Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Listener Perceptions of Telemarketing

I went to the PRADO listserve the other day and a hockey game broke out. Actually, it wasn't much of a brawl. No players were injured or ejected from the game.

PRADO, for those of you who don't know, is an organization for public radio fundraising and marketing professionals. The argument was over how to respond to listener perceptions about telemarketing (they really don't like it). On one side, the people who helped conduct and interpret the research. Their opinion was to stay away from telemarketing. On the other side, a VP for a telemarketing firm who said you can't trust the research because people, even public radio listeners, will say one thing and do another.

I've been in this argument before and have had similar discussions about pledge drives (also disliked by listeners). Here's my response to the list.

One of the biggest failures in public radio's development community is defining "what works" solely by dollars raised or responses received. It is paradoxical to ask people to give because of the emotional value derived from listening and then to dismiss those emotions when it comes to evaluating fundraising techniques. You can't pick and choose what you want to believe about what listeners say. To say, "We trust listeners when they talk about our local music host but not when they talk about telemarketing" is irresponsible.

The "what works" mentality is especially prevalent when it comes to pledge drives. The response rate to pledge drive appeals -- pledges relative to audience that hears the fundraising -- is typically less than 1/2 of one-percent. Pledge drives don't "work" when compared to any objective direct marketing measure. Would you pay for direct mail or telemarketing campaigns with that response rate? No. But the out-of-pocket costs are cheap so we keep doing them, even when we know they are a source of customer dissatisfaction.

Likewise, just because telemarketing gets responses doesn't mean the respondents like telemarketing. All it means it that they responded. Let's not confuse what they do with what they like.

The vast majority of listeners don't like pledge drives. The vast majority of listeners don't like telemarketing. Don't take it personally if you're in either business because both remain valuable fundraising tools. Rather, ask yourself how to best use these tools while recognizing the deep dissatisfaction they cause with listeners. Strive to keep them to a minimum. And when you use them, strive to make them as listener-focused and as respectful as possible.

That was one of the major lessons from the Listener Focused Fundraising project. Listeners don't resent being ask for money, but they often resent how we ask. Everyone who asks for money for public radio should be aware of this, including paid telemarketers.

Equally important is understanding that it is sometimes better to make 1,000 telemarketing calls to lapsed donors than to add a full day of on-air fundraising that interrupts the public service of 100,000 listeners. That's a choice stations frequently face.

Data I've seen show that stations that don't do a telemarketing hit at the end of the renewal series typically have lower-than-average retention rates. Failing to get those renewals this year reduces next year's direct mail revenue potential. To make up for lost donors, stations try to get more new and lapsed members from on-air drives. The result? They often use Give and Get, Blame and Pleading, and Frantic fundraising messages in an attempt to boost results. Again, the telemarketing call might be the better option.

Finally, part of the reduction in public radio's national donor base can be attributed to some stations' reluctance to call and say "please." After all, if donors haven't responded to 6 letters already, the 7th isn't all that likely to work.

This is not an easy topic. Expenses and goals are going up. We can't just stop using methods central to meeting this year's revenue number and building next year's donor base. Having less to spend would certainly undermine public radio's public service in time, if not right away.

Yet reliance on negative-impact fundraising techniques is rising. Competitors with less-invasive revenue generating methods are easier for our listeners to find and use. This is a real threat. It is imperative to find fundraising methods that don't cause so much listener dissatisfaction. That's good customer service and it is good public service. Respectful, non-invasive fundraising should be one of public radio's Core Values.

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