Stations improve digital fundraising but still face challenges

Print More

As we head into the 2017 Public Media Development and Marketing Conference, I was asked to provide an overview of the state of digital fundraising based on the work I have been doing for Greater Public and the many observations and conversations I have had with front-line staff over the past two years.

As I prepared this, I kept in mind this accompanying overview piece about the financial and service strength of public radio. As it explains, revenues continue to expand, driven in large part by public radio’s growing role in news.

But as that analysis also suggests, the picture is much less certain when we instead look at public radio’s digital strategy, which will shape our fundraising results in the decade ahead.

In some of the more developed areas of digital fundraising, like email and online pledging, we can see advances in performance that reflect 10 to 20 years’ worth of collective experience. The newer channels, like mobile and social media, are far less developed, with only a few stations making headway through a combination of adequate staffing, sufficient investment, and internal station readiness to adapt to new tools.

Focusing on the full range of digital development practices, here is my view of the state of digital fundraising for public radio as we head to San Francisco:

1. Overall, we are improving.

The online fundraising forms and functions, including fundraising emails, used by public radio stations have improved over the past few years. These improvements include:

  • Online donation pages on station sites are better integrated into general online activity and are no longer placed off the beaten path.
  • “Donate” links are easier to find and are often visible on stations’ apps and content pages on their websites.
  • Secure giving forms are easier to use.
  • Forms are more likely to encourage sustainer giving.
  • Visitors often have more options to subscribe to newsletters, download apps and make a gift when they visit stations’ websites.

That said …

2. We have to develop a “culture of testing.”

This is where public broadcasting now falls short. Too many stations rely on “what we’ve always done” or “what we think works” without actually testing these ideas and practices.

Even some of the best-funded large-market stations do not test digital fundraising practices at an advanced level.

This systemic weakness showed up in last year’s mobile testing project organized by the Station Resource Group. In that project, eight stations worked together to sharpen their mobile fundraising practices. A few weeks into the project, the consultants were already noting in their feedback that stations “did not have a culture of testing,” and only a few stations had in-house staff experienced in the use of digital testing platforms.

What does that mean?

Advanced digital fundraising programs test everything. They test the effect of using the word “Donate” versus “Join.” They test the color of donate buttons and the use of layouts and fields in their forms. Everything is subjected to A/B testing, a standard practice in digital marketing that tests different versions of the same web page, email or app to determine what provides the best results.

That ethic of “test everything” doesn’t appear in most public broadcasting development (or digital service) shops. Even when a station has some interest in testing, workloads leave very little time for identifying and activating testing software. In mobile, the number of digital fundraising transactions is still too low to generate statistically reliable results.

3. Don’t reinvent the wheel.

Stations reporting the best digital fundraising performance are always looking for practices that have already been tried and tested in the larger nonprofit sector beyond broadcasting.

This willingness to borrow, or adapt, already proven practices has enabled us to advance many other aspects of public media fundraising practice. For example, successful fundraising techniques for direct mail, telemarketing and canvassing were first developed elsewhere and then “imported” by public radio stations. Encouraging sustainer giving was already a firmly established practice among nonprofits in Canada and Europe before we picked it up and applied it to public media in the United States.

We need to do the same thing with all aspects of digital fundraising.

4. We need to refine and share useful metrics and best practices.

For legacy membership to work, almost any station can subscribe to Target Analytics or the Contributor Development Partnership’s National Reference File to share and compare stations’ renewal rates, average revenue per donor, percent of sustainers, and other useful numbers.

At the moment, nothing comparable exists for public radio digital fundraising, though nationwide studies identify digital fundraising metrics for the nonprofit world in general, notably the Nonprofit Technology Network’s 2016 study done pro bono by digital agency M&R.

Across the NPR/PBS universe:

  • There are no established benchmarks for conversion rates of website visitors to members.
  • Few stations track their pledge page abandonment rate. Fewer still know if their rate is good, average or poor compared to the nonprofits that contributed to the NTEN study cited above.
  • There is no shared agreement on email fundraising best practices, such as optimal frequency and spacing for email renewal campaigns.
  • We don’t know the cost-benefit to be gained from public radio’s most basic form of segmentation, i.e., member versus nonmember status.

