News Marketing Lessons from the Retail Side

There are times when I really pity the women of the world. Because they will never get to live one of the most exhilarating experiences of raw power to be found on the planet. It is that most quintessential of male experiences – one that every man looks back on as a rite of passage. It is a carefully managed and choreographed ritual that rivals the theatrics of a Broadway play. All the players have carefully scripted roles and the feelings of emotion run high. It is the experience of buying a man’s business suit.

If I owned a TV station that wanted to attract a male audience, I would go out and hire the entire team at the clothing store, Joseph A. Banks. I would let them weave their powerbroker magic on my unsuspecting male viewers. Tailors know what makes a man tick. They have a carefully rehearsed set of actions and words that hook us in every time. While everyone else at the office knows that I am a mid-level pencil pusher, the tailor knows that deep down I crave business power and status. While everyone else is treating me like the futz that I am, he pushes every power-mad button that hides deep inside my evil heart.

He deferentially refers to me as “Mr. Newell” and “sir.” He seems genuinely surprised to find out that I am not the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

He assumes I mingle with the power crowd on a regular basis. He uses lines like “This is a suit that will look sharp at a board of directors meeting or at a charity ball.”

He seems oblivious to my ever-growing waistline and comments that “someone as active as you needs a fabric that breaths so you’re fresh for corporate merger meetings.”

When I ask for the lower priced suit he points out that I will surely accumulate vast wealth through astute buying. He demurely demonstrates how careful accessorizing will turn my modest suit into a power juggernaut that cowers my rivals at work.

We in the TV news business could learn a lot from the suit sellers of the world. They really know their audience. They manage to transform the rather benign experience of garment selection and tailoring into an ego-feeding romp of raw power. They have uplifted the process so it is all about a man’s emotional needs. These aren’t just clothes for work. Every time a man puts on that suit, a part of him remembers the feeling of power the tailor instilled during the selection process.

What I notice is that the tailor spends very little time talking about the product features of the garment. While he makes cursory remarks about the fabric weight, cut and overall quality, he knows that’s not what sells suits. I can get a good suit that fits from almost any clothing store. While I probably don’t realize it myself, he knows that my buying decision will be based on how capable I feel when I put on that suit, stand up straight, gaze into the mirror and bask in my own self-deluded feeling of power.

Every day, tailors do their market research. They continually hone the emotional hot buttons that make men positively glow with pride. Years of dealing with their customers have taught them exactly how men like to feel about themselves.

In television we don’t get this kind of direct feedback. Most of the comments we see are from the daily call sheet. Unfortunately, these people tend to represent the fringe of our audience, not the mainstream. If you have enough time to call up a TV station and complain, you must have a lot of time on your hands.

Reporters and photographers get an opportunity to see viewers throughout the day, but most managers and station types rely on research to decipher the strange behavior of our fickle viewers. But even this is fading. As budgets continue to shrink, we’re all doing less and less research. I was talking to a top thirty station this week that has not done any research in more than four years. The GM admitted he doesn’t have a clue about how to connect with his audience.

Because so many stations don’t have good audience data, they tend to fall back to marketing the one thing they DO know a lot about. It is the one thing they spend countless hours on each day – themselves. Most news marketing is one long list of product features, claims of superiority, and boasting.

Our mindset is evident even in the names of the tools we use each day. We wind up the hyperbole engine and dream up self-aggrandizing monikers for our weather radar that are more appropriate for a carnival ride than a weather tool. “Super Mega HD Doppler with Action Tracking.” Imagine a tailor trying to sell you a suit that was made from “Mega Breathy, Super Weave Action Fabric.” It just wouldn’t work.

Product features are still an important part of marketing, but in television, we tend to think they are the end game. We try to make a very rational and methodical case that our coverage is better by spewing a laundry list of features. Journalists are fact people and our feeling is that the more facts we present, the more airtight the case for superiority. We make a very rational case for why people should love us. Problem is, rational claims will only get you so far in advertising. Most of what makes us love a product is emotional.

There is no difference between the airline seat on Southwest Airlines and the one on United. So why is it that I like Southwest Airlines and I think United is just another bad airline? Because of their friendlier brand. Why do we pay double the price for Avian water? Because we feel like international adventures whisking through the grape-strewn hills of France with every sip.

Skillful advertisers often know us better than we know ourselves. Most people would profess they bought their car because of its gas mileage, reliability and ride characteristics. But we all know the most important buying criteria is the incredibly intangible feeling of sinking into that seat and feeling way damned cool. The gas mileage and other sensible features got us into the showroom, but these sensible attributes won’t close the deal. The car salesperson knows every button to push to feed our fragile egos. That’s why we often leave the showroom with much more car than we intended. But we can usually convince ourselves that it was well worth the extra cost.

Most TV managers have very little information about what motivates their customers to watch. The problem is that we tend to research our product features and not our customer’s motivations.

If researchers from Joseph A. Banks were to call today and ask me questions about why I buy a suit, I would have a complete story ready for them. I would mention that I wanted a quality fabric, a stylish cut, wearability and crisp creases. If they were to take my responses and use that information to build a marketing campaign for their stores, it would be a disaster. They wouldn’t sell any suits. Because for most men – it ain’t just about the suit. It’s about power.

So when a news researcher calls up your audience and asks the viewer “Is coverage of breaking news important to you?” What kind of usable data do you think you’ll get? It ain’t just about the megawatts of the doppler, the speediness of the live trucks and the quality of the information. It’s about an emotional connection with your product and your people. If we hope to grow our audiences, we need to take the focus off ubiquitous product features and find out the real reasons people watch news. It is different in every market. Only then can we hope to bring new people to the tent and slow the steady bleeding of audience that has plagued our industry this decade.

People watch news because of their very personal agendas to stay informed, stay safe and be a part of their community. Discovering new information is simply the catalyst that leads to their ultimate goal – a specific feeling about their connectedness to their community.

We know they like weather – but why? Most all stations slap a “keep you safe” banner on their ads, but the complexity of the emotional motivation goes far beyond this simple solution. Is it fear? Connectedness? Worry about family? Smartness? Most managers don’t know. And until we figure this out, we’re going to have a hard time holding on to our audience by simply repeating “mega-doppler 3000” a million times.

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