“Most local TV news marketing doesn’t drive viewership.” That’s a startling statement from Marv Danielski, who directs news promotion for Sinclair. But in this Market Share Executive Interview, he reveals what he has found does work in 30 years in the trenches.
Think of how much money local broadcast TV companies invest each year in local TV news promotion.
At every station, there’s the marketing staff and the equipment they need to craft branding messages about their station’s news coverage. Then the millions of dollars in fixed airtime set aside for the marketing departments to reach viewers with those messages to watch their news over the other TV news in the market.
Do their messages work? Marv Danielski, Sinclair’s go-to-guru for news promotion at 70-plus stations, is convinced most don’t.
“Most local news topicals, many news image campaigns, often long running news campaigns, and most TSRs do not resonate well with the audience, nor drive viewership or consumer use.”
Danielski’s job as the news promotion director for Sinclair is to support the marketing efforts for Sinclair’s news producing stations across the country which includes on-going content and marketing research, promo testing, ratings analysis and strategic planning.
In addition, Danielski oversees the marketing of projects like Spotlight on America, Inside Your World Investigates, United We Stand-America Strong, America This Week, Connect to Congress, the SBG Washington bureau and many other content franchises, which all provide deeper coverage on national and international issues. Those content segments are produced by a team out of Washington and also stem from working with SBG stations. All of that content is made available to Sinclair’s stations.
Danielski works out of Sinclair’s station in Minneapolis, WUCW, and the SBG Corporate offices in Maryland. Prior to Sinclair, Danielski was president and general manager of KSDK St. Louis, SVP of Brand Integration at Magid and VP of marketing and creative services for Hearst.
I talked to Danielski to see what Sinclair’s stations are doing to get better results from their news branding.
Here’s an edited transcript.
Greeley: You support the marketing efforts for Sinclair’s 70-plus news operations. Can you give us a sense how you help them?
Danielski: I produce and present about 30 ratings readiness projects each year. It’s looking at the various projects/programs/content and marketing opportunities available to the stations such as the NFL and NCAA seasons, major awards such as the CMA’s, Academy Awards, other events such as the Olympics, all as major marketing platforms to showcase local news and our corporate journalism initiatives such as Spotlight on America and Inside Your World Investigates. We also do ongoing local and national research.
We use research extremely well. I will do probably three to five major national projects each year along with Scott Livingston [Sinclair’s SVP of news] per year, proprietary research that really helps us focus SBG stations on what is important to the audience. Marketing journalism is totally different, in some ways, than marketing a consumer product, but in other ways, it is very, very similar.
Our job as marketers is to create consumer behavior change whether it is to cajole our audience to go to our websites, use our apps, download our apps, or go to watch our television news. It’s all built under a brand strategy and all those consumer touch points are critical to a station’s brand perception.
You had written something to me that I thought was very startling. You said that you thought that most local TV news marketing doesn’t work at all. Talk to me a little bit about that. Why do you think that?
Frankly, this is something I don’t think, but already know and understand from extensive research including promo, ad and prototype testing. Most local news topicals, many news image campaigns, often long running news campaigns and most TSRs do not resonate well with the audience, nor drive viewership or consumer use. Marketing journalism is tough and requires much greater brand and marketing discipline than most stations are willing to do.
Believe me, I have dealt with just about every silly marketing and creative argument during my career. Having worked extensively with all the major broadcast research firms, a consistent pattern of poorly performing local news marketing has occurred and been tracked for years by all the firms.
I have personally tested local news promotion for nearly 30 years, including my own campaigns.
It only took one well-produced, highly-creative but poorly tested campaign early in my career for me to have an epiphany that our job is to positively impact the audience with clear, clean and concise messaging that gains attention, but also provides distinctive audience based and focused benefits.
It’s not about the creative, although sloppy creative is a turn off for the audience, but is instead about the impact your message has upon the audience. Creatively I have won more than 50 awards, Promax, Tellys, Emmys and many more, so combining great messaging with smart creative requires discipline and clear messaging.
If you are not testing your promos, then your marketing is based on gut. So, by testing and tracking promos, I’ve been able to create a great database of promos that basically informs what works and what doesn’t work with the audience. The vast majority of promos don’t work in changing consumer or building a stronger brand perception and the database clearly indicates the vast majority of promos are either negative, or neutral, which are both bad. That doesn’t mean promos can’t cut through and be effective, but it takes much work than most stations put behind their marketing efforts to be truly game and consumer behavior changing.
The key question with all research is, do you have the discipline to use the data? This comes down to really looking at the value of any promotion, the audience benefits associated with the message and how well the promo/ad is placed on any platform. To that end, a four-second ID message can actually be just as effective as a :30, or other length promos, depending on how well you sculpt the message and place it in front of the right audience. Marketers need to showcase the benefits derived from your services and products.
The reason most promos don’t work well is because producers/managers haven’t taken the time to put the discipline in place to really understand how the audience responds and why viewer and user benefit needs to drive their messaging. We do a great deal of promo testing at SBG and sharing what works versus what doesn’t work is part of my job.
