Meet America's latest test market: the viewers of upstate New York's WNCE/Look TV.
Horizon Media has taken a minority investment in the Glens Falls-based TV station in a unique deal that lets it create a 300,000-home research panel that Horizon CEO Bill Koenigsberg called a good sampling of Middle America.
"Clients want less waste in their media spend," Mr. Koenigsberg said. "As the world becomes more fragmented, one of the most important things is to be as relevant as you can, whenever you can. We're testing various ways [to] use media. We set out to create a lab using a physical TV station to help us come up with different things we can test -- not in a lab but in the real world."
The initiative, Horizon Proving Ground, has been in the works for over a year, but Mr. Koenigsberg's relationship with station owner and New York marketing vet Jesse Jackson dates to the early 1990s, when Mr. Jackson had a creative shop. He later went in-house as the marketing and creative services lead at A&E TV Networks and History Channel, brands that had been Mr. Jackson's client at the agency at one point. They also were and still are a Horizon client.
History Channel will be one of the first clients to use the station. It will work with Horizon to select and test a pilot by soliciting and gathering feedback through polls and focus groups of viewer panels. At the end of an episode, Horizon might also drive viewers to a website to gauge preferences and opinions about the show and characters, Mr. Koenigsberg said. He emphasized that this kind of research is separate from data or research derived from ratings .
It's a fitting approach for an entertainment client looking to couple air time and research, but that isn't the only brand type for which Horizon can gather consumer insights.
Geico will take over certain programming to do real-time interactive polling, measure engagement with the brand and traffic viewers back to Geico's site or a separate microsite, Mr. Koenigsberg said. Horizon will work with technology partner Megaphone on efforts that require consumers to interact from TV to cellphone or landline. Research efforts might entail studying consumer engagement with technologies such as video, or conducting polls and focus groups around programming concepts.
Though the History Channel has never advertised on Look TV, Geico and other Horizon clients have had spots on the station. The latest endeavor has no impact on existing or future buys with Look, Mr. Koenigsberg said. Rather, it's a pure research play derived from a discussion he had with the station about making a personal investment, which morphed into the deal with Horizon.
"I started to think about how cool it would be to be able to use a TV station as some kind of research lab out of the real marketplace," Mr. Koenigsberg said.
Look TV was a particularly good bet. Because it's not affiliated with a national TV network such as ABC or NBC, it has a lot of ad inventory and airtime to play around with. It broadcasts to local stations in Saratoga, Warren and Washington counties such shows as "Our Time " ("dedicated to the needs and interests" of boomers); "Drive it Home" (about local auto dealerships); "Fix it Up" (about home construction); and "Trax" (about the local music scene).
Look, a low-power TV (LPTV) station, is also carried on Time Warner Cable through a deal that has boosted its reach since Mr. Jackson came on board six years ago.
Mr. Jackson's last traditional-marketing gig was as head of marketing and creative at MTV Network's VH1. He then took over WNCE/Look TV, adding the Saratoga region and boosting reach and quality to 15,000-watt digital from 10-watt analog.
Though the regional mix touches on sectors as different as farming, manufacturing, and ski and lake tourism, Mr. Jackson said Saratoga has been an important growth factor and helped diversify Horizon's household sample. In 2009, Advanced Micro Devices committed to launching operations and bringing 1,000 jobs to the region, which is gaining clout in technology, he said.
A Manhattan native, Mr. Jackson is putting Horizon's investment toward the station's growth, but his creative-marketing past is what drives his excitement around the project.
Though he has always been more interested in focus groups and their often-unexpected findings than in strictly quantitative research, the groups "can be very limited," Mr. Jackson said. "I was stunned by the cost. They yielded valuable information, but not on the scale it really warrants." The network's reach, however, will create "a substantial sample [that can] yield qualitative and quantitative information for marketing projects," he added.
"Local TV is unique," Mr. Jackson said. "Viewers talk to us all the time. The TV station is considered their station. It's programming relevant to their lives, whether it's entertaining or informing."
Mr. Koenigsberg is so confident that he's already considering LPTV investments around the country that would "set up a network of proving grounds." He said he's eyeing stations in the West, Midwest and South.
"We want the base to grow to millions of homes we can reach," he said. "This is stage one."