Tuesday, August 19, 2008

How CNN Might Have Used Social Media to Improve Olympics Coverage

Is it possible to garner consumer complaints for doing precisely what you say you're going to do? It turns out you can, particularly in our interconnected, real-time world. This is a lesson CNN learned during the Olympics, and there is a moral we can all take from their experience.

TechCrunch reports on the strong reaction a CNN Twitter account received for broadcasting the results of the Olympics as they occurred. It seems hard to blame a news network for reporting breaking news, but people who wanted to feel the excitement of the competition as they watched the delayed coverage were left annoyed at CNN's "spoilers". (It turns out the Twitter account that sparked the most complaints isn't even an official CNN feed, but CNN itself was doing the same thing on their own account, cnn.)

We could focus on how the people who complained can't possibly want their breaking news filtered based on how some (but not all) consumers may feel about the immediacy of the news alerts. Instead, let's consider how CNN might have avoided the issue and earned more attention and loyalty for it.

CNN is in the business of getting all breaking and important news out to consumers as quickly as possible. This is why it blasted news of gold medal performances as soon as they happened, thus spoiling the fun for people who wanted to get home to watch NBC's delayed coverage. But what if CNN had focused just a bit more on the needs and wants of their Twitter subscribers? What if they had treated Twitter not like a one-way channel for broadcasting news but engaged their consumers in a dialog?

Looking ahead at its Olympic coverage, CNN might have anticipated some (and perhaps many) consumers wanted to avoid immediate news out of Beijing. Perhaps CNN did foresee this situation but unilaterally decided their mission trumped the Olympic enjoyment of a few, but in the age of social media, CNN had a different course: to engage consumers, involve them, and make them feel like valued participants and not just recipients.

There are several ways CNN might have leveraged the tools and philosophy of Social Media, not just to avoid a problem but to create greater brand value:
  • At the very least, CNN might have announced its intention to immediately share all Olympic results via Twitter. This would have given subscribers the power to decide in advance whether to unsubscribe for a short period. Of course, no one in the social media business wants to encourage disengagement, so there are better ways CNN might have proceeded.

  • CNN might have used this potentially sensitive issue as a means to create engagement with and between consumers. Two months in advance of the opening ceremony, the news organization might have asked consumers to participate in a survey or engage in a discussion forum about whether or not results should be broadcast in real time. This would have positioned CNN as a consumer-focused brand and given a voice to its subscribers.

  • Hindsight is 20-20, but maybe the best idea of all is that CNN might have announced it was creating a second Twitter account for people who wanted to avoid Olympics coverage. The first CNN account could thus continue with its mission of broadcasting all news in real time, while allowing consumers to opt into a second CNN Twitter channel where they could avoid the Olympic news. (Since sports is prone to this sort of desire to avoid news until one can get in front of a television, perhaps CNN might consider a "CNNMinusSports" channel, allowing sports fans to get their football, baseball, and Olympics highlights in the timeframe and way they most desire.)
It used to be enough to know one's brand and to stick to it, but Social Media is changing consumer expectations. They want and expect to have a voice, particularly in those brands to which they are most loyal. Gone are the days when big brands could believe they had an obligation and right to decide what is right for their consumers; instead, the brands that will garner the greatest loyalty are the ones that give power to consumers and make them feel part of the brand.

CNN did nothing wrong by sticking to its mission and broadcasting Olympics results in real-time, but it might be argued the news organization also did nothing right by ignoring the opinions and wants of its consumers.

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