, and the customer is concerned?

When a diner sends back the soup, the chef hears about it right away.  In news, how do we respond to customer complaints?   This is a critical feedback loop that can also help us make better decisions about our product.

Does your assignment editor answer the phone by barking “NEWS!!” like I used to do, or do they say calmly, “Channel 2 News, this is Brandon?” When you get a complaint or concern on telephone, social media, or email, do you have a response structure?  In this day of INSTANT social media repercussions, you need to be on it right away or you’ll face a firestorm of Tweets and comments that will hurt the bottom line.  

It’s easy for viewers to contact advertisers and organize a boycott or at least get a big company’s attention in a way that gets sales very concerned.  Imagine someone tagging @Comcast or @Toyota in a tweet about “Channel # News sucks. I’m boycotting all their clients including @Toyota.”  Gulp!  My GM and I always enjoyed the game of turning around angry viewers.   We would be called the worst names in the world, and our education, patriotism, personal morality, and bodily functions would be insulted in the most rude and demeaning ways.   And I always wrote back.

First, viewers were shocked I responded personally.  Then, they were embarrassed as they realized I was a real person, with real feelings.  And usually they apologized, thanked me, and agreed to watch tonight.

Here’s my formula:

1.  Thank them for caring enough to complain.  

2.  Agree on something anything with the viewer.  Example:  “I agree that accurate reporting is absolutely essential,” or “I completely agree with you we must give appropriate time to both sides of an argument.”

3.  Do not debate the issue.  You’ll never convince a viewer of all the intricacies of newsroom decision-making.  You might have luck saying something like, “The computer crashed and we lost the story we originally planned,” but you’ll never win a more nuanced and complex discussion of what really happens.

4.  Tell them what action you’ll take because of their concern, i.e., “Because of your concerns, I’m going to bring this up to all our reporters in the 2:30pm meeting today.”

A great read on customer service in today’s connected world is Peter Shankman’s Nice Companies Finish First.


Being “customer-focused” means getting content they care about, and often this is a geographic concern.  How do you represent your hot zips?

With 80 newspapers, Gannett is training and equipping EVERY reporter at every outlet to create video with their stories, according to a with interview with Gannett video guru Kate Walter   The first paper testing the strategy was in St. Cloud, Minnesota.  Video views are up 461% year over year.  Content is content, and if viewers get great video from the newspaper, what’s the differentiation for TV? It’s out there now competing with the local television video.

Who gathers video in your newsroom? Is only one class of employee gathering video, or can everyone gather as needed?  Can anyone report a story? When the sales department tweets about bad traffic on Interstate 10, they just became a reporter anyway. Do users have a role in gathering content?   

Look at any station’s IPhone/Android App and search for one key function: UGC. If your viewers can’t instantly send you pictures and video, you’re ignoring an amazing resource for content gathering (especially during severe weather or a disaster), a potential to establish a very strong relationship with fans, and the ability to save huge amounts of money on costs.   

I remember when my team covered a rash of tornadoes, cutting into programming for four hours.  Our competitor had their helicopter up over one twister with solid coverage, but we were on with photos and video and phoners from every angle, because we had a strategy of always encouraging User Generated Content.  We got Tweets, Facebook posts, and when we put our email address on the ticker, we got HD video into the newsroom immediately.

We ran a Proof of Performance spot the next day thanking viewers, and letting everyone know that our coverage was more comprehensive because we include the viewers as part of our newsgathering machine, every day.


When we look at how and where the customer is consuming our product, we get a look at whether our structure makes sense.  

For fast food, this might mean understanding why crispier fries are better because customers eat them back at the office and they get soggy during the drive.  For TV, it’s a question of where our content is being “eaten.”

Mobile video “starts” increased 300% in 2012 according to Adobe. In their benchmark report, they recommend taking advantage of that saying, “Find ways to create personalized digital video experiences for your viewers, visitors, and advertisers. … Look for opportunities to weave more video content into your marketing channels, such as social media.”  Good advice, Adobe!

