Free jewelry, iPads, $2,000 in mortgage help, truck bed liners, tickets to the Nutcracker and Aces, $500 every Friday until Christmas—local TV stations are in a real giving mood this holiday season. All they want in return is for you to “like” them on Facebook.
The incentives began this year, driving up the number of people on TV station Facebook pages by tens of thousands. Channel 2 has emerged as the leader with more than 29,000 “likes.”
For initial insight, I turned to my friends on Facebook.
“I entered their contests,” wrote Jennifer Beard. “To my surprise I actually won a laptop from Channel 8.” Then she got frustrated with the station and stopped watching. “I almost felt guilty for [not watching] or obligated to watch because of winning the laptop.”
Ron Futrell called it “bribery.” Gary Stone said it’s “whoring out the station image.” Leslie Rand Raso wrote, “Reminds me of the stories about payola.”
Guilt, bribery, whoring, payola, call it what you like. But the fact is more than 30,000 people are newly connected to local TV. The public posted more than 1,000 comments in the month of November alone. An incredible rise in civic engagement.
For professional analysis, I turned to Todd Felts, assistant professor in the University Nevada, Reno’s Reynolds School of Journalism. He teaches courses in social media marketing. “News now has a responsibility to have a dialogue with their viewers,” he says. “It’s a major paradigm shift.” The incentives are the first of three stages: Invite the public, talk to them and apply what you learn from the public to the news.
Stage 1: incentives
The stakes couldn’t be higher. A relationship with viewers is “is what they need for survival,” Felts says. Without a relationship, they have no viewers and without viewers, no advertisers.
Channel 8 was the first to regularly engage viewers on Facebook and other stations had a lot of catching up to do.
“When we started off, we gave away gas cards, and then we thought, ‘What would someone want?” said Ann Burns, Promotions Manager for Channel 2. “We invested in iPads and that was successful. We are giving away cash. And that is just straight ‘here is a check.’”
Channel 2 signed a market-exclusive agreement with “Aptivada” of Salt Lake City. These wizards of Facebook built the software behind Channel 2’s Facebook contest.
“We can see who responds to what,” Burns says. 15,000 people enter their contest each week. “People approach me all the time and say, ‘Can we give this away on your Facebook page?’ And I am like, ‘No you can’t, that is not good enough.’”
The right incentive is key. For example, Channel 11 tried to give away an audio book last week. No one responded for two days.
Channels 11 and 4 didn’t respond to a requests for interview before deadline. (Channel 4 called back after the story was written.) Channel 8’s general manager declined to provide anyone to speak to about it. Channel 2 was the only local station willing to talk.
Stage 2: talk to the “likers”
This massive public forum and direct line to the TV station’s staff is a whole new monster for TV stations.
“When people ‘like’ us, that dialogue is real-time,” Burns said. It’s been a real-time flood. In the month of November alone, Channel 2 had 380 viewer inquiries. They responded to nearly half. Channel 8 had 360 inquiries, responded to less than a third. Channel 4 had 226 inquiries but staff only responded to 40.
It’s “a tsunami of social media activity,” Felts says. You can scroll through endless reams of comments on every station’s page going back years. Viewers are agitated: “Wow … having a reporter do a news story on distracted driving while driving and talking into a news camera,” wrote one. Others have accolades: “I watch every morning … very helpful since I moved from SW Florida.” Viewers alert to problems: “You should police your own posts and delete those with cuss words and those that are threatening others.” Channel 2’s response to that one was poignant: “We’ve been trying to go through all the posts. There’s just a lot of comments to get through!”
The power of these huge new local social media networks extends news power to the people. For instance, when Channel 2 “liked” Sandra Harley’s picture of fall colors, it was automatically shown to thousands of people. That kind of exposure builds relationships.
“If you have that relationship with the viewer then they are going to stay with you a little bit longer,” says Felts. “A little bit longer means tremendous things to advertisers.”
Stage 3: cater the news to social media.
Facebook “News Feeds” allow people to share information instantly, cutting out the TV news middle man. When you “like” a TV news page, you are inviting the news to join your network, allowing information to flow from you to them.
“Ultimately what they need to think about is that there are already people having conversations about what matters to them, and they need to be thinking about how to join that conversation,” Felts says.
The stations have done it incredibly fast. In less than a year, Channel 2 is joining conversations with 100,000 unique Facebook viewers a week. The challenge is converting the conversations to news.
Channel 8 has been at it longer, harvesting viewers through dialogue rather than contests and converting those conversations to news. The most recent tip was posted by Nancy Arredondo: “Please watch the YouTube video that was created by nursing students at UNR.” A few days later, the story was on air.
The same was true when a cat was stuck in a tree for four days. When authorities didn’t respond, the cat’s owner posted Facebook messages on TV station pages. Channel 8 sent a reporter to the rescue.
But it doesn’t always go well. Before the anticipated flood in early December, Channel 8 posted a picture of its own sandbagging efforts to fortify the station’s front door. Facebook fan Mike Jolly posted a comment: “U guys need someone to show you how to sandbag?lol”
It wasn’t until two weeks later that Channel 8 investigated “how to sandbag.” The station missed the boat to warn the public. According to the story, 80 percent of properties that had used sandbags used them wrong.
Facebookers held the station accountable. Mike Thomas wrote, “Good info, lot of typos.” Denise Hooker wrote, “I would have liked a diagram or video showing the correct way to do it, rather than the picture of the wrong way.”
Despite getting to the story late, typos and wrong-way pics, viewers still gave Channel 8 credit for following up on the Facebook tip. User “Bitter Oldman” wrote, “Channel 8’s sandbag attempt needed work … Glad to see someone has followed up.”
Engaging the public is “proven to be successful,” Felts says. But he’s not sure if stations really have a measure of what success is.
“I think Todd is right,” Burns said. “We have to be at this full force for a year to be able to say this makes a difference.”
Their success is at your fingertips.