“Viewer benefit” is a buzz term that is used more and more in newsrooms. You have to have payoff for the viewers if you want high ratings. It’s a critical concept. So important, actually, that you need to get it or you will be told to get out. So what does viewer benefit really mean? We’re breaking it down for you.
Let’s begin with the consultant buzz term “WIFM” (What’s In It For Me). The me is the viewer. So yes, to some degree you are being asked to read viewers minds and figure out how a story will benefit a stranger you will never meet. No, this is not as intimidating as it seems, especially because of the influence of social media on the way information is shared. If you aren’t already building sources and checking trends on Twitter and Linked In, start now. You need to spend some time each day surfing. This goes for whatever job you have in the newsroom, especially anchors and reporters. That’s because, in addition to pulling in new information and stories, it gives them the added benefit of building more direct relationships with viewers.
So, what do you look for? See what kinds of stories people are messaging about. Some of us also like to hop onto newspaper blogs and other local blogs to see what’s happening. Here you will get obvious story ideas with proven “WIFM.” You can answer the questions people are bringing up and engage the viewer.
You also have to look at the stories that management insists that someone cover each day. Here you might think the “WIFM” will be hard to come by. Not really. There are some general trends you can rely on to help you begin to craft the essence, or “WIFM”, of your story. A list to keep handy:
Elements of WIFM
- Emotional Connection
- Personal Safety
- Impact On Key Demographic
Some of these may seem redundant, but I promise they aren’t. The emotional connection of a story is more than whether you have or could easily get someone crying or shouting on television. Irony is a great way to build a connection that can tug at heartstrings. Facts that make you just shake your head and wonder what to think also provide great emotional connections to a story. You start to wonder, could this happen to me or someone I love? This is especially helpful when covering political stories that don’t necessarily affect one’s pocketbook.
No matter how the economy looks, people have a heightened sense of cost. This means more than just being able to pay the bills each month. Long term effects will have a draw. If there is a cost in human terms, like less time with the kids or shorter life span, viewers will watch. Do not take cost lightly when writing and teasing these elements. People do not want to be played in these areas of their lives.
People also want to feel safe. Viewer benefit is not scaring the “you know what” out of them every night. Yes, some crime stories are simply scary and viewers need to know. Yes, stations will cover crime like crazy. (Why they do it, is a whole other discussion beyond it bringing in ratings!) Stations that really push viewer benefit want you to quantify the crime stories whenever you can. Perspective can be as simple as where the event happened to how to protect yourself, to police accountability in “taking back the streets.”
You probably know the saying “Location, location, location.” This applies to “WIFM” also. Especially when covering crime news. If it happens in a “bad area” for crime you have to approach the story differently than if it happens in an area where no crime was committed for years. The impact is simply different as we described above. Same goes for economic stories. This is where looking at characters and key demographics play in.
Characters are the people or things you choose to build the story around. This goes for more than just reporter packages. Producers should look for characters to write around and refer to whenever possible. If you think this is a waste of time, I urge you to again hop onto Twitter and pick a topic. Do searches and see who comes up. Read their descriptions. It is very obvious people want to be heard. They also want to hear others. They want some control of what happens around them. Characters give viewers a chance to feel in control when watching the news. It gives them something tangible to cling to and interact with on some level. When the U.S. invaded Iraq, the second time, you may remember a lot of coverage about a statue of Saddam Hussein in a square. That statue became a character for the war. When it was pulled down, you could sense the accomplishment from across an ocean. You could feel the change taking place. The war became real, not just something happening on TV half a world away. For a moment you had to stop, stare and care. Do not limit your payoffs for stories to people. Sometimes symbols engage and create “WIFM” or a sense of engagement just as well.
By key demographic we mean both the viewers you have, and the ones you want to get. You will phrase stories differently depending on what you need from the viewer. (i.e. – increased loyalty vs. new fans.) It is important to recognize who watches your newscasts, at what time of the day and on what days of the week. The “WIFM” can be different on a football night for example than on a night with a family based drama that appeals to more to women. Lead in shows impact audience and “WIFM.” Understanding that is one way managers know for example that certain days of the week are better than others for covering consumer news. The more the staff is aware of a newscasts audience, the more you can tailor a few elements to keep your loyal customers happy and branch out and try and appeal to a new set of eyes. If this sounds more like marketing than “Big J”, you are partially right. Open your mind a bit more though and you will see that the traditional “Big J” type stories usually hit basic human needs and concerns. You just might approach how you report them a little differently. (see article “Produce It Up” for some ideas of techniques that can still help you feel you gave just the facts ma’am.)
Final point, do not get hung up on managers saying that stories have to be unique in order to have viewer benefit. The viewer benefit doesn’t come in story selection so much as “the spin”, which is based on your station’s news philosophy. This is largely because different news philosophies define viewer benefit differently. The approach makes your station, package, or newscast have a specific kind of “WIFM.” To really capitalize on viewer benefit, you have to know what the station’s news philosophy entails. If management is at a crossroads on this, you cannot go much beyond the obvious economic impact, human safety, and emotional type of “WIFM’s.” But even by focusing on these elements you can make your stories more relevant to your viewers. So focus on what you can, and let management guide some of the viewer benefit. After all, they have access to all the audience research driving all that buzz about “viewer benefit.”