Using contests to drive ratings has been around for as long as I can remember. Hell, in radio, offering cash or fantastic prizes for listening to a particular station is known as “buying the book,” literally goosing ratings because of your giveaway. But, with the advent of social media, it seems as if local TV stations are taking the concept to a whole new level, and possibly blurring the line between news and promotion in the process.
Over the past few months, how many times did you see a Facebook or Twitter post from someone in your social network proclaiming they just registered to win a new iPad or TV or even furniture by “liking” a local newscast’s page? That social-media push seemingly worked.
KUTV 2 and Fox 13 saw significant gains during recent ratings periods, as all of KUTV’s newscasts won their time slots. The Salt Lake Tribune reported that it was the first time a Utah TV station has shown that kind of ratings dominance since 1985. Additionally, Fox 13 saw significant viewer growth in its 9 p.m. newscast. Both stations were extremely active with Facebook giveaways during that time frame.
Tanya Vea, KSL’s executive vice president, thinks the Facebook contests’ impact is huge. “They don’t maintain their ratings if they stop contesting,” she says. “Was it effective for KUTV? Yes. It drove ratings for them. But when you take that away, content-to-content, we win.”
But KUTV’s vice president and general manager Steve Carlston disagrees. “It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison. ... The truest measure is during sweeps when everybody puts their best game forward, and we won every newscast two sweeps periods in a row.”
According to Vea, KSL is now ahead of KUTV on most newscasts on its Nielsen rating, posting for its 10 p.m. news broadcast during mid-June a 9.8 rating and a 20 share (9.8 percent of all households with a TV in the market watched their news, while 20 percent of all TVs on at that time watched them). For the same period, Vea said that KUTV had an 8.9 rating and an 18 share.
Carlston is not impressed. “Any time you come in second place, whether it be sports, business or TV news ratings, you find ways to minimize your defeat.”
Vea says that KSL did its fair share of giveaways during the last ratings period, but it was not as integrated with its news product as other stations’ promotions.
From a marketing standpoint, the push into social media makes some sense. Todd Wolfenbarger, president of The Summit Group, a local marketing agency, lauds social media’s ability to get people to try new things. In the case of TV viewing, it can drive sampling by viewers. But, whether or not those viewers stick around depends on what they see. “The product has to be quality. What people are doing is ‘paying’ for the news with their time. … Whether that increase lasts remains to be seen.”
Fox 13’s president and general manager Tim Ermish says the station takes a reasonable approach to its Facebook giveaways. “There’s a limit where you reach a diminishing return on your investment. That could be happening now.”
A recent study from the University of Maryland found that young adults age 18-25 get their information passively through social-media sites like Facebook and Twitter. They don’t visit traditional news sites looking for news; they let it come to them. Simply put, news operations are going where youthful consumers are, and—for now, at least—that means Facebook.
Digital public relations expert Pete Codella says you have to tap into the narcissistic nature of consumers in order to market online. “Consumers are asking what value they get for saying they like a brand on Facebook, following a company on Twitter or subscribing to an organization’s blog. Sure, news and information may be useful, but in the online-marketing industry, we’re seeing a social-purchasing trend,” Codella says.
So, what’s the most effective strategy? If it’s simply to goose ratings during key times, that will work for short-term gain, but it could cheapen the overall news product. Vea says, “When you start driving your content producers into thinking of contesting as content, that’s problematic.”
The bottom line is that social media is a nascent platform for broadcasters, and they’re still struggling to figure out how to use it.
Bryan Schott, managing editor of UtahPolicy.com, has worked for many media outlets in town, including KSL. He also blogs at BryanSchott.com.