Stations Find a 'Friend' in Social Media

Local TV's sharpened Facebook strategy drives ratings and revenue
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With its pending IPO, Facebook has given the business world 5 billion reasons to talk about the social media giant. And while Facebook’s true valuation will become clearer in the coming weeks, TV station executives already have a pretty good idea of how essential Mark Zuckerberg’s creation is to their local television strategy.

WVIT Hartford’s “Aha moment,” says David Doebler, president and general manager, arrived just before Tropical Storm Irene last August. With the nasty weather beckoning, WVIT had planned to begin wallto- wall coverage that night, perhaps starting at 7 or 8 p.m. But as staffers followed the frenzied Irene chatter on the “NBC Connecticut” Facebook page, Doebler made the decision to go live at 3 p.m. instead. “It was question after question after question [from users],” he says, about power outages and road closures. “We thought we should go on now, instead of later.”

Stations such as WVIT are advancing their social media strategy from simply having a Facebook presence to fine-tuning a vital twoway channel with viewers. Greg Easterly, president and general manager at WJW Cleveland, calls Facebook a key cog in the “cycle of information” connecting the Fox affiliate with its viewers. “It’s a cliché, but we are a multiplatform content provider,” he says. “We are trying to reach people on all platforms.”

Some of the top station Facebook totals come from unlikely markets. WJW, in DMA No. 18, is a monster with more than 310,000 fans. KUTV Salt Lake City’s main Facebook page has 177,000, but when adding in fans of talent and individual programs, the total tops 391,000—or, one for every 2.4 TV households in DMA No. 33. Smallermarket outliers include KATC Lafayette (La., DMA No. 124) with close to 49,000 fans and WLEX Lexington (Ky., DMA No. 64), at nearly 77,000.

Stations drive fan totals with tasty incentives that include iPads, gas cards and automobiles. KUTV partnered with a Toyota dealer on a giveaway. WVIT raffled off two tickets to the Super Bowl to a Facebook fan; the station has boosted its fan totals from 6,000 last July to more than 141,000, says Doebler.

Steve Safran, an independent media consultant, says the key is offering users truly substantial content on social platforms. “People don’t want promos, and they’re not going to ‘friend’ you if that’s all you have,” he says.

While sky-high Facebook followings are good for bragging rights, the bigger challenge for stations is turning them into ratings—and revenue. Kent Crawford, KUTV general manager, says the CBS affiliate’s outsize fan base has been one of the keys to KUTV overtaking longtime No. 1 KSL in the ratings. “It’s very important to gain that emotional connection with viewers,” Crawford says.

Since Sinclair acquired the station recently, Crawford has been sharing KUTV’s winning Facebook strategy with his fellow Sinclair GMs and CEO David Smith. “I think any time you give the audience input on stories, they feel like they’re connected more to the product,” Crawford says. “Then they’re more interested and watch more.”

E-mail comments to mmalone@nbmedia.com and follow him on Twitter: @BCMikeMalone

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