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Web Polling Makes Viewers Feel Involved

Jul 21, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Last October, ABC affiliate KSTP-TV in Minneapolis ran a news story about the reliability of eyewitness testimony. To demonstrate how difficult it is for eyewitnesses to accurately recall details of an incident, KSTP aired staged footage of a briefcase-snatching on its newscasts. The station then directed viewers to its Web site for a “What do you see?” quiz. Viewers could select one of several descriptions of the fictional perpetrator, and the site’s interactive polling technology would track voting.
KSTP revealed results on its Web site and during the 10 p.m. newscast. “A slight majority of our viewers got it right,” said Andrew Wittenborg, KSTP’s executive producer. “The quiz generated nearly 2,000 participants, which is certainly better than average for our more routine online surveys. We thought the coverage provided a great opportunity to use TV and the Web in a memorable way.”
Local stations across the nation are experimenting with interactive Web polling, a relatively young technology that has many possibilities-and a similar number of limitations. For the most part, stations are using interactive polling to get closer to their viewers and to let their viewers get closer to them.
“Online polls are more about giving visitors to the Web site an opportunity to interact with your content,” said Maryann Schulze, executive director at Magid Media Futures in Marion, Iowa.
Interactive Web polling also can provide a moderate traffic boost. “It’s a tool for broadcasters to direct traffic to their Web site, and it creates a certain amount of stickiness,” said Rob Aksman, an analyst with BrightLine Partners, a digital media consultancy. “It takes time for a poll to be filled out. It’s a way of holding onto the viewers when they leave TV and go to the Web and vice versa.”
Aside from its creative demonstration of eyewitness unreliability, KSTP generally uses its Web site’s polling functionality in more prosaic ways. The station posts a new question every weekday on its Web site, which was developed by Dayport Video Streaming Solutions in Mankato, Minn. The questions range from the frivolous (queries about Twin Cities traffic) to the serious (what viewers thought about a school district’s decision to cancel field trips to the Mall of America during the level-orange terror alert).
Mr. Wittenborg made it clear that the station doesn’t use the Web site for conducting scientific polls. “We try to avoid calling it a Web poll or a poll,” he said, explaining that the main purpose is to interact with viewers. “We certainly see it as a way to drive more page views,” he said, adding that if a question draws 1,000 responses, it’s a “good day.”
“We just think that people like to have input,” Mr. Wittenborg said. “It’s a way for them to feel they’re speaking to us.”
WCCB-TV, a Fox affiliate in Charlotte, N.C., also uses its Web poll technology to connect with viewers. Its questions veer from the deadly serious (Did the U.S. underestimate the Iraqi war effort?) to the lighthearted (Who’s the best NASCAR driver?). It’s a good day when a Web poll generates 300 to 400 responses, said WCCB News Director Ken White.
CBS owned-and-operated KDKA-TV, Pittsburgh, and KYW-TV, Philadelphia, have nearly identical Web site frameworks, with the same interactive Web polling functionality developed by the parent company. But each has a slightly different approach to Web polling.
KDKA places a Web poll question on its home page in a box with a gray background every weekday, said Mike Gerst, the station’s director of marketing. The station rarely reveals Web poll results on news broadcasts, though recently it has used a lower-screen crawl on those broadcasts to direct viewers to the Web site to answer the day’s question.
Mr. Gerst said the question generating the biggest response got 3,458 hits. It asked whether war protestors should stop demonstrating now that the war had started in Iraq, with roughly 60 percent of respondents saying they should stop.
KDKA’s sister station, KYW, uses its Web polling function differently. First, it doesn’t post a question on the Web site every day, and not every question is promoted on the station’s newscasts.
“We don’t ask the question every 11 o’clock newscast,” said Daniel Schorn, KYW’s webmaster. “If we can’t think of a good question, then we say let’s not put it on there (on the Web).”
But overall, the station does tend to use data gleaned from its Web site polls on its broadcasts. KYW News Director Susan Schiller said Web questions have generated as many as 2,000 responses. Sometimes the Web questions, as unscientific as the process is, reveal fascinating results, Ms. Schiller said.
“We asked whether suspected terrorists should be tortured to get answers,” Mr. Schorn said. “Seventy percent said yes. It was well over 70 percent. I was surprised by that result.”
WGN-TV in Chicago boasts a Web site built by its parent, Chicago-based Tribune Broadcasting Co. The Web site’s software includes polling functionality that WGN News Director Greg Caputo says is very easy to use.
Mr. Caputo said the information gathered in the poll is posted on the station’s Web site but is rarely used on its news broadcasts. “It’s used primarily on the Web site itself,” he explained. “Very infrequently do we ask a question on the broadcast and say go to our Web site.”
He did cite one prominent exception. During the gubernatorial debates in 2002, WGN asked viewers to vote for the candidate they thought won the debate. More than 10,000 people responded, Mr. Caputo said.
“The benefit is participation, giving the viewer the opportunity to take part in something that’s on the air,” he said. “People like to talk back to the set.”
Across town, WFLD-TV, the Fox O&O in Chicago, takes a markedly different approach to interactive polling.
For one thing, the station regularly asks viewers a “Voice Your Choice” question during broadcasts, but it doesn’t point viewers to the station’s Web site. Instead, it asks them to call one of two 900 numbers. The results are aired at the end of the broadcast.
Ed Villarreal, WFLD’s news operations manager, said one of the recent questions asked viewers what they thought of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s tearing up the runway at Meigs Field, an airport on the city’s lakefront, in the middle of the night. The question generated 386 calls, 82 percent of which voiced their disapproval of the mayor.
Each call costs the viewer 75 cents, and the station counts less than half of that as revenue, Mr. Villarreal said.
Industry observers say telephone polls have dwindled in recent years, thanks to the advances made by the Web.
“I think the Internet for the first time gives the viewer the opportunity to really participate, and it’s free,” Mr. Caputo said. “I think all of us in news tried the 900 numbers; some people are even still doing it. That costs people money. This is free.”