NEW YORK The headline reads: "Senate Bill 877 Hurts the Country's Smallest Children." Below that provocative line is an image of a small boy -- whose back is to the camera -- carrying a Winnie the Pooh bag as he trudges through the snow. It looks like your typical on-air news segment. Only it isn't: It's completely user generated.
The piece, about a child who suffers from Russell-Silver Syndrome, a rare form of dwarfism, lives on CNN's iReport.com. The month-old portal gives users the opportunity to post stories they deem newsworthy, and incorporates dialog starters like blogs and twitters. In beta, it's an extension of CNN's iReport, which gives viewers a place to submit CNN-vetted eyewitness accounts of breaking news. It plans to have some of the segments make their way to CNN or cnn.com.
"We can learn a lot [this way] about what people think is important in their world," said Susan Grant, evp of CNN News Service.
According to Compete, an online research firm, in February, iReport.com had 34,250 unique visitors.
Unedited by corporate brass, the site is one of the latest efforts from a TV network to create online communities that deepen ties with viewers -- in turn giving them a say in what we watch on our screens. Other networks have already embarked on, or are planning, similar initiatives.
CBS, which has pages on MySpace and Facebook, will begin rolling out online communities over the next six months with tools for increased interactivity. The second-ranked network already operates several online communities on cbs.com, like the one for cult favorite Jericho. That show's expected demise was warded off by fans who reached out to CBS via the Web site and e-mails to rally support for the program.
Anthony Soohoo, svp and general manager of entertainment at CBS Interactive, said CBS wants to create a dialog with its viewers that goes beyond the posting of clips and the occasional online forum, though he would not elaborate on specific plans. "We're placing a big bet on communication, and communities are a big part of our overall content strategy," he said.
ABC Entertainment relaunched an online community group it refers to as The Inner Circle late last year. Initially created three years ago as a marketing tool, it was brought back to life with the help of social-networking software enabler Passenger. The company built an online community that allows ABC to engage with select users in several ways, such as asking for feedback on previews of shows, promos and how they feel about the network as a brand.
Michael Benson, evp of marketing for ABC Entertainment, explained, "It started out as a marketing tool and became a research tool. Now it's kind of a combination of both." The conversation it creates between users and the network, he added, directly impacts marketing strategies. For instance, ABC learned about the Internet habits of some of Lost's biggest fans. "That helped us design much more rich and robust marketing strategies on multiple platforms for that show," he said.
The platform initiates dialog only twice a month. And currently, there's no tool for "club" members -- recruited via things such as e-mail invitations and banner ads -- to share feedback with each other, though that may change in the future.
Passenger's Justin Cooper, chief innovation and marketing officer, said the company has since been asked to build similar platforms for ABC properties' Buena Vista Entertainment, ABC Daytime and ABC Home Entertainment.
What remains to be seen is the extent to which the networks can leverage these communities to generate ad sales and/or marketing sponsorships.
CNN, for one, said it would seek advertisers for iReport.com once it officially launches this month. Grant warned that some communities might not be a good fit for all marketers, and that part of the reason for iReport's beta test is to allow potential clients to determine if they want to try it as a marketing device.
Many clients see such communities as high-risk forums in which users can turn on a product as easily as they can endorse one. The Chevy Tahoe brouhaha in 2007, where a user-generated ad contest resulted in some negative responses, is still fresh in many minds.
But some advertisers embrace online communities as an effective technique to get consumers talking about their products, and as a way to build loyalty. Stan Joosten, innovation manager, holistic communication for Procter & Gamble, said P&G brands are putting a great deal of thought and experimentation into how to successfully work within the landscape.
The Cincinnati-based company has launched several online campaigns in Facebook, including "Gillette Game Face" last fall during college football season, which asked users to upload photos of their painted faces with home-made team signs indicating their university affiliation.
"I think the essence of what we're learning is that the most powerful way to engage social networks is to be a part of the conversations that are taking place there and have people talk about [your brands]. It's the online variation of word-of-mouth marketing -- and the amplification of word-of-mouth -- and what role it can play," said Joosten.
Executives at both Fox and Comedy Central seem to agree: The networks are aggressively reaching out to the blogging community in an effort to galvanize promoters of their TV programs.
Fox's parent company, News Corp., of course, displayed a real commitment to social networking when it acquired MySpace in 2005. In general, the network's strategy for social networking varies by program, said Bill Bradford, Fox's svp of content strategy. For instance, for Terminator: The Sarah Connors Chronicles, Fox targets the sci-fi blogs by offering features such as episode previews. "It's really about trying to be organic within the places that these people happen to be," said Bradford.
Fox also has plans to create a community via a mash-up page that might include fan names, messages and photos. The goal, said Bradford, is to "tighten the bond between us and our viewers."
Core to its strategy, Comedy Central seeds videos to pertinent sites. Don Steele, senior director of digital marketing at the network, pointed to the example of Hillary Clinton's appearance on The Daily Show, after which the network reached out to blog sites like the Huffington Post and social networking sites to build awareness of the segment and generate dialog.
The CW has embraced communities, too, creating widgets for Facebook and MySpace that deploy updated content relevant to viewers' lifestyles. For example, its show Gossip Girl provides daily tips on fashion, gossip, hair and makeup on people.com. "The more things we can do that fit who [users] are as individuals and fit their lifestyles, the better off we are going to be," said Rick Haskins, evp of marketing and brand strategy at CW.
But while engagement is key, some observers feel marketers have a lot to learn about navigating the social network space.
Yankee Group analyst Jennifer Simpson noted that "these [advertisers] are typically ... used to doing traditional advertising and have not begun experimenting interactively" prior to being on MySpace and Facebook. She emphasized that brands need to better understand their audiences. Creating profiles of a brand's user base and researching their interests, she added, "can help craft a smarter advertising strategy." By incorporating elements like blogs and twitters, Simpson said, CNN's iReport.com is on the right track.
Jonathan Dube, president of the International Online News Assn. and head of digital news for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, added that iReport.com shows a lot of promise, and that soliciting information from the public through video, photos and audio can give a network an advantage.
"They've taken a smart approach by clearly labeling what is from their users and separating it from their journalism," said Dube. "That enables them to publish the user-generated material while at the same time creating a distinction with their own [brand]."
Sarah Rotman Epps, an analyst at Forrester Research, warned, however, of a downside: On a site like iReport, certain user-generated postings could have an agenda. She pointed to Tibetan videos on iReport.com depicting the lives of former Tibetan monks in exile -- some of which ask people to take part in demonstrations.
"These are important stories to be told, but the more the site gets dominated by people's agendas, the more it might turn off mainstream users," said Rotman Epps.
While iReport.com is unedited by CNN, the network has hired a third party, Virtual Professionals, to ensure that users adhere to the site's guidelines. These include no sexually explicit content, no material that advocates violent behavior or hate speeches, and no content that infringes on a copyright. Virtual Professionals has been tasked with removing any material that breaks those rules.
Despite the challenges, the networks' efforts are clearly acknowledging that viewers can be powerful partners. "The way that the Web works is people want recognition," said Fox's Bradford. "And a lot of the currency of the Web is recognition."
It's also indicative of a landscape where collaboration will be the norm between media and consumers. "I think in many ways online 2.0 is no longer just downloading information from the Web, it's also uploading it," noted the CW's Haskins. "I think anytime you upload something that means you have something to say or you want to show somebody something. And when you do that, you are starting to put your own imprint on it."