As evidenced by its mammoth lead in ratings and revenue in little Lake Charles, La., KPLC has an intense connection with viewers. But the Raycom station is seeking to push that relationship to the next level, launching its own Facebook-meets-Craigslist social network. SWLA Connected (SWLA is short for Southwest Louisiana) is a private social network where community members can list events, share video or chat about whatever is on their mind.
Bearing no station branding whatsoever, SWLA Connected is both a desktop and mobile app. Jim Serra, VP and general manager of KPLC, says the platform is a work in progress, but he’s encouraged by the 2,200-plus users in DMA No. 174 who have signed up. “We’re reaching people where they live,” he says. “We’re trying to solve problems for them.”
The venture is backed by Raycom’s Innovation Group. Serra and his team presented it to corporate, on up to president/CEO Paul McTear, and brass felt Connected was worth putting some chips on. “It’s great to see a station in a smaller market have an idea like this that comes to fruition,” says Sandy Breland, Raycom group VP.
KPLC is not the first station to launch a community-targeted digital extension. Others in the not-so-distant past include the blog aggregators Nashville is Talking from WKRN Nashville, and Citizen Rain, from KING Seattle. In 2010, WBTV Charlotte debuted its “In Your Community” network of neighborhood sites, a partnership with DataSphere. The initiatives were either scrapped due to minimal revenue and audience engagement, or scaled back.
But with the ubiquity of Facebook, Twitter and other social platforms, users may be more inclined to engage in such a forum. While setting up a community-specific closed group on Facebook can be done in minutes, Serra says Connected does a better job of tailoring its specs to the southwestern Louisiana user. And while KPLC continues to use the popular global platforms to extend its reach—the station has over 105,000 Facebook fans—he’s tired of someone other than KPLC monetizing the traffic. “You’re building someone else’s business,” he says. “I’ve been yearning for a social media platform that’s ours.”
Users must provide their real name and address while registering, which Serra says ensures a higher degree of civility than one might find elsewhere on the Web.
Officially launched in January, the station is talking SWLA Connected up on the air. It’s the primary responsibility of Olivia Vidal, a veteran reporter/anchor who is director of the platform. A typical day sees a dozen new registrants, she says, while a plug on-air might yield a hundred.
SWLA Connected has its own box on the KPLCTV.com home page, and a more substantial on-air push is coming up. It’s free from station call letters in an effort to let the new brand fly on its own.
While Lake Charles is the third-smallest market in the Raycom group, KPLC’s reach is outsized. The NBC affiliate pulled in a stunning 83% of the market’s revenue in 2013, according to BIA/Kelsey.
Perhaps half of SWLA Connected users interface through a desktop computer, and the other half via smartphone. It can be a source for news stories, and will soon be a source for revenue—the station will slot in advertising in the next few months. General sales manager John Ware won’t share projections, but says it’s an efficient buy for the right local marketer. “It’s very hyper-local and very hyper-targeted,” he says.
Serra and his team are tweaking Connected constantly. A mobile chat function came online last month, and other features will follow. The concept might only work in a small market with a ratingsdevouring leader, but at least KPLC has that going for it. Gordon Borrell, CEO of digital media consultancy Borrell Associates, says Connected has real potential. “Assuming the site has terrific features, the success rests [mostly] on its promotion and monetization,” he says. “There’s a plethora of competitors with far more robust tools and user bases, so the trick is making people aware of it and barraging them with reasons to join. And then of course they will need to monetize the venture based on audience demographics that aren’t based only on geography.”
While he’s careful to manage expectations, Serra sees considerable upside. “All of us, realistically, have more questions than answers,” he concedes. “But we’re pleased with the initial response.”
TOUGH TIMES FOR FLEDGLING DIGINET
It was stormy seas from the beginning for Soul of the South. According to Arkansas Business, the network may pull the plug after two years on the air. Multiple insiders in the multicast world say the channel’s demise is all but inevitable. CEO Doug McHenry suggested as much in the memo to his board that was obtained by Arkansas Business.
“It’s time for the board to consider winding down the company’s operations,” McHenry wrote. “Currently, it doesn’t have sufficient resources to continue to operate and given the legal environment it is unlikely to attract sufficient funding to work out a plan for success.”
Calls to McHenry were not returned, nor was an email to Soul of the South headquarters.
The diginet initially planned to launch in the first quarter of 2012, then shot for that fall before going live in spring 2013. Edward Avent, former principal at Heart & Soul magazine, and Larry Morton, who cofounded diginet Retro TV, were on the launch team, as was Frank Mercado, a cofounder who departed a year ago.
Mercado still believes in the concept. “I’ve not given up hope that a black Telemundo, a black MundoFox, can still be built,” he says.