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.

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