June 6, 2015

Social Media Still Works Wonders for Media Brands

by Renegade

Scot Safon EVP, CNN-GM, HLNTalking to Scot Safon, the former CMO of The Weather Channel, about social media is like revisiting a day at Disneyworld with a nine-year-old. Bursting with enthusiasm, they can’t possibly tell you fast enough all of the things they enjoyed, rarely recollecting the negatives while maintaining an unabated commitment to revisit the newest attractions as soon as possible.  That said, Safon’s enthusiasm for social is anything but immature.  A veteran of the media world including long runs as marketing chief at CNN, Headline News and most recently The Weather Channel, Scot saw first hand the powerful role social media played in terms of driving site traffic and generating conversation about their programming.

In our discussion, what struck me the most is that for media companies, social networks are essentially broadcast channels that extend the reach of the mother ship.  Since they are already in the content creation business, developing “click bait” whether it be in the form of images or video or headlines is just not that challenging and perhaps more importantly, a negligible incremental cost. So yes as “talkers” media companies have a huge edge.  But what about the listening part of social? Are these brands really being social with a capital S? For that answer, you’ll have to read on…

Drew: You were at CNN in the pre-social media days and have watched social’s role evolve through your stints at CNN, HLN and The Weather Channel.  How has the role of social media evolved for TV networks? 

The “early days” of social were largely about Twitter and Facebook, and the objective was pretty much to just get mentioned and quoted. It was almost entirely organic (paid wasn’t really happening yet), and it was unpredictable and erratic.  It was still a new idea and it was concentrated among a few audience segments. Today, the “social landscape” includes Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Meerkat, Instagram, Pinterest, YikYak and hundreds of other platforms and destinations where people are generating the content and responding to it.  Every single one of these platforms has potential to generate interest in television content– and some of it has been particularly good for building excitement for live televised events. Sports, breaking news, award shows, competition shows have all benefited from the social media buzz that breaks out on some of these platforms while the shows are on.  And the overlay of paid social has allowed marketers to target audience segments with very specialized, very relevant social “firestarters”.

Drew: Can you talk about the role of social in the marketing mix at the Weather Channel? What were your primary objectives?

Social was always an important part of the mix when I was at The Weather Channel, especially since weather has always remained such a popular topic on social platforms. People love to share weather pictures and video, and much of that video is critical to weather news coverage, where The Weather Channel excels on every platform. In terms of audience driving, though, it seemed to help us drive people to severe storm coverage, long-form editorial content and storytelling. Local forecasts, which are a huge part of the company’s business, were– then, at least– less driven by social.

Drew: A lot of what TV networks do on social is sharing content (i.e. talking). What role if any did social listening play? 

Social “listening” is critical, but you have to listen carefully…and guardedly. If something generates only a few comments or shares or citations, it likely didn’t inspire any meaningful feedback and you shouldn’t probably look at specific comments too closely. If something generates numerous comments, that indicates you might have touched a nerve.  But it’s important not to weigh the most extreme comments too much– I’ve seen executives at many networks get very, very concerned about one or two very negative comments…or get too enthusiastic about a few very positive comments. It’s like when you attend focus groups– you can’t weigh the outliers too heavily or you’ll start making some bad decisions.  But there are many forms of “social listening”, and sometimes it’s good to listen in to get some early warnings that sentiment might be shifting, new relevant topics are emerging, and things you’ve overlooked might actually be important.

Drew: What were some of the more effective social campaigns you developed at CNN?  

The first time I saw social really emerge as a critical force in media was during Hurricane Katrina coverage in 2005, which many would describe as “pre-social”.  But we still saw people trying really hard to use any digital platform imaginable to try to connect with other people, and many were using CNN as the ‘connector’. We tried very hard to respond to that need for information, connection and help by creating all sorts of micro-sites, aggregators, and user-generated content gathering points. CNN iReport emerged from that. During the 2008 Election campaign social media started coming into its own, and we embraced it very enthusiastically, even bringing in YouTube as a Debate presenter and Facebook as our partner in presenting the live streaming of the Inauguration (at that point it was the largest live streaming event in history).     

Drew: Since they’re already in the content business (with writers, editors, etc) don’t media channels have a real leg up on social content development versus other types of companies? 

I think that media companies are probably more comfortable and more nimble with developing social media content– mainly because they are prepared to make quick adjustments and tweaks to whatever they put out there. These companies already have producers, writers, editors, graphics folks working on content and promotions all the time, so A/B testing two content approaches is not daunting….and revising something that isn’t working is also fairly simple.  If you are having to reach back out to an agency to get that done it’s sometimes cumbersome and sometimes expensive. But agencies and clients are getting increasingly tight with each other on these efforts, and more agencies are acting as virtual in-house departments. And there is more in-house staffing going on, too.

Drew: Social media has been great for other TV networks like ABC’s Thursday line up.  Why is that?  

ABC– and the brilliant Shonda Rhimes– have done an incredible job creating must-see-live-tv  shows like SCANDAL and HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER.   They constructed the shows so that their core audience can have fun on social media throughout the show, and they’ve created a situation where half the fun is watching Twitter throughout ABC primetime.  The comments are funny and intriguing…and they drive you right back to the show. I know a lot of people time shift those shows, but lots are watching and loving them live.  And Fox is doing the same with EMPIRE.

Drew: You remain bullish on social media.  For marketers that are responsible for product sales and any dollar invested in social / content comes out of their working media budget, what advice would you give them? How do they get more out of their social programs?  Should they consider shifting dollars away from paid media?  

I am a huge believer in the power of all paid media– on television, on radio, in print, outdoor and online.  I think you need to use all of it.  But social media can be part of all of it, and it lets you target people precisely, and lets you get very relevant at the same time.  You get to speak in a new vernacular and lets you really let the content be the star.  When I started in advertising in the 1980s–before digital or social– the most cherished form of advertising was the one you just couldn’t buy: word of mouth. Well, social media IS word of mouth…emphasis on the words. It’s persuasive and emotional and funny and ingenious and urgent and very, very personal….all the stuff you want great advertising and promotion to be.