What kind of testing are we talking about here? Can you give me a generic explanation or is that too proprietary?
No, I don’t think that is too proprietary because other people have done it. I basically use the same methodologies and psycho-metrics that ad agencies use to test their Super Bowl ads and have been doing that for 30 years. Everything from focus groups to broader sample quantitative studies, to instant audience trace response, through online and other methodologies has value if used correctly and analytically understood.
The audience doesn’t need to work to figure out the benefits of a message. That is the marketer’s job to clearly showcase the benefits. Bounty paper towels are the “quicker, picker upper” and have ruthlessly communicated and showcased that benefit for years.
I’m not going to say we are testing everything we put out there, but I have a little simple phrase, feel free to quote me on this: “Why guess when you can test?” Taking the guess work out is my responsibility.
It’s a great quote. I think any kind of research from the very basic focus group testing or to the most sophisticated scientific research, gives you some scientific guidance as opposed to just a gut feeling.
To that end, we have set strict norms on what works and what doesn’t. During my career, we have tested easily a thousand ads/promos with different companies, including Magid. I am not going to give too much away, but we clearly know, based on our own norms, spots that work, spots that are neutral and spots that are positive. The vast majority of spots fall in the neutral to negative realm.
On the other hand, there have been great campaigns that have tested extremely well. I can speak to one of those campaigns, KHOU Stands for Houston, done in conjunction with great positioning research and well-sculpted, audience-focused promos and messages that tested extremely well. Also, Dale Lockett and his team did a great, highly disciplined job in executing the campaign.
How important is consistency in local TV news marketing?
If you look at strong brands in the local TV business, there has been a consistency and a constancy to them. You certainly know WPVI, Action News, [WPVI is ABC’s Philadelphia O&O, where Greeley lives]. Do they have challenges, yes, but they have proven to be very consistent over a period of time as a positively perceived by the audience brand.
I worked at WCCO Minneapolis and WSB Atlanta. We didn’t change our branding. We changed how and what we promoted in terms of audience benefits, but we made strong brands much stronger though very focused and disciplined marketing and a news strategy focus.
I’ve taken weak brands and turned them into stranger brands, too, at other stations I worked including NBC affiliate KSDK, where we re-positioned the station and tactically executed an On Your Side strategy. KSDK was No. 3 in the market and No. 20 in the country in late news in adults 25-54. In less than a year, KSDK became the No. 1 adults 25-54 station in St. Louis, the 21st market and moved up to No. 3 in the country in the demo. Other newscasts grew, so KSDK had the fastest growing morning news and winning newscasts at 4, 5 and 6 p.m. in the key adults 25-54 demographic as well as late news. Discipline works, not luck.
What stations in your group do you think represent the best of all of these things — good research, good promotion, and good ratings?
There are quite a few, but I’m going to name a few which have really moved forward in the past two years. KOMO News in Seattle, they have become much stronger. They did a brilliant job on the problems with the homeless problems confronting the Puget Sound area, including their project Seattle is Dying documentary and consistent coverage of the homeless issues via Project Seattle, which fit the brand positioning of KOMO News, So Northwest. Great distinctive content, well marketed gets noticed.
All the work they have done recently on the coronavirus is another great example, because honestly, Seattle was the COVID-19 epicenter for America at the beginning of the pandemic. Smart strategic and distinctive coverage helped reinforce the value and benefits of the KOMO News brand. So, KOMO News in Seattle is a great example of a Sinclair station doing well for their community through comprehensive news coverage. We have recently completed fascinating and proprietary research in several markets including Seattle about the benefits and values of distinctive coverage.
KEYE, now CBS Austin, was the No. 3-4 station. It is now a strong No. 2 and growing quickly, continuing to win more and more late news and they have been very focused and disciplined in their news content and news content marketing approach. Their news director and their create service director are hooked at the hip, so we are seeing a great deal of growth for them now due to their team efforts.
Similarly, WOAI, News 4 in San Antonio, and our Fox station, KABB Fox 29 News, those two stations are both seeing growth and are performing very, very well.
WBFF, our Fox 45 News station in Baltimore, they are absolutely crushing it in that marketplace, too. They are really doing a great job with a sharply defined, distinctive content.
But there are others such as WSYX in Columbus, Ohio; KUTV in Salt Lake City; WWMT in Kalamazoo, Mich.; KBOI in Boise, Idaho; plus so many of our stations including Flint and Traverse City, Mich., among many others within the group. I don’t want to just isolate a few for doing a great job because so many of our stations are growing ratings, brand value and digitally across multiple platforms.
What about recruitment at the station level? Do you have an active role in that?
Clearly recruitment is tremendously important. The need to hire and grow your own is fundamental to our thought process at SBG. We have a great upward mobility program and so many markets with which to start and then grow within the company.
During my career, I have been going to schools that you would not normally think of for broadcasting and journalism to find people who have the passion for local journalism, for marketing local journalism across all platforms. In terms of recruitment, you must reach out and let recruits know that what we do is still very interesting and very, very important and extremely relevant on a local, regional, national and international levels.
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