As customers change how they consume the product, look at your CPM for TV spots. Maybe it’s $20 per thousand viewers, when you look at the ratings and what was paid. Is your sales team selling digital or do they think they’re no ROI? Walters told a Beet.TV panel that Gannett’s local sales teams are getting a $40-$50 CPM on video pre-roll.  Maybe that’s infrequent.  Maybe it’s only a handful of clients.   But it’s beating TV by 200% or more, and they’re creating an army of videojournalists to compete with television’s business model.  

As Forbes writer Lewis DVorkin puts it, “The economics of journalism no longer work like they used to.” His article, “Journalists Need to Understand the Ad Business, Not Sulk and Go Home”  describes a need for everyone in news to think about advertisers, and their role in the business model. Heck, clients are customers too, and they’re the ones actually paying your salary.


What about the transmitter?  Stations drop to half power all the time, and does the assignment desk ever get a phone call about losing the signal?  Not likely, as only 5-10% of viewers are “OTA” or Over the Air.  The costs to send out so much radio energy reach tens of thousands a month.  Can we save money on dropping the power without incurring FCC issues?  Have we lobbied the FCC about the rules? Does a local station even really need a transmitter, or can you just keep the brand going through fiber feeds to cable/satellite and a live stream?  At what point will a network consider ditching the transmitter in the affiliation agreement?  What about in 5 years, or 10 years?

Netflix, Roku, Google Chrome, YouTube, every cable company and more are challenging us to evolve our business model every day.  They’re the brand that is there for our customers because they’re working to give customers the content they want, on any device, at any time.  Can we say that about our news brands?

Years ago, cable companies asked newsrooms if they wanted to deliver a short-form newscast for viewers to watch in a new thing called “Video on Demand” or VOD.  The stations asked, “Well, how much will you pay us for that, and how could we absorb the extra production costs of creating it?”  Many chose not to offer anything.  Now, if you search through the Video on Demand section, you’ll see one station there, entrenched in a long-term relationship that can be monetized by a sponsored open, a banner, and a closing ad.  And their employees get free cable TV as part of the deal.  Nice perk!

More and more companies are doing EXACTLY what television newsrooms do, but without the TV antenna, or even a channel. It’s just content. Remember, the key demo is checking Facebook 15 times a day. When the information is in, how do you push it out? Does it always go on the web and Facebook and Twitter immediately? Does that team have enough support to do it with excellence and demonstrate your TV brand online?  Are they even seated next to the TV producers? What are the deadlines for our reporters?  Do they have a 2 p.m. deadline to get a posting up or do they just focus on TV at 5 p.m., ignoring the news-starved customers during the workday?  

One model could be getting rid of the assignment desk all together.  Have a logistics coordinator to get crews to and fro, and have one or two people focused on monitoring TweetDeck, Facebook, Email, and scanners, and constantly tweeting out what they hear from the station accounts.  It serves as a way to track breaking news for producers, and it repurposes their previously private instant messages into a form that extends the TV brand to an online content delivery mechanism that viewers can tap into, when they’re at work or running errands--away from the TV.  Remember, viewers are only watching TV 4 hours, 31 minutes a day.  Be there for the other 19 hours, 29 minutes!

Consider the Facebook post below from FOX 4 (KDFW) in Dallas.  It had an estimated reach at last check of over 7,567,000 people from the “shares” alone. That’s assuming the low estimate of 245 friends per Facebook user (Pew).  And 231,000 likes!  The version of this story going out over the antenna reached merely a fraction of the customers it reached online.


The challenge for local news to survive and even thrive is to be there first, because our brands are more trusted than some upstart, hipster-run online pure play that doesn’t employ any real journalists, right?  Well, at least for now.  

Just walk a mile in the customers’ shoes, outside the newsroom, and you’ll see the challenges and opportunities yourself.

Brandon Mercer is a content innovator, former news director, and social media consultant, who also serves on the board of RTDNA. Email Brandon.