Wednesday, July 15, 2015

PMDMC Did Little to Clarify the Future of Pledge Drives

There were two sessions on the future of public radio pledge drives at last week's Public Radio Development and Marketing Conference In Washington, DC.  The conference was organized by Greater Public, the industry's trade group for fundraising and marketing professionals.

Here's a summary of the main points from those two sessions.

1. It is getting harder to raise money during pledge drives.

2. Greater Public presented a formula for lowering pledge drive goals to counter the impact of sustaining (monthly) givers and $1,000+ donors on drive results.  The example shown at the conference suggested goals should be lowered by as much as 25%.  The exact percentage will vary by station. The more successful a station is with Sustaining Givers, the lower the goal will be.

3.  Greater Public's Fundraising benchmarks show that up to 90% of stations still had room to increase annual listener income through pledge drives.

Unfortunately, those three points taken together lead to just one conclusion -- many stations will need to do more on-air fundraising with lower goals in a tougher fundraising environment in order to meet their listener income potential. That's a recipe for more pledge drive days and, perhaps, more pledge drives per year.

A separate, but related, thread in these sessions was the new wave of shortening or eliminating pledge drives. Station representatives from Phoenix and upstate New York presented their current approaches to reducing on-air drives.

As noted in a previous post, we always learn something new and valuable when stations embrace more programming and less on-air fundraising. What hasn't changed in nearly two decades of drive shortening efforts is this -- the less on-air fundraising a station does, the less room it has to increase its on-air goals.

We know from past experience that the less on-air fundraising approach doesn't rule out growing annual listener income. Most of that growth, however, has to come outside of pledge drives.  That conflicts with Greater Public's assertion that most stations still have growth potential from on-air drives, even in a tougher fundraising environment.

In the end, the conference sessions did affirm the difficulties stations face and that could help foster productive dialogue between fundraisers and their station managers.  But moving forward to the Fall fundraising season, PMDMC didn't deliver any new industry-wide intelligence on how to address the pledge drive challenges ahead.  It feels like a missed opportunity.  

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Rethinking Public Radio Station Brands

This week Public Radio Fundraising and Marketing professionals are meeting in Washington DC at the Public Media Marketing and Development Conference. 

Public Radio branding is one of the big topics as NPR News stations try to figure out how to remain relevant as listeners gain more direct access to their favorite NPR content.

A few years ago, the mantra was that Local is the Future for stations. That hasn't worked out so far and probably won't since NPR News listeners consider themselves citizens of the world. They are the epitome of "think globally, act locally."  The range of potential content available in a station's market is simply too narrow to win enough listening to remain sustainable. 

Thanks to a resurgence of podcasting, many stations are asking if their future is in podcasts.  Perhaps, but not solely.  Stations will need NPR as part of their broadcast and digital brand in order to remain viable, let alone grow, in the future.

They can do that as public media brand aggregators.

Think of it this way. NPR is Apple. Stations are Target, offering the leading brand (Apple) but also other top digital and electronics brands. Consumers can get most of Apple's products from either brand.  They can shop online.  They can go into an old-fashioned brick-and-mortar. 

Some consumers shop for Apple only through Apple.  Some shop only through brand aggregators such as Target.  Some do both.  The same behaviors will unfold in public radio.  The good news is that there's plenty of room in listeners' minds and hearts to embrace both.

Stations have always been brand aggregators by carrying programs such as Marketplace from APM, This American Life, and the Moth.  In the past, it almost worked against station interests to highlight those brands. 

Maybe that's changing. Consumers in the digital space are now learning that not everything good in public radio is from NPR.  They're learning there is more than one quality brand.

Being a quality brand aggregator can be a brand too!  Stations have an opportunity to become a primary source of the best brands in public radio -- over the radio and in the digital space. Stations have the opportunity to be the place to find listeners their favorite brands and discover new ones.  

One of those new brands should be the station's original programming, which does not necessarily have to be local and it doesn't have to be just news.  It has to be enriching and engaging.  It has to be comparable in quality to the best existing brands in public radio. It can be on the radio, digital, or both. Sense of Place is important but it is not necessary 100% of the time.

