WDIV’s ‘Help Desk’ Is Direct Line To Rebuilding Viewer Trust
By definition, newsrooms have always been spaces teeming with frenetic activity, but after years of budget-friendly staff trimmings, newsroom personnel are running around busier than ever. So, they might be forgiven if they don’t frequently respond to every viewer message that crosses the transom.
Viewer inquiries also arrive in newsrooms from an increasingly dizzying number of channels — phone calls, emails, as well as multiple social media platforms. This makes them particularly difficult to handle in a streamlined way, when time resources are already at a premium.
To this common problem, Graham-owned NBC affiliate WDIV Detroit has built a virtual community help desk that allows newsroom staff to manage viewer messages with significantly less friction. The enhanced connectivity with its consumers has helped WDIV to not only cultivate greater transparency and trust with viewers, but it’s also informed news production, while rewarding its marketing team with coveted first-party data about viewers.
“It’s something we’ve been talking about for a few years,” says Ken Haddad, WDIV digital content and audience manager. “How do we provide better support, better service in order to rebuild trust and credibility, and to show people we care about the community and that the conversations that we’re having are not just one-way.”
This development process started with the launches of a number of newsletters the past few years. Haddad says newsletters are an effective way to connect “more intimately with our most loyal” consumers. WDIV also established a “membership program,” which Haddad calls “the next level of that newsletter funnel.” Through it, WDIV further engages with its viewers, giving enrollees greater access to the station and its digital offerings.
These initiatives were working well, but Haddad and other WDIV managers hadn’t figured out “the service” element of it all, he says.
“We probably get hundreds of messages from people who are looking for help, and not necessarily, like, they need help in their lives,” Haddad says. “We do get a lot of that, but it’s also just, ‘Hey, I’m looking for a story you did’ or ‘I’m looking for more information on this story you did’ or ‘I saw a program you [covered], how can I get involved?’”
The problem was the messages were flowing into the station through what Haddad describes as “a million different places.” Therefore, few of them were getting responses.
“That’s a one-way conversation,” Haddad says. “That’s not what we want.”
Instead, Haddad continues, WDIV “wanted to find a tool that brought all this information into one hub and then simultaneously we wanted to build a knowledge center … where people can find information on their own, or at least point them in the right direction.”
After a series of discussions with executives, directors and developers, Haddad and WDIV pitched the idea of a virtual community help desk to the Google News Initiative. The program awarded the station “a big grant,” Haddad says, and WDIV partnered with Zendesk, a software development company that focuses on customer service solutions. “Help Desk” was born Dec. 1, 2022.
“Help Desk is rooted in a long history of people calling newsrooms with questions,” says Dustin Block, Graham’s audience development lead. “Help Desk builds on this tradition by leaning into customer service, which is table stakes for any business today. People expect quick, helpful replies from their favorite brands. We want to reach and exceed these expectations.”
WDIV personnel now have a ticketing-platform built into the station’s back-end website through which they can receive and respond to viewer messages.
“If somebody emails us, somebody messages us on Facebook or through our contact form or through that live chat widget, it all comes into us as a ticket. We can see everything that comes in from every channel in the same view,” Haddad says.
He adds the seamlessness of the message flow is Help Desk’s best feature from a staffer’s perspective. “If this wasn’t easy to use, it was never going to get used,” he says.
For Detroit-area citizens, they can continue to message WDIV through email and social media, just as they’ve done in the past. But now on the station’s website there’s also a chat window that opens up when a user clicks on a small “Help” button located in the screen’s lower right-hand corner. A chatbot prompts users to “Ask me a question and I’ll find the answer for you.”
Haddad, his six-person digital team, multiple producers and reporters at WDIV can now more easily devote time to reading and responding to the messages. Most of the notes take just a few seconds, requiring someone to copy and paste a link to a story someone wanted access to, or the redirection of an alert about the station’s mobile app malfunctioning or the disruption of its TV signal to the engineering department. Haddad says even the station’s sales department is logged into Help Desk, ready to engage with community members presenting them with revenue-generating opportunities.
Upward of two-thirds of WDIV’s messages from viewers get responses now, Haddad says. Sometimes there are still just too many to get to them all. WDIV personnel have also decided not to respond to viewer messages with overtly negative feedback that comes off as the printed-word version of “yelling,” Haddad says. They might also avoid interacting with viewers who disclose a highly personal issue or a very specific problem affecting very few or even just one person, like a domestic dispute or a child custody case, something WDIV wouldn’t cover.
