Many of the best companion-station Web sites provide predictable--but engaging--niche news of their region, and are generating millions in new annual revenues. Others are experimenting with something more unusual. In an innovative mix of news and entertainment, duopoly WJCL and Fox28 give Web visitors a behind-the-scenes look at TV journalism on a small budget in ongoing video shorts of "Making News: Savannah Style."
KWCH drills deep into regional high-school sports with a new "CatchitKansas" blog. Some stations, like KLAS Las Vegas, have become so adept at reaching highly targeted local community sectors that half of the station's revenues are not digital, sources say. KQAD in Moline has an oversized cell phone on its Web site as a reminder for viewers to tie into its mobile local feeds. Media General's multi-platform interactive portal MyNC.com is an ambitious aggregation of regional television, print and radio.
The Metromix Web portal penetrates the social and entertainment aspects of 21- to-34-age consumers in Tribune and Gannett TV markets--a digital partnership to support stations' digital development. Key elements include a user-generated content platform and social networks, an original database for behavioral targeting, and video downloads and uploads.
Gannett's Cozi online service provides families with a central solution to managing and coordinating their own affairs--from shopping lists to car pools. Washington Post Co. continues to experiment with its hyperlocal LoudounExtra.com. While the list of examples seems endless, experts agree that there are more commercial TV stations than not failing the digital litmus test.
With the door on innovation wide open, the government-mandated switch to digital could not have come at a better time. It will prove a saving grace for TV stations that proactively seek to redefine their local agendas and utilize interactivity to benefit consumers and advertisers. KWTV's Web site is clear in its mission to keep its Oklahoma City constituents safe with its comprehensive storm and tornado education and alerts.
The Feb. 17, 2009 switch will be a make-or-break time for local TV broadcasters that are looking to thrive in a transitioning business. The Federal Communications Commission says 97% of all commercial TV stations are on the air in digital or will be ready by the deadline. Some of the new dollars are siphoned from local-market direct mail, television and newspapers. Some of it is new spending and an infusion of marketing and advertising dollars that would not be spent, particularly in an economic downturn.
Even as stations learn and perfect new digital interactive techniques, the formula for success is simple. It's all about extensive hyper-local content. Layering in interactive apps--such as user-generated content, widgets, "more on" detail buttons and social networks--TV broadcasters are building digital bridges to constituents. Transferring their continuously updated content and advertising to mobile phones works only if consumers can respond to it in ways that suit their needs. For instance, a local pizza parlor offers links complete with an embedded coupon, allowing consumers to order dinner to go on their drive home from work.
Above all, TV broadcasters must make their online platforms original, participatory, conversational and commercial. Bottoms-up enterprise is required.
While this is no definitive list, some of the other best practices and ideas are: *Adopt a mobile strategy that reaches consumers 24/7.
*Embrace lots of station, professional and user-generated video, not just still photos or slide shows.
*Partner with technology, hardware and software companies with products that are intrinsic to stations' digital business. Embrace branded automation. Re-engineer TV stations by retrofitting a cost-effective, ubiquitous digital hub for everything from ad sales and control production to technical operations.
*Work with cornerstone local advertisers to create and test new interactive research and commerce functions, such as social-network marketing and contests with a sponsored tie-in to niche categories like health, sports, entertainment.
*Create ethnic and special-interest group interactive sub-hubs that are fully integrated into generic, all-sweeping Web sites.
*Reinvent the local online ad "unit" by making it an interactive connection with targeted consumers. Perfect the digital "buy" button.
*Combine news-gathering, commentary and photo resources with local newspapers for more, better branded online content with interactive components. The onslaught of new competitors suggests that TV and print brethren join digital forces to remain dominant.
*Assume a public service mantle for all things: best routes home around traffic tie-ups, rebuilding homes, mentoring youngsters, and providing online user recommendations for local merchants. *Create original online-only in-depth reports, consumer checklists and other exclusive local content to counter the increasing loss of exclusive network programming. Make it the definitive online source for breaking news with interactive links to related sites.
*Use retransmission as a lucrative source of new revenues as well as innovative local content creation and interactive enterprises with cable operators.
*Provide online solutions to consumers' problems ranging from peer exchanges to direct links to local government, services and other resource sites. Interactive peer connections can stretch from Facebook to Craigslist to Outside.in.
*Give consumers easy tools to customize every content, communications and commerce aspect of your site.
*Bring national campaigns for health reform and green solutions down to the micro-local community. Invent ways to monetize consumer engagement.
Editor's Note: This is the fifth in an ongoing series of columns exploring the issues, challenges and opportunities confronting local TV broadcasters over the next 18 months.