Devin Scillian is almost annoyingly talented. He’s not only a main anchor at Graham Media Group’s WDIV-TV in Detroit, but he’s written nearly 20 children’s books and is also an accomplished singer and songwriter, with three albums of original songs and a slew of concert appearances to his credit.
This summer, WDIV invited its audience to an exclusive online concert and Q & A with Scillian. The price: free. But the station asked for something that may prove to be more valuable than a one-time payment: in order to see the concert, you had to sign up to become a “WDIV Insider.” It’s part of an ambitious campaign to develop a membership program for Graham stations and potentially pave a new path to sustainability for local TV news.
“We are really interested in this idea of a user funnel, where we’re moving people from TV and from our big digital audiences down into an engaged state where we can know them,” says Catherine Badalamente, Graham’s innovation chief. “Our conversion at the moment is getting them to register an account with our site. And then once they do, starting to ‘super serve’ them, to treat them as the kind of premium audience that they are.”
That sounds simple enough, but in fact it’s a significant challenge. For one thing, the overwhelming majority of viewers and digital visitors are “unknown” to the station. “When we look at our metrics, we’re looking at a large, anonymous audience,” says Dustin Block, who leads audience development at Graham. “We’re trying to move people into any kind of known state. And so that’s where we’re using email newsletters, contests, anything where we get people to share an email with us. And then that’s the group that we’re trying to pull into membership.”
WDIV is adding 10 new email newsletters after doubling subscriptions in the past year to 780,000. Block calls email newsletters “the pathway to membership” — namely, signing up to be an Insider. “We’re always driving people to that Insider landing page, where hopefully we convert them into a registered state,” Block says. Among the perks of the Insider program: the chance to offer tips and give feedback on news coverage; exclusive access to newsroom personalities and community events; special discounts and giveaways; even the opportunity to help the weather team by providing photos, video, and late-breaking information. WDIV has begun offering “Insider profile pages” — a personalized place for all your interactions.
Jacksonville station WJXT-TV (branded as News4Jax), the other main focus of Graham’s membership efforts this year, has even offered Insiders chances to win big-screen TVs for the holidays. “They’re doing a broadcast-digital collaborative push to entice people into Insider,” says Block. “Yes, you can win this contest. But you can also get all these other things. And they’re seeing a really strong response from the signups. And then when they ask their Insiders to participate, they’re doing it.”
In addition to getting people to sign up, Graham faces another challenge: wrangling the data from a station’s multiple digital interactions into actionable form. “For the last 10 years, we’ve been talking about our data warehouse, where we’ve taken all of this audience data that we have from all of these different platforms — mobile, voice, connected television, digital — and we’ve dumped it into this huge data warehouse,” says Badalamente. “Well, the warehouse was there. But no one could get into the warehouse and actually pull anything out of it. We had the data; we just didn’t have a good way of being able to say ‘Here’s the insight — now let’s do something with it.’”
That’s where Graham’s project got a big boost: a grant from the Google News Initiative that we reported on just over a year ago. Graham used some of the money to work with a “customer data platform” called BlueConic. As Badalamente explains it, now, once you interact with the station, you’re no longer at risk of being counted as “five different people.” “The idea is that I can see your behavior across all of our different platforms: the things that you like in terms of content, where you’re going, the things you sign up for, all of the personalization that we can build around that.” There’s still work to be done to integrate data from OTT and mobile. As I said, it isn’t easy.
Yet another hurdle: convincing GMs that all this is worth the investment in money and time, especially in a year of pandemic and politics. “We had to do a lot of internal selling to say, ‘Take your valuable resources and put them towards this effort,’” says Badalamente. “Even the general managers who really believe in this effort are kind of like, ‘Okay, where’s the money?’” To that end, she and Block came up with a striking analysis that estimates the “lifetime value” of an Insider, again defined as someone who creates a registered account rather than just logging on with an email address. The lifetime value is based on ad impressions per user multiplied by a digital CPM.
More than three out of four consumer interactions with the station’s platforms involve “One-Timers,” with an anemic lifetime economic value of less than $7. By contrast, a “Known User” who shares an email address is worth more than $100, and a registered Insider will generate nearly $600 — almost 100 times as much as the One-Timer. Trouble is, those Insiders make up less than half of 1% of all users, an indication of how much work remains to be done — but also the huge upside. “So you can see the drastic difference,” says Block. “The bulk of our audience: very low value. But this engaged audience: very, very high value. We know if we get people to register, they are far, far more likely to do everything. They’re going to watch more video, they’re going to click ads more, they’re going to send us news tips, they’re going to participate.” They’re also more likely to watch the news on TV, adds Badalamente.
There are no plans at this point to charge directly for membership, but Badalamente is “definitely looking at the relationship with advertisers and how we can take this exclusive access idea and try to create some real opportunities for some of our clients and partners. That really is top of my list when it comes to what monetization could look like.”
Badalamente and Block stress that in order for membership to work, the whole station has to get behind it. But the Graham team is optimistic, because more stations are starting to embrace the concept and generate their own ideas. “I feel like my job right now is to be able to make sure the infrastructure and technology works for all the things that they’re dreaming up. Dustin and I will come away from a call with them and just be pinching ourselves, because oh my gosh, they’re pushing us. And they get it. They’re doing things that we haven’t even dreamt of in order to create value for our Insiders, for our membership. And that is incredibly exciting, seeing the fact that it is living organically, without us having to keep poking them. The excitement coming from the stations is probably one of our biggest wins.”
Like many innovations, this one starts with a willingness to ask questions. Which of your viewers and digital users are truly loyal to your station? And how might you profit from drawing them into a deeper level of engagement? It might be worth taking the trouble to find out — even if your anchors can’t sing.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Graham’s San Antonio station, KSAT-TV, originally incubated the membership idea at Table Stakes, an intensive transformation program in which stations identify “performance challenges” and pursue them rigorously over 10 months. The Knight Foundation underwrites the Table Stakes program for local TV newsrooms, which is based at the Cronkite School, as part of the same innovation grant that supports the Knight-Cronkite News Lab. Our former colleague Frank Mungeam, now at the Local Media Association but still a Table Stakes coach, serves as an advisor to Graham’s membership initiative.