Monday, August 20, 2007

More Technology, Fewer Givers

It wasn’t supposed to work this way. The web was supposed to help public radio get more donors with less expense.

That might be happening at some stations but, according to industry numbers, public radio as a whole is raising more money from fewer donors. After more than half a decade of making web giving available to listeners, the technology hasn’t fulfilled the promise.

Some stations report that donors who give via the web are less likely to renew than donors who give via direct mail. That’s really no surprise since so much web giving is due to on-air drives. On-air givers are also less likely to renew than those who give through the mail.

That pretty much sums up the situation. Most web giving is nothing more than self-service pledging during on-air drives. Usually, the web is a substitute for picking up the phone in response to a pitch break. Some listeners respond to the occasional e-mail notifying them of a pledge drive “special” (challenge grant, sweepstakes, or premium). Either way, the gift was generated because there was a pledge drive on the air.

I recently received two e-mails from a public radio station in the middle of a summer pledge drive. The first e-mail implored me to act fast because “the premiums were flying off the shelf.” The second e-mail encouraged me to contribute while I still had the chance to be entered into several sweepstakes.

Neither e-mail asked me to give because I liked the programming. It’s almost as if the author of the e-mail did not believe the station’s programming was worthy of listener support. No technology can overcome that lack of trust in the listeners. But I digress.

The station continues to use these techniques because it earns enough money from them to pay the bills. That’s the definition of “what works” in public radio fundraising. Even when good metrics are available, they are usually ignored. The fact is this station is not among the top performers in listener fundraising. It does fine by public radio standards but its use of the web is not helping it excel at fundraising.

Perhaps five years isn’t enough time to learn how best to use new technologies. After all, there are stations that still haven’t mastered pledge drives or direct mail. It’s disconcerting, though, to think that all the money and time invested in the web hasn’t even helped the industry hold on to the donors it had.

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