Great original content, easily found and consumed along side the best national content in public radio, will create a station brand that still highlights NPR but is much more than NPR.

I think this is a highly viable approach for stations. It works for Apple, perhaps the strongest consumer brand out there. It works for Target. It could work for NPR, stations, and other producers and distributors in public radio.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Should Public Radio Offer Incentives to Attract New Digital Listeners?

The strategic use of incentives helps make public radio pledge drives more successful. They help boost the number of donations during key dayparts. They motivate some listeners to give at certain pledge levels and in ways that are beneficial to the station.

Incentives were successfully used in the late 1980s and early 1990s to encourage listeners to give via credit card instead of asking for an invoice. One of the most popular credit card incentives was an annual subscription to Newsweek magazine. Each subscription cost the station a dollar.

Incentives were successfully used in the late 1990s and early 2000s to encourage giving via the station web site. Stations held special “cyber days” to get listeners to give online. One of the most famous cyber days was in 1999 at WAMU when the station gave away a new Volvo.

Public radio has no problem offering incentives to generate contributions and encourage ideal giving behaviors.  Why not try the same for digital listening?

We know from decades of research that listening causes giving. And having more listening makes it easier to generate more underwriting revenue. Getting more listening, generating more public service, is the best fundraising a station can do. It might make sense to accelerate digital listening by offering some incentives for listeners to try it.

It’s an interesting prospect. There could be incentives for downloading an app or registering to listen online. There could be incentives for first use or the first ten hours of listening or a certain number of podcast downloads.

What types of incentives? That’s the fun part. We get to test.

Maybe it is offering bonus content or a coupon code for the NPR Shop. Maybe it is a dining discount with an underwriter or a digital coupon for a local bookseller. Perhaps it is a “vintage” t-shirt or mug from the back of the premium closet. Maybe a Bluetooth speaker is offered at a special discount price to digital listeners who use the station 10 times over two weeks.

Digital listening is supposed to be an essential component of public radio’s future. That means public radio’s finances will depend on it. It just might be worth the testing whether incentives can accelerate digital audience growth.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Promoting Digital Listening Like Your Survival Depends On It

How would you promote your public radio station’s on-line stream if the station’s very existence depended on it?

It’s not a hypothetical question.  Every public radio station faces that situation today as more of its listeners and donors spread their listening across broadcast and digital platforms.

It wasn’t a hypothetical question five years ago for Classical KDFC in San Francisco.  KDFC was a commercial radio station and its owner decided to drop the format.  Classical music lost its home at 102.1 FM.

The University of Southern California and KUSC stepped in and acquired two lesser signals on which to broadcast KDFC as a public radio station.  Two frequencies.  Far less coverage.  More than 100,000 distraught listeners who could no longer hear the station over the air.

KDFC already had a good digital presence.  It had streams and mobile apps.  It was social media savvy.  It had a good database and a newsletter.

KDFC researched the many ways listeners could easily hear its programming through digital platforms.  It developed recommendations for Internet radio options and how to use Bluetooth to send sound to external speakers.  It developed the simplest possible narrative for communicating those options.  It heavily promoted that narrative across all available touch points.  This went on for months.

Listeners who could no longer hear KDFC reached out to the station as well and KDFC was prepared to help them with information and support. That support went as far as KDFC’s program hosts returning phone calls from listeners and walking them through the steps necessary to hear the station online.  It was a daily occurrence.

Embedded in KDFC’s story is a template for how all public radio stations should be promoting their digital listening options.
  • Start with the goal of helping as many listeners as possible learn to create a quality listening experience on a computer, to listen via an app, to use external speakers at home and in the car, and to find and listen to a podcast or on demand content.
  • Have up-to-date and easy to use digital listening options.
  • Develop a simple narrative describing the benefits of using the station’s digital offerings, including step-by-step instructions on how to get the most out of each option.
  • Promote the heck out of it using every possible touch point, including on-air.
  • Provide prompt individualized customer service when needed.
  • Rinse and Repeat.
That last point is really important.  Rinse and repeat.

