TVN’S STATION GROUP OF THE YEAR 2021

Graham Cultivates Its Most Valuable ‘Insiders’

Graham Media Group, TVNewsCheck’s Station Group of the Year, is fostering tighter relationships with its most highly engaged audiences via Insiders, a company-wide membership program it launched last year. Graham executives believe it will have a transformative effect on news content, community building and revenues in an era of ever-disaggregating audiences. Read part one of the series on Graham's culture of innovation here. Read part two on President and CEO Emily Barr here.

There’s gold in super users, and membership is the way to mine it.

So believes Catherine Badalamente, VP and chief innovation officer of Graham Media Group, TVNewsCheck’s Station Group of the Year. Insiders, the membership program it launched last year, is indicative of the kind of innovation and independent thinking that earned the group the distinction.

“Our audience is this massive, untapped resource,” Badalamente says. “There is so much gold we can get from them.”

Dustin Block, the company’s audience development lead, describes the program as essentially “pretty classic funnel” thinking targeted to the most ardent viewers and users — those returning multiple times a day, making the effort to register to comment on the stations’ websites and signing up for their proliferating number of newsletters.

“This is the group that we think of in our heads when we are trying to do community journalism,” Block says. “It’s the group that relies on us. It’s the group that identifies us as more than just a news source. It’s almost like they will see us as family or friends and people they turn to in times of need. That is the group that we want to really put at the center of everything we are doing.”

The Insiders program is at various stages of execution across Graham’s six stations, having had the misfortune of debuting just before the pandemic. Where its initial planning involved a heavy dose of live, in-person events, those have had to be largely back-burnered for now.

BRAND CONNECTIONS

But the Graham Digital executives and station managers rolling Insiders out haven’t let that hamper its momentum, hosting virtual events like an evening with Devin Scillian, an anchor at WDIV Detroit who doubles as a singer/songwriter and serenaded some 150 members earlier this year. In another event at Jacksonville’s WJXT, a partnership with the local AAA minor league baseball team let members take batting practice on the field.

But being an Insider is about more than events. Block says the membership plan comes into every story planning meeting, where among the top considerations are what can be in it for Insiders. Often that means exclusive content or early access to it.

Block and his colleagues see such efforts as audience development at its core. They’re part of a larger plan to bring audience interactions and conversations out of the often toxic and ungovernable realm of social media and on to Graham’s owned-and-operated digital properties, where the spaces are actively moderated (partly through a relationship with outside vendor Viafoura) and audiences can find a welcome dose of civility.

“The conversations we were having on social just weren’t high-quality conversations,” says Ken Haddad, digital special projects manager at WDIV. “When you have low-quality conversations, the experience you have with a station, with a brand, is negative. We were finding that we weren’t really building any relationships using social media to start conversations. So, we started pulling back on social media and moving those conversations to our website and eventually to newsletters.”

Those conversations, which also often migrate to email and sometimes phone, have had a game-changing impact on community building and have driven registrations. That, in turn, pays dividends for the stations.

“When people do that, they become our most valuable users in pure dollar amounts,” Block says. “They click ads more. They watch more video, so they see pre-roll. They watch our newscast more. They participate more. They send us news tips … all the things we need from the audience really to drive just the base business of our model.”

They’re also a font of first-party data, which Graham’s leaders know will be vital to be able to manage internally in the cookieless universe that’s looming in 2022.

“We have these massive amounts of insights about who the audience is and what they like and how to drive them to the broadcast, to our apps,” Badalamente says.

Moving audiences into the “known” state enables Graham to super serve its super users, for example personalizing content on its sites and apps or customizing content for audience segments. “We have been able to build audiences around self-identified evening news watchers, morning news watchers or lifestyle show watchers and so for these groups we can start to write honed messages,” Block says.

Now that Insiders and adjacent audience developments have rolled out across all six stations, the next step is growing membership numbers.

“Growing that segment of super users, even if we just move that audience 5 percentage points, what that means to us from a revenue standpoint is astronomical,” Badalamente says.

“This is a new source of revenue,” Block says. “The idea is that we are going to build this audience and go from, let’s say, 4% or 5% known audience to 25% over the next few years and get people opted in … the business opportunities [then] open up like direct-to-consumer sales or better ad targeting.”

For Badalamente, it’s also a chance to capture younger audiences who’ve otherwise kept local TV news out of their information diet. The hook is civility and community investment, and she says there’s a hunger in Graham’s markets to connect with that.

“These are people who care about the community, so we need to be the catalyst for whatever [the effort] may be, something as simple as trash pickup at the beach,” she says. “We still have this megaphone and this massive digital audience, so it’s putting that effort trying to get people to do something tangible.

“There is an entrée into discovering new and younger audiences that care about companies that are there to try to make people’s lives better,” Badalamente says. “Insiders and membership ties directly into that.”

Editor’s note: This is part three of a three-part series on Graham Media Group. Part one looks at the culture of innovation at Graham Media. Part two profiles Graham President and CEO Emily Barr. Barr will be featured in a live interview as part of TVNewsCheck’s TV2025 event on Wednesday. Register here to watch.


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