Why should we be sharing information about email? Because:

  • Email is the digital channel most preferred by older Americans, who are the traditional core of public media membership.
  • Many nonprofit fundraisers place an asset value of $10 to $14 for each valid email address they bring onto their file.
  • Last year, email fundraising grew 26 percent nationally, outpacing overall online giving.

5. Mobile is the next big challenge.

The next generation of e-commerce — and “e-giving” — will happen via mobile platforms.

As a system, we are making some progress in terms of mobile-based content delivery via station apps, NPR One, podcasts and Passport (on the PBS side), reflecting a digital world where on-demand content is customized to user interests.

But integrating membership fundraising into that process is a whole different story.

State-of-the-art mobile giving requires a combination of great design, easy payment processing and seamless integration with dozens of different phone carriers.

Large-scale mobile fundraising campaigns usually require an intermediary, usually a company that specializes in mobile campaigns and works out necessary systems and protocols with phone carriers, gift processors and end users. Convenient “one-click” mobile giving requires advanced systems that link phone numbers to the donor’s bank accounts or credit cards.

This is a level of technical sophistication that few stations are prepared to handle.

Some kind of collective service purchase might seem like a practical solution here. But anyone who has been through the process of making a systemwide decision about fundraising technology realizes how difficult that negotiation would be.

This raises a basic question for stations: If we’re not ready to commit to a shared mobile communication and fundraising system — and don’t even know what that would look like — then how can we prepare for the transaction opportunities that will no doubt arise from the world’s most popular technology?

Given the importance of mobile for content delivery, our ability to capture sustaining revenue for digital service will force us to connect the content and fundraising sides of our stations’ mobile communications efforts.

6. As we tackling mobile, we must also address “social.”

Social media continues to perplex and yet excite stations due to its massive reach and (allegedly) low cost. But when used as just another channel for broad fundraising appeals, nonprofits have largely been disappointed with the results, except when the appeals are connected to hot-button political issues.

Looking outside public media, we can see other nonprofits using Facebook as a donor-acquisition channel because it produces a higher ROI than direct mail or telemarketing. My sense is some stations will begin testing paid social media campaigns and, in fact, I have spoken with a number of stations already who intend to increase their spending on Facebook ads in the coming year.

Many nonprofits have begun testing the use of Facebook to increase participation at events, with messaging that treats followers as members of a fan club or “tribe.” For example, a recent peer-to-peer test of the “PBS Nerd” theme at 14 stations drew a high turnout at events advertised on Facebook. Just as importantly, all stations involved found that 70 to 90 percent of the event attendees were new “prospects” who were not previously part of their contact database.

In general, this suggests that ticketed events or appeals based on a focused, timely offer or activity do best in terms of fundraising via Facebook. In other words, a Facebook post about the importance of supporting classical music or journalism may not generate the same level of traction compared to an invitation to a performance or a round-table discussion of an important issue.

All of which is good news for public media fundraising and support. First, Facebook does more than get people to events in large numbers. It gets new people to events. Secondly, the PBS Nerd “tribe” of children and their parents who responded to a post specifically serving the fans’ interests is a promising sign for public media and its aging audience.

Of course, this is only one example of the untapped potential for fundraising and audience involvement represented by social media platforms. Much more testing and research needs to be done if public radio stations are to develop social media strategies that produce real results.

My hope is that during the PMDMC conference and beyond, stations will begin to approach digital fundraising with a single question in mind: By responding to user needs and interest at every point of a digital interaction, how can we convert our audience into fans, constituents and sustaining members, ensuring the future financial security of public media?

Having recently authored a PBS white paper, Dick McPherson has led efforts to help PBS and NPR stations build their membership programs and has coached online news organizations in the use of crowdfunding and content sharing for fundraising. Dick recently directed the creation of a digital fundraising self-assessment tool for Greater Public’s website. He currently advises Arizona PBS (Phoenix) on digital and mobile strategies and serves as the principal digital fundraising adviser to the Public Media Futures Forums.