Soaking Up Millennials With a Sponge

Great stories don’t grow on trees. But a station in Fresno found one that grows on vines.

When Jacqueline McLean, assignment manager for Fresno’s ABC30, went to the farmer’s market in Clovis, California, she was shopping for fresh vegetables, not fresh story ideas. But then she ran into Nathan Pauls.

Pauls was manning his luffa stand. Huh? Yes, luffa, also spelled “loofah” — defined by Merriam-Webster as “a sponge consisting of the fibrous interior of the mature dried fruit of a loofah.” Like a lot of people (those who have even heard of them), McLean thought luffas came from the sea. But she learned from Pauls that he and his schoolteacher wife Sherri were growing luffas just 40 miles away and turning them into sponges and soap.

McLean’s station, KFSN-TV, the smallest of ABC’s O&O’s, had just received a mandate from corporate bosses along with the other stations: come up with one upbeat story a week that would appeal to a national audience — a young one, ages 18-44 — to populate a new online and social media franchise called Localish.

Bingo! McLean pitched the luffa idea, and soon afterward, ABC30 creative services producer Alec Armbruster was at the Pauls farm in Reedley shooting the station’s very first story for Localish. In the two-minute video, Pauls shows how to extract the versatile sponge from the dried gourd of the luffa plant after it matures. “This was our dishwashing sponge,” says Pauls in the video. “We used it for an entire year, and it never smelled.”

Localish posted the “Luffa Gardens” video in early September as part of its “Secretly Awesome” vertical, but the story didn’t stay secretly awesome for long. “We weren’t surprised by the success, but by the extent of the success,” says refreshingly modest GM Dan Adams.

That’s because the video is growing like an out-of-control luffa vine — 19 million views on Facebook and counting, the most successful Localish video to date by a country mile.  Adams admits that he and his small team weren’t sure how they were going to generate compelling national content week after week. Now this natural sponge story from the 54th market is wiping the floor with ABC30’s top-ten-market siblings.

And “Luffa Gardens” is sponging up those elusive millennials — most viewers of the video are in the 25-34 range. Adams and his news director, Michael Carr, credit the “I didn’t know that” factor and the luffa’s all-natural organic quality for its appeal to young consumers.

Luffa farmer Nathan Pauls can barely keep up with the new demand. (screenshot from KFSN-TV)

Farmer Pauls can barely keep up with the surge in demand. He told Adams he’s lost seven pounds and is averaging three hours of sleep a night. “He doesn’t need to go to the farmer’s market anymore,” says Adams wryly.

How to replicate the smash success of the sponge story? Ay, there’s the rub. “We always like to win at everything, but we were just fortunate that we found a pretty incredible idea,” says Adams. “And we kind of stumbled into it.”

Do you have experiments involving new programs and platforms that you’d like us to check out and share? Email us at cronkitenewslab@asu.edu.

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