KDFC ended up with five different radio signals throughout the Bay Area.  Most of its previous coverage area was restored three years ago.  In some areas the station has even better coverage. KDFC promoted those new signals even more heavily than it originally promoted online listening, including billboard and bus card advertising, and has rebuilt much of its audience.

Still, 5 years after losing its original signal and 3 years after restoring most of its coverage, a pledge drive doesn’t go by without hearing from past listeners who are just discovering that KDFC is back on the air in their community. They didn’t get the message.

Rinse and repeat.  There’s always someone who didn’t hear the message.  There’s always some who has just discovered your station for the first time.

Growing digital listening is too important to not be engaged in continuous promotion.  To borrow and modify an old slogan from PBS, if you aren’t going to effectively promote your own digital offerings, who will?

Thursday, June 04, 2015

If Digital is the Future, Public Radio Needs to Promote it Better Now

I just spent part of the last two days listening to 50 station breaks across 14 different large and medium market public radio stations. Every station is considered to be a top station in public radio and most are considered to be digitally savvy. Some quick numbers:
  • 43 of the breaks (86%) had absolutely no promotion for the station's digital listening offerings.
  • 8 of the 14 stations had no digital listening promotion. I listened to at least 3 breaks in one hour for each station.
  • Of the 5 stations that had some sort of digital listening promotion, 3 mentioned more than one type of digital listening in the same break.  For example, the website was promoted as a way to stream the station and as a way to hear the station's new podcast.
  • 1 station qualified as promoting digital listening only because it included the website in its legal ID, "...and online at"  That's more of a throw away mention than a promotion, but I still counted it.
There's not a whole lot to say here other than this is a woefully inadequate level of self-promotion given the importance of digital listening to public radio's future.  It is a notable lack of promotion given public radio's decades-long marketing lament, "If only more people knew about us."

When it comes to digital, even the people who know about us through the radio probably don't really know about our digital offerings.

It is going to be tough enough to win new listeners with the infinite number of media options now available in the digital space. Stations need to make it a priority to move as many current listeners as possible to its digital platforms. That starts with the station selling current listeners on those digital offerings. Right now, that doesn't appear to be happening in any meaningful way.

In the next post, a possible template for the promotion of digital listening.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Well-Chosen Word Matters in Pledge Drives Too

One of the big challenges during public radio pledge drives is avoiding clichés. They pop into the appeals of even the most experienced on-air pitchers. Fundraising fatigue will do that to you. 

Pledge drive clichés aren’t effective at persuading listeners that their support is important. 

You are the public in public radio.

And it is unlikely a cliché ever motivated someone to drop what she was doing to make a contribution.

We meet our goal one pledge at a time. Just you and 19 other people in the next 2 minutes gets us there.

For the most part, pledge drive clichés are silly filler. However, there’s a new one going around that is downright ridiculous and, in my opinion, a bit damaging.

It’s time to begin your financial relationship with the station.

When I hear this on the air, I can’t help but think about how Paula Poundstone might react using her best “Wait Wait… let’s stop the show for a moment while I ask a few questions to sort this out” voice. It goes something like this:

Hold on a second. Did you say that you want to begin a financial relationship with me?  How does that work?  I give you 10 bucks a month and you go halfsies with me on my kid's college tuition?

On-air fundraising is hard. In some ways it is the most challenging programming to produce in public radio because it is live and, even when heavily scripted, subject to spontaneity.

Sometimes that spontaneity makes the fundraising more effective. Other times it undermines not only the fundraising, but also the larger effort to build a true relationship with listeners beyond the programming.

It’s time to begin your financial relationship with the station.

Who talks like that in real life?

Public radio is successful because the well-chosen word still matters. Listeners will hear poorly-chosen words on-air as long as stations do traditional pledge drives. It's one of the costs of doing business that way.

It’s important to remember that the pledge drive words are just as much a part of how listeners think and feel about the station as the words they hear while listening to programming. Stations should strive to recognize those poorly-chosen words when they inevitably happen and ensure that they don’t become clichés that hurt the station’s image more than they help it.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Shorter Pledge Drives... Again!