But even in those scenarios, Haddad said he might pass along helpful resources to the viewer, such as free legal aid. There are also community resource pages, covering topics like how to report a scam or how to file for unemployment, ready to be automatically dispensed to viewers who signal that they’re in need of them by their questions.
Each time a viewer gets a response — through the same channel in which they asked their question, so on Facebook, for example, they’ll just get a Facebook DM sent back — they also receive a survey asking about their customer-service experience. Haddad says a majority of viewers answer the survey with something like, “Thank you so much; I can’t believe someone got back to me. I’m so grateful I got a response.”
Graham says since last December, the WDIV Help Desk has solved 1,825 tickets, an average of nearly 17 per day, with an 82% “satisfaction score.” (Most of that 18% dissatisfaction was attributed to user error and subsequently addressed.) The average first-response time for all tickets is 14 hours; many of them — 2.6 a day on average — are resolved by a built-in bot. The answer bot has also facilitated 1,200 article clicks on WDIV’s website and other channels. Between the last week of February and the first three weeks of March, the help desk dealt with 2,500 users who contributed 7,200 content views.
“A lot of people are submitting news tips,” Haddad says. “The other part of this is that, because we’re seeing these messages, we’re generating more potential stories that cover a wider range of community topics.”
He estimates that, since the virtual help desk’s launch, WDIV has produced more than two dozen news stories that emanated directly from viewer messages — most of which, under the past, disjointed system, would’ve gone unnoticed. The help desk aided WDIV in its recent coverage of downed trees and power outages during a series of heavy snowstorms, as well as the tragic unfolding of the Michigan State campus shooting. These outcomes are completely due to the once-fragmented information now being located in a single, easily accessible space, Haddad says.
“Those breaking news situations really showed us we can make an impact with the resources that we have, [giving] people information in real time,” Haddad says, which has helped the internal value proposition of Help Desk. “We’ve seen results with driving TV coverage, so it’s an easier sell to the newsroom,” he says.
Among the next steps for Help Desk is to integrate it into the assignment desk’s workflow, which would help those editors’ communication capabilities across the newsroom. Haddad says it might take some time, because the assignment editors are already tapped into a wide range of portals, but the benefits could be immeasurable. Block adds that the company expects to expand Help Desk to all markets, starting with a March 2023 launch at WSLS Roanoke, Va.
“We’ve been surprised and excited to see the positive reaction to Help Desk,” Block says. “There’s genuine enthusiasm from people when we quickly meet their needs. One user wrote back he was so impressed with Help Desk he showed it to his buddies at the gym. The value proposition for us lies in that enthusiasm for meeting information needs. Our CEO Catherine Badalamente challenges us to ‘delight’ our audiences with innovation. Help Desk is one way we’re trying to deliver on her vision.”
One WDIV viewer and her family were extremely delighted by a Help Desk outcome. “We just sent a birthday card to a 100-year-old viewer signed by all the on-air staff, requested by her granddaughter via Help Desk,” Haddad says.
Eventually, the first-party data that the Zendesk portal accumulates — which includes some voluntarily disclosed personal information and their history of engagement with the station — will also help WDIV “target different messaging” to those consumers who use it, Haddad says, and “hopefully drive them to other products we have.”
Such first-party data has become far scarcer recently because of the eradication of third-party cookies — in response to consumer privacy concerns — by companies like Apple and Google. WDIV had leveraged third-party cookies in the past, but today, users of WDIV’s website, mobile app and other products can opt out of providing such data.
The personal information the help desk users do provide, though, also fulfills another, more immediate purpose: It gives WDIV staffers a means of reaching back out to them with a response. And the station’s ability to engage with its consumers on such a level has boosted transparency and perhaps even brand trust, Haddad says, something he acknowledges is a sizable point of concern, especially for local TV news publishers.
“The only way to rebuild that trust is to open up that two-way conversation, to show people that we’re listening, that we’re part of this community, that we care about this community,” he says. “Just like you would trust your friend over somebody that you saw on TV, the more that we have personal, one-on-one interaction with our biggest fans, our viewers, [there’s] a domino effect.
“I want to get to the point where the expectation is that you expect to get a response from us, you trust that we’re listening to you and people feel like we’re part of the community past even where we were before.”
Editor’s Note: This is the latest of TVNewsCheck’s “Newsroom Innovators” profiles, a series showcasing people and news organizations evolving the shape and substance of video reporting. These profiles examine the inception of their innovations, the tools they employ and how they’re reconciling experimental approaches to news storytelling within daily workflows. You can find the others here.