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
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
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.
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.
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?
- 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
- 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
- Rinse and Repeat.
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:
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.
- 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 WXZY.org." That's more of a throw away mention than a promotion, but I still counted it.