Public radio is in another cycle of conducting shorter on-air pledge drives. 

The latest cycle started at North Country Public Radio (NCPR) in upstate New York.  Last fall, NCPR produced what it called a Warp Drive, allowing it to meet its $325,000 campaign goal with just 3 hours of traditional on-air fundraising. The typical NCPR drive was five days full of fundraising interruptions. 
NCPR achieved this through weeks of more aggressive off-air fundraising (email, direct mail, social media) supported by short on-air announcements that didn’t interrupt the programming.  Several stations have followed NCPR’s lead and have been able to cut their drives from more than a week to mere days, even hours.  Vermont Public Radio managed to meet its $350,000 goal without having to interrupt programming at all.
The “less on-air fundraising” movement isn’t new to public radio. There was a lot of experimentation in the mid-1990s. We helped WBUR in Boston cut a drive from 10 days to 3 hours with More News, Less On-air Fundraising. The station managed to keep drives very short for a little more than a year.  WKSU in Kent, OH pioneered All the Money in Half the Time. Many stations tried variations of these ideas throughout the 90s with good results. 
In the early 2000s, WUWM in Milwaukee eliminated its entire Fall drive for 3 or 4 years in a row using strategies similar to NCPR’s Warp Drive.  Around the same time, WSKG in Binghamton, NY invented the 1-Day pledge drive. 
Sonja Lee, who is part of our firm Sutton & Lee, helped perfect the 1-Day drive concept while she was at KBBI in Homer, AK. She helped us create a 1-Day drive kit and consulting package used by more than a dozen stations.  A few of those stations have been doing nothing but 1-Day pledge drives for years, including five straight years for Northwest Public Radio in Pullman, WA.
Shorter drives, by themselves, provide no long-term fundraising benefit. The real fundraising benefit of shortening drives is the leverage it provides when trying to get more sustaining members and direct mail givers. These types of donors have greater long-term value to the station. The promise of shortening or eliminating drives helps change their giving behavior.
It should come as no surprise then that drive shortening efforts tend to work best at stations with under-developed off-air fundraising programs.  There’s more financial opportunity.
Really short drives don’t last long at most stations. There are several reasons including:
- Failing to upgrade off-air fundraising efforts or maintain them at the highest level. After a few big successes, pledge drives get longer again in order to capture lapsed donors and lost off-air revenue. 
- Increased revenue demands. Stations increase their spending over time more than they can improve their off-air fundraising results.  Then the pledge drive creep begins.
- Novelty. Short drives are at their most efficient the first go-around. The actual on-air part of shorter drives make less money over time as listeners get used to them. The first few drives bring in lots of additional gifts as current members reward the station for doing less fundraising. The novelty wears off and the additional gifts go away.
This is where NCPR has made an important innovation. Almost every past approach to less on-air fundraising had a "pre-drive" that helped shorten the drive. NCPR flips that and says that the weeks leading up to the on-air pitching *are* the drive. The on-air part is merely clean-up. That's a very good message.  It redefines the drive and might help create future additional gift opportunities when the novelty wears off.  Whether that pans out remains to be seen.
Acquiring new members can be an issue over time but it is not initially a problem for most stations. At first, stations sees a spike in renewal rates and lapsed donors coming back. So even when new member counts are down, the donor database grows through better retention and reacquisition. This can last as long as two or three years if the off-air fundraising efforts are firing on all cylinders.
Will this cycle of shorter drives lead to a lasting change in how public radio conducts on-air fundraising?  Probably not.
NCPR repeated its Warp Drive approach this Spring and needed 2.5 days of traditional fundraising to meet its campaign goal.  While that’s a lot more than the 3 hours it required in the Fall, it is still a great success.  It’s half as much fundraising as the station used to do.  That’s good fundraising and good stewardship of the airwaves.
And, as with every past cycle to shorten drives, this one is helping public radio learn new things about fundraising that will make more stations stronger in a future where traditional pledge drives could be as much of a liability as an asset.