Why unpredictability will be CNN’s advantage: Long seen as an American channel, CNN is pushing its role as an international broadcaster by promoting its global news coverage with the ’Go beyond borders’ campaign – and by hiring newspaper editor-turned-TV show host Piers Morgan.
What is CNN International’s brand positioning?
The way we position the brand is to say that CNN goes beyond borders. That positioning came together about 18 months ago and it’s based on the idea that we are one of the only international news providers. The BBC, for example, has a very UK feel to it and Al Jazeera has a particular target audience. What we are trying to say is that the story you see on CNN isn’t a story that sits in one place; it has implications wherever you might be. The tagline ’Go beyond borders’ is essentially based on stories crossing borders but it’s also about quality, and the idea is that if you go beyond borders, you are going the extra mile.
The perception of CNN is of a US brand with an American bias. Is that a problem for international audiences?
There is no doubt that CNN is a US brand. It came from the US and the founder Ted Turner was American, but not all things US are bad. We’ve got a lot of power and influence in the market. US brands tend to be first movers, they tend to be innovators, and they tend to be influential. They tend to want to be inventive and move things fast. A lot of people who haven’t watched the channel might say: “Oh, it’s a US brand, it’s less relevant”, but those that have watched us say: “Yes, it’s a US brand but actually the content is international”. A lot of people don’t realise that the CNN channel they’re watching is completely different from the US channel and has different content.
How are you hoping that CNN’s new primetime show Piers Morgan Tonight will affect audience figures in the UK and your exposure as a brand?
In the past it was all about the newsroom broadcasting to the audience. In recent years a two-way communication has started. People will share stuff they like, or respect, or think is credible. All content providers have got to find a role in that. The pass-on-ability of content is key.
Piers fits in with that wonderfully because he drives emotions and because of that he’s great on TV. People get emotionally connected to what’s going on on-screen. They talk in terms of: “I saw that and hated it” or “I saw that and I loved it”. You can’t control what people say and you can’t always control what talent like Piers Morgan say – you have just to accept that. But Piers is one of those personalities that people like to talk about, and there’s no doubt that people like him help the relevance of the channel in an important market like the UK.
With such a high-profile entertainment show, are you trying to dispel the perception of CNN as a hard news channel?
Hard news is our bread and butter and CNN is all about up-to-the-minute breaking news. The challenge is trying to do both [news and entertainment] and managing the schedule to allow us to do that.
Piers Morgan is high profile in the social arena. Will this give a boost to CNN International’s existing social media strategy?
The content is the most important thing in social media so if you’ve got good content, that’s your strategy sorted out. And Piers is great content. You’ve got to be comfortable giving that kind of personality the freedom to be themselves because you can’t shape them off the channel. The key is to be authentic about him and let him tweet and use Facebook and let him trip up and say things we might not say. We wouldn’t have hired him if we wanted to control him like that. He is our social media strategy for primetime now.
How did you design the Piers Morgan promotional campaign to create maximum impact?
The important term for this particular marketing campaign is ’influencers’. If you have communicated to all these influencers then you’re creating a conversation.
We designed a campaign where there wasn’t a great deal of budget but we could target specific areas around London. We advertised in seven London Underground stations, based on targeting influential brands that have offices around those stations – from newspaper groups to major brands, to media and creative agencies.
We advertised on the Torch [an advertising tower next to the M4 motorway] targeting consumers travelling to and from affluent locations, such as Chiswick, Richmond, Twickenham and Windsor.
We also did advertising at London City Airport because it caters to the same people we do. We wanted to get to the 60% of people who travel through there that aren’t UK residents. It’s a campaign for people in the UK, but the lovely thing about the UK, particularly London, is that you can reach the world by advertising there.
In the longer term, the product will vary week by week. Piers will do one interview that will throw us all and we’ll change the direction of the campaign so it’s not going to be a traditional roll-out advertising plan.
You are responsible for audience development for all CNN International platforms, including TV, digital and social media. What’s the fastest growing area?
It’s all growing in different ways, whether that be in revenue or audiences, but the one I think is most important in terms of growth is mobile. Particularly when it comes to emerging markets, this is going to be such an important platform for us. Getting that right is key. Mobile is our key to getting to new audiences.
We did a promotion of our Heroes campaign [celebrating ordinary people changing the world], for example, with a company in Africa that ran a mobile content portal. It was the only way to reach hundreds of thousands of people in Africa, without buying ludicrously expensive billboards.
In the UK, mobile is just as important. People who work on the television side ask about it all the time. They know that it’s the new platform for them to communicate their TV shows.
Is it hard splitting the budget across platforms?
One of the issues is trying to understand and explain to others within the organisation the right way to talk to people. Social media is a real challenge because nobody has a grasp of what it really is. Very few people can articulate it intelligently, in a way that’s useful for their brand. I often have to justify why I’m not putting all my money into social media. We might have 200,000 followers but we don’t know who these people are or where they are.
It’s about trying to find a compromise between spending resources and time on the different media in a world where if you don’t use social media people think you’re behind the times.
At Walt Disney we would have 18-month marketing plans. Here we almost don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, let alone in 18 months
How hard is it to compete against established UK channels such as the BBC?
The UK is a unique market because of the BBC. It is difficult to get share of voice but that’s where the content comes in. If you’ve got content that’s unique and you time and package it well, you’ve got every chance of [increasing your audience].
How does CNN’s user-generated news function, iReport, enhance your offering and does it ever conflict with your own strategy?
iReport is one of the most important things that we are doing at the moment. It launched about five or six years ago and we recently reached the landmark of having an iReport from every country in the world. We have 750,000 registered ’iReporters’ now.
The future of news isn’t a small number of cameras or a small number of voices coming into one broadcast, it’s about hundreds of thousands of cameras and voices coming into a broadcast or a website or a mobile platform.
Some people say that user-generated content is the death of branded news. Our argument is simply that it’s not. It is about these two things sitting happily together. People are an invaluable part of the story now. Look at what happened during the Egyptian uprising. They were reliant on us for the credibility and the facts but the emotion came from them.
All the stories that we have of major importance are almost inevitably supported by something that’s come through iReport. At least 10-15%of iReports get on to CNN, as part of a wider story [with the rest going on the unvetted citizen journalism website iReport.cnn.com]. It has allowed us into pockets of the world where we wouldn’t ordinarily be, for instance if the media is shut down in Middle Eastern countries.
What’s your biggest challenge as a marketer?
At my previous job at The Walt Disney Company we would have 18-month marketing plans and at any point I could look into the future and know how much money I would be spending on which project. We just can’t do that here. This is a news organisation; we almost don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, let alone in 18 months’ time. Unscheduled and unplanned broadcasting is actually quite fun because you can turn up and plan and then, bang, Egypt happens and we have to say: “Right, let’s pull that marketing plan, let’s save that money. Let’s do something else.”