WTHR Indianapolis GM John Cardenas thinks so, having seen the news ratings at the NBC affiliate (and the related ad revenue) rise along with the usage of its digital offerings. WorldNow, WTHR's digital technology provider, thinks so, too. It's been preaching that a real commitment to digital will pay off at noon, 6 and 11, but not all its clients are entirely convinced.
Are News Ratings Key To Monetizing Digital?
It’s safe to say that most TV broadcasters have been disappointed by the returns they have gotten from their forays into digital media. For all the millions of dollars and countless man hours invested, they have managed to create modest side businesses that typically account for only about 4% or 5% of their total revenue.
John Cardenas thinks it’s because most stations are going at it the wrong way — or thinking about it in the wrong way.
Rather than trying to make money from digital by just selling banners and pre-roll video, says the general manager of Dispatch Broadcast Group’s WTHR Indianapolis (DMA 26), stations ought to focus on the boost that strong digital media can give to news ratings — and how much that boost can mean to the bottom line.
That approach has worked for his NBC affiliate, he says. “As we’re increasing the time spent on our site and the number of visitors coming to it, there’s no doubt that it parallels with our ratings that, we’re fortunate to say, have gone up.”
And in Indianapolis, he points out, one rating point in the demo (adults 25-54) in the late news equals $1 million.
Cardenas acknowledges that he did not come to the idea that plain old TV ratings were the key to monetizing digital media by himself. He was led there, he says, by WorldNow, WTHR’s website and other digital media provider. It has been preaching a two-step strategy to its station clients: improve digital media by embedding it deeply in the station’s culture and cash in by reaping the additional revenue that comes from related news ratings growth.
Melissa Hatter, WorldNow’s EVP, client services and strategic account management, says that she has formally presented the strategy (and the implementing tactics or “best practices”) to around 10 clients over the past few years. “They’ve all shown improvement,” she says.
“Can we say we’re solely responsible for the on-air ratings increases? No, but can we say that we know that both things have grown and grown in parallel? So, yes, we feel that there has to be some kind of correlation.
“It really comes down to the news management and the general management because you can move the needle for digital, say for the Web, with just a really good Internet director who knows what they’re doing. But you can’t do anything on air without the endorsement of the senior news management.”
Called in for a consultation at a station, WorldNow starts by assessing what it’s doing and comparing it with peers at similar stations, Hatter says. Then begins the education and training, sometimes involving a three-day retreat with the key personnel.
“It’s like guided meditation to enlightenment. We actually take them through a series of exercises that help us design what the ultimate Web or digital experience would be for them. And that could turn into a redesign or it could turn into a social media plan. There’s a number of different ways it could go based on the station’s need or where they’re weak.”
Central to the process is the “best practices playbook,” a distillation of what works based on WorldNow’s experience over the past 12 years with a host of stations. “So, if they are weak in social media, we’ve given them 20 plays for Twitter and Facebook to make sure they have a strong presence there.”
To date, WorldNow has provided advised clients as a renewal incentive or for the cost of WorldNow executives’ travel expenses, Hatter says. But the goal is to turn the consulting into a new side business, she says. “So we’re trying to get out there and gather some success stories so we can really go out and market this as a product.”
WTHR is one such success story.
The station transformed its news culture from one based on the scheduled daily newscasts to one based on a 24/7 news cycle that includes the website, mobile apps and active social media, says the digitally conscious Cardenas who is as likely to refer to the station’s “fan base” as he is to its viewership.
“We’ve had to learn how to communicate on social media, on how to cross-promote and or cultivate news leads in a socially acceptable way, not in a news gathering way, if that makes any sense,” he says.
The digital analytics speak for themselves, Cardenas says. Over the past two-and-a-half years, he says, unique visitors to the website have grown from 600,000-700,000 a month to around a million and time on the site is up from 11-12 minutes to around 17 minutes. Facebook friends have shot up from 7,000 to 140,000.
That growth has meant more digital advertising, but that’s not the real payoff, says Cardenas. “The digital revenue is small compared to what we get in terms of our ratings, in terms of our commercial sales on air.”
And the ratings have been strong.
Last November, every one of the station’s newscasts posted year-over-year gains among adults, 25-54 — some modest, some substantial. The hour of news between 5 and 6 p.m. fell into the latter category, jumping 40% from 3.5 to 4.9. In the just closed February book, that same hour posted a 17% year-over-year gain in households, from 7.8/19 to 9.1/18.
“We’re out-performing our competitors at 11 p.m.,” Cardenas adds, “despite having the No. 3 or, on some nights, the No. 4 network [NBC] lead in.”
Other WorldNow clients that have embraced the its philosophy report gains in digital activity and news ratings, but are not as certain as Cardenas of the correlation between the two.
Robb Hays, the news director of Raycom Media’s WAFB Baton Rouge, La., says a lot of factors have gone into the station’s growing news dominance. “WorldNow is one of them.”
The news culture has changed at WAFB as it has at a lot of stations, Hays says. “We never dreamed of putting our breaking news at 2 o’clock. You always held that for 6, to have the big splash. Those days are gone. You want to get it on the Web as soon as you can because, if you don’t, someone else is going to have it.”
In the past three years, he says, the station has generated an “incredible increase” in the usage of its digital platforms — Web, mobile, Facebook and Twitter.
And while neither Nielsen nor Rentrak can prove that it has contributed to the station’s ratings success, he says, the feedback from users of the digital media suggest that it has. “It’s kind of like a triangle. What you do on air pushes your content online; your online content pushes your social media; and social media back to air. They kind of ping off of one another.”
Matt Bernaldo, director of new media at Waterman’s WBBH Fort Myers, Fla., would agree. Since switching to the WorldNow platform four years ago, digital usage has improved — and so have ratings. But, he says, “I don’t think you can say one thing made the ratings go up or down or whatever else. It’s a symbiotic thing. If we were weak in one area, we’d have trouble being strong in another.”
In Fort Myers, Bernaldo says, Facebook has proved its worth as a promotional tool. “We have an unusually high number of Facebook fans … so it a good way to reach out and keep people interested and engaged and tell them about what you are doing and any exclusives that you have.”
But converting digital users to broadcast viewers is never easy, he adds. “People who are regular watchers of other stations will come to our site because we are heavily staffed, we post a lot of news during the day. Hopefully, you can pick up viewers here and there. It’s a chipping away process…. You have to keep hammering away at it.”
WorldNow’s principal rival is Internet Broadcasting, which provides digital platforms for Hearst Television, Post-Newsweek Stations and others. CEO Elmer Baldwin says he would agree “at the very highest level” that digital prowess may translate into ratings gains.
That prowess stems from commitment that goes beyond best practices to “good journalism,” he notes. “Don’t put a story out with a headline that doesn’t make sense. Don’t have an article that doesn’t have the right kind of tagging or the right kind of URL structure. Don’t put a picture onto a site that doesn’t have the right kind of label. Don’t put a video out there that isn’t interesting and or that was produced just for broadcast and not also for people who want to look at on their mobile phones. “
But Baldwin stops short of saying that there is “an absolute correlation” between digital and broadcast. “You need some science book to prove it. You can’t just claim it. Frankly there’s a lot of variables in the mix.”