Want to Build Ratings? Go Online

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In these times of gory cuts and slashes, networks are bracing for a foretelling upfront season of harsh and meager days to come. One promising note of hope is the impact digital marketing can play on exhausted media plans to help steady — if not move — the ratings needle.

But first, cast aside conventional wisdom of days gone by and walled gardens of highly coveted control over content, talent and access to it all. Pave over the moat to your golden castle in TV land. No longer can networks survive on the premise that if you build, it they will come. Embrace the new zeitgeist: the digital community.

Fundamentally, it’s about reaching existing audiences online who can drive viewers to your air and about finding a community with a common connection. That link might be as varied as a shared interest in food, clothing, an exotic location or a hankering for clandestine adventure.

In TV today, networks must continue an immersive viewing experience beyond any given programming slot. Certainly, the branded “official” Web site is key to anchoring audiences and users alike. More important, it’s necessary to create similar experiences elsewhere online. Connecting eyeballs and empowering opinion, influence and connection is so very critical to any media company today.

At a relative low cost, in comparison to the tens of millions networks now spend on traditional media marketing, follow this four-point approach to successfully connect with your audiences — on and off air.

1. SEARCH: Think of search as your cornerstone. If not, it’s like hanging an “open” sign on your front door without turning the lights on in the store. Your audience needs to find you; or be directed to you, by as many means as possible. Search is a broad term nowadays and can be applied to several tactics. No longer a simple listing of keywords, savvy marketers reach searchers through text ads, graphical display ads, video tagging, and on emerging mobile platforms. Measurement is just as broad, with click-through not as an important result as building the brand and an online awareness that can influence on-air tune-in.

2. VIRAL VIDEO: The fear factor in viral video distribution is in giving away expensive and precious content. Yes, there is risk, but most content is perceived as a commodity anyway and smart consumers are cognizant of the hard sell. Providing a robust sampling gives viewers the potential to decide for themselves if the content’s of value and, more to the point, if it’s worth sharing with friends. Furthermore, exclusive videos, sneak peeks, behind-the-scenes clips, additional footage and made-for-the-Web original content enable media companies to engage with existing audiences, reach new viewers and obtain valuable feedback.

3. WORD OF MOUTH: Word-of-mouth marketing is an effective way of sparking dialogue and keeping your brand top of mind. First, find your “tribe,” those sites that harbor your key influencers. It could be those interested in murder mystery, forensic science and investigation or the paranormal. Be very transparent. Identify yourself as an official of the network, a show or a particular talent. It’s OK. Fans react — some negatively but most positively — in being able to communicate, recommend and be solicited for response to a particular program or brand. The effect is exponential, as the old adage goes, as users tell two friends who tell two friends and so on. From a wiki or blog to a tweet on Twitter: It’s not about control, but engagement and influence in connecting with a personality, a show or the network overall.

4. SOCIAL MEDIA: Social media is a phenomenon; rolling thunder traveling at lightening speed. And social media can be the most significant asset in a truly integrated multi-dimensional digital marketing strategy. The inherent audience of millions that live on the likes of Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube provide tremendous ongoing opportunities to connect with the masses as well as with impassioned individuals. Communication is a key factor of success on these sites. Establishing and growing a presence there creates a vital platform for networks to message to engaged and enthusiastic fans across a multitude of demographics.

The underpinning to this four-point plan is to leverage partnerships. Even more, it’s to determine whether there is monetary gain or valuable return in simply developing multiple touch points to customers on various devices. The digital future is now our reality. It’s a world where numbers are relative and reach is irrelevant, but the whole village is greater than the sum of its parts. In other words, it’s reaching an invaluable customer or a fan … one at a time.