Graham Media Group engages audience through comments and community

By Paula Felps


Nashville, Tennessee, United States


When Graham Media Group, a relatively small U.S. TV broadcaster based in Detroit, Michigan, wanted to extend its reach, it knew it needed to deepen its relationship with its audience. The company, which has five local television stations as well as a social news desk and digital channels, realised that it was important to listen to audiences, not just share the news.

Traditionally, broadcast journalism has meant making decisions for what audiences see. It is, said Dustin Block, audience development lead, “a one-to-many relationship.” But today’s world calls for a one-to-one relationship, and during INMA’s members-only Webinar on Wednesday, Block explained how the company created and nurtured that relationship.

Graham Media Group changed its relationship with the audience to drive engagement.
Graham Media Group changed its relationship with the audience to drive engagement.

Graham Media Group began working with Viafoura, a digital experience company that specialises in helping brands “activate their digital audiences,” according to Jeannie Doherty, client success manager at Viafoura. The company works to maximise registrations, retention, and revenue.

“We know engaged users in a community have a much higher retention value than non-engaged users,” Doherty said, adding that increased engagement has a direct impact on revenue: “A registered user has a much higher propensity to subscribe. So, if you have a paywall, let’s say that journey from anonymous to engaged to registered and, ultimately, to subscribed is something that we really focus on — as well as the ability to generate new revenue from our digital experiences.”

The journey has made Graham Media Group more attentive to its audience and has been transformational for the company’s strategy, Block said. He explained that Graham approached that transformation in three phases and walked INMA members through each phase.

1. It starts with journalism

Phase One of its transformation was conversation, and Block said the company has a core belief that everything it does begins with journalism.

“It has to be where you start. We can’t go with a data strategy and then back into the journalism, and we can’t start to think about how are we going to monetise without building on conversations.”

That became the company’s starting point, as it put a greater focus on listening to its audience. By setting up digital channels where people could share comments on stories, Graham could gain new insights or get information it would not have had if it maintained its old way of doing things.

“You’re immediately getting a lifeline from the public,” Block said. “And not only is that making your journalism better in the stories, it’s differentiating you in the market because you’re getting exclusive stories.”

Newsrooms immediately began seeing a benefit and as they paid more attention to the data, brands could see who was connecting with their reporters and anchors, Block said.

Graham Media Group broke down its transformational journey into three phases.
Graham Media Group broke down its transformational journey into three phases.

“We realised that yes, 5% of our audience may be super engaged, but we’re treating everybody the same in a lot of ways,” Block said. That led to the second phase.

2. Membership

The company created Insider programmes at every station to reward and further engage those frequent, loyal visitors.

“To be an Insider, you basically register,” Block explained, adding that the programme is free. “And in exchange, you can comment, you can use some of our registration features — like we have a pins feature where you can share photos and videos with our stations.”

Additionally, it added registration walls around select stories and started offering exclusive content to Insiders. It is also beginning to experiment with paid events for registered users.

3. Activating engagement

The final phase of the transformation — and where Graham Media Group is at right now — is activation.

“We’ve done a pretty good job of building up user data and using things like commenting, things like Insider to learn a ton more about our audiences — more than we’ve ever known,” Block said. “Now we have to figure out ways to activate that data.”

That includes a lot of personalisation features, such as directing content that matches users’ interests and creating personalised news feeds. Block said that as the data improves, the company is getting better at creating personalised feeds and recommendations.

It also is experimenting with things like virtual events, such as a watch party of the Texas governor’s debate that was offered by its San Antonio station and was available exclusively to Insiders. Viewers could make comments throughout the debate and the station assigned three staff members to moderate the event.

“We were pretty happy with the results, which were about 100 new registrations just to join that watch party and 876 comments in just under two hours,” he said. “Again, we were able to use a mix of user data and promotion in advance to pull people into an exclusive event.”

Across the company, the results of this approach are giving the kind of results it had hoped for, with an 87% increase in daily logged-in users from August 2021 to August 2022. Its partnership with Viafoura has helped it leverage the comments and participation from users and it is going to start creating audiences for ad targeting. More use cases will follow as the company explores the possibilities of what it can do with the data, Block said.

Of the many lessons learned during this transformation, these four were the most critical.
Of the many lessons learned during this transformation, these four were the most critical.

Lessons learned

Block also shared the four key lessons that Graham Media Company has learned so far on this transformational journey:

  1. Moderation is critical. Viafoura offers AI moderation and Graham also has hired its team to help with moderating comments around the clock. “This was important because we couldn’t start to have conversations about listening until we created a space they wanted to visit,” he said.  
  2. Think much bigger than commenting. The company has learned to listen to comments and use them as a competitive advantage, Block said: “Comments can double the size of your site. If you’re just thinking of it as comments, you’re missing part of the picture. Because you’re missing out on registration. You’re losing out on data. But more importantly, you’re missing out [because] comments double the size of your site.
  3. Once you get the data, put it to work. “That’s a huge focus for our team right now,” he said. It has meant being more strategic about which stories it uses to drive conversation and invite comments. “We’ve played with templates where you lead with comments. And we use that for forums where we want people to share, but we’re really intentional about the topics we select for those forums.”
  4. Journalism always leads. “We have a role and when we listen, we can fill that role for people where they can feel heard and they can feel connected,” Block said. “I think that’s engagement journalism at its best. Your audiences want to be heard. Now we do that productively ... and that’s been transformative for us.”

You can see the list of upcoming INMA-member Webinars here.

About Paula Felps

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