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Oct. 28, 2019, 10:23 a.m.
Audience & Social

Membership at a local TV station? Here’s how San Antonio’s KSAT is plotting a potential revenue stream

“We have to continually work with our audience to make sure they love us later as much as they love us now.”

When it comes to membership models for local media, public media has long set the standard; it’s been doing the pledge-drive-and-tote-bag thing for decades. It’s a hot topic for local newspapers, the largest producers of local journalism, many of whom have been thinking about rebranding their subscription offerings. And it’s a common approach among digital news outlets, who can define the reader relationship from the outset without years of baggage.

But membership is the kind of concept that might sound at odds with a local TV station. Membership is about devoting energy and attention over the long haul, not quick hits for the 11:00 p.m. show. The development of a newscast (let alone the content that shows up on a TV station’s website) is often a black box to viewers, far from the transparency many membership-driven organizations promise to their audiences. On the other hand, viewers certainly build strong longterm attachments to the anchors and reporters they see each night. TV stations have been some of the slowest to change with media industry trends, not least because they’ve been the least financially affected by journalism’s strife, and membership came on their radar later. But change is on the horizon.

That’s part of why the Table Stakes program — known as team strategy coaching for legacy newspapers started by the Knight Foundation — has included local TV news at the table for the past year, as chronicled by the Cronkite News Lab. KSAT, a Graham Media Group-owned ABC affiliate in San Antonio, has used the opportunity to explore what membership at a local TV station could look like, the first record of such across the Membership Puzzle Project’s 163-example database. (Scripps’ WCPO introduced a paywall/membership-like “WCPO Insiders” component in 2014, which we wrote about in 2015.)

(The other stations involved: Scripps’ KGTV in San Diego, WXTV Univision-41 in New York, Gray’s WBRC in Birmingham, ABC’s WLSTV in Chicago, Morgan Murphy’s KXLY in Spokane, Scripps’ KNXV in Phoenix, NPG’s KMIZ in Columbia, and Gray’s KPLC in Louisiana.)

“Our overall opportunity lies in audience engagement, and really being the voice of our community, but also the ears of our community,” said KSAT news director Bernice Kearney, who has been at the station for 25 years. “We have been the legacy station for 22, 23 years, so we know we can’t just rest on our laurels or assume that will always be the case. We have to continually work with our audience to make sure they love us later as much as they love us now.”

Over the yearlong Table Stakes challenge that ended in June 2019 (round 2 for local TV just started with eight stations), Kearney, general manager Phil Lane, and Graham chief innovation officer Catherine Badalamente developed the strategy and budget for what has become KSAT Insiders. “It makes sense on paper right now,” Lane said. “It’s an ROI we’re comfortable with. We like the relationship piece of it. It fits our culture and I think it’s a good direction for a TV station as we all become more and more local.”

The relationship between KSAT and its insiders, unlike many other membership programs, does not involve money — yet. And it defines “insider” pretty broadly, scooping 15,000 people into that grouping based on a funnel that starts with “highly engaged users” (meaning people who visit the KSAT site three or more times per week) and then invites them to sign up for the KSAT Insider newsletter. (“We know that is a squishy number,” Kearney said.) KSAT focuses on bringing those frequent visitors back more and more often to develop their brand familiarity and relationship — and maybe someday start asking them to financially support the journalism. “Subscription is a couple of years down the road,” Lane said.

So far, KSAT Insiders is oriented around family-friendly events, rather tangential to its actual journalism, and offering special access. The station usually televises three local parades, two of which comprise the daytime/nighttime celebration of San Antonio’s largest festival, the Fiesta in April. KSAT experimented with selling tickets to an exclusive (“secure”) seating area with bathrooms and vendors for the Battle of the Flowers parade in the day and the illuminated Fiesta Flambeau at night. The 300 tickets per parade sold out. “We had reporters, anchors, meteorologists, staff members on air and behind the scenes there to meet people,” Kearney said. (They’ve hired an event producer to coordinate the planning and execution, though.) The weekend before Halloween, KSAT is next hosting its first-ever Here’s how KSAT pitches Insiders:

Anyone can be an “Insider,” no cost. Members get a unique take on San Antonio. Reporters, photographs anchors will share the stories behind the stories, taking you into their world for a different look at San Antonio and the surrounding communities. You’ll even have the opportunity to participate in our journalism through callouts for story ideas and personal experiences.

We all love San Antonio. KSAT Insiders is all about working together to share stories and make our communities better.

One event turned unintentionally family focused: After producing an investigative series about a local bingo kingpin’s murder, KSAT organized a private screening at a local theater this summer. “We tried to sell tickets to it to seat a couple hundred people and the only people who bought tickets were the family of the people involved in the story,” Kearney said. Cue pivot: “We realized that fun for the whole family is the mission of KSAT Insider events,” Lane said.

Last week, membership efforts at Graham stations got a boost when the company was awarded a Google GNI North America Innovation Challenge grant

…to develop and build a membership program for local TV broadcasters. GMG’s “Membership for Broadcast” project will demonstrate that local broadcasters can develop their relationships with audiences in order to diversify revenue and help secure the future of local journalism. It’s a crucial challenge for local broadcasters who need to act now while they still have the resources, audience and clout to build new businesses…

GMG’s project, which intends to put membership at the center of television’s digital growth strategy, comes at a time when all local media are working through disruption and changing audience behaviors. Broadcasters are intent to build an audience-based revenue model through user funnels, which will allow them to maintain their leading role as the most trusted and preferred source for local news.

KSAT also uses audience engagement tool Hearken on its sites, recently gathering follower questions on measles and other public health issues, which it now considers part of KSAT Insiders. But Lane cautioned that KSAT Insiders is still in its early stage with five events planned across 2020: “Fiesta [the April parade] was a success but we haven’t been able to build a successful event from the ground up yet,” he said. “I think we’re on the right path.”

Photo courtesy of KSAT, part of its slideshow from the Fiesta event

POSTED     Oct. 28, 2019, 10:23 a.m.
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