Traditional Local Media and Community Building

One of the challenges in social media is building a robust community with many human activities and interactions. Something that’s alive and thriving. If you build it, they will NOT come. A lot of efforts are needed to get to the social tipping point. I’m always inspired by the story of Yelp.com. They had to regroup around their home base of San Francisco after a so-so first year of operations. They built momentum from there and were able to re-start successfully. From a recent Inc. article:

Without the cash for a national rollout, Stoppelman decided to focus on making Yelp famous locally. With the help of a buzz-marketing guru he hired on a whim, Stoppelman decided to select a few dozen people — the most active reviewers on the site — and throw them an open-bar party. As a joke, he called the group the Yelp Elite Squad.

To build a community, you need humans, you need personality. This is not only about hardware and software. In my many conversations with traditional local media companies (and those include directory publishers, newspapers, radio and television companies), I’ve discovered that not all local media are born equal when discussing social media. Some already have community in their DNA. Newspaper publishers for example have always been local opinion leaders, stirring conversations, trying to change things, and engaging their readers to contribute and provide feedback. Their journalists and editors are in effect community managers. Radio stations are used to doing contests (“the 12th caller will win a pair of tickets to so and so’s show”), urging listeners to call in to discuss various topics in talk radio, obtaining traffic information from drivers or getting friends to send messages to each other via the DJ. In smaller cities, radio hosts are superstars with their own nicknames and are invited to openings and movie premieres. Radio hosts are also powerful community managers.

I think that local TV stations used to be very strong local opinion leaders but as local programming disappears and is replaced by national content, it becomes more difficult to engage viewers locally. Still, local news anchors continue to have a great aura in a community. Through major television events (think Superbowl, Oscars, Olympics, etc.), national TV networks are creating social events of a bigger nature than any other media. TV industry pundits are saying social media is actually helping with ratings but all the activity is happening in the back channel, on Facebook and Twitter. It should happen on the network’s website or on the television set itself to create real value for those media companies. Directory publishers are in my mind the furthest from having social media in their DNA. A traditional directory look-up is very mechanical, utility-driven, even when it’s attached to an emotional life event. Users of directories do not engage with other users (yet) or with the publishers. We could probably make a case that there’s some sort of social/community relationship with advertisers but it would tenuous at best.

But with all these assets, social media still feels awkward or forced in traditional local media companies and it means the game isn’t won (or lost depending how you see the world). In the newspaper industry for example, journalists often badmouth bloggers and publishers struggle with user comments fearing trolls and lawsuits. The relationship is very unidirectional, I’m caricaturing but it often sounds like”we write, you read”. Success will come when newspaper groups understand the bidirectional nature of the relationship. In the radio industry, the atomization of their core content model (i.e. you can listen to any songs anytime you want online) threw them a curve ball but they can hook up their offline broadcasts with the Web to create a very loyal listener environment. In the TV industry, local content creation (online and possibly offline) should be embraced again and social engagement tools should be made available at the point of viewer contact (think online but also with TV set manufacturers, set top box, etc.). In the directory industry, the almost 100% focus on advertisers up until a few years ago has made the shift very difficult, but giving complete power to consumers will enable them to regain their reputation as the most trusted source for merchant recommendations.

Media companies, because of their “social assets” and strong offline components, should have a leg up versus their online media competitors but they often don’t realize social media and community building are part of who they are. I’m not sure newspapers and radios are fully realizing they already have strong assets to win in local/social. This is also the opportunity for local television to regain what it might have lost and for directory publishers to learn to swim the social media waters. They all need to take the plunge, sooner than later.

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