A dozen stations working together alongside PBS to build on Passport’s fundraising potential have prepared a case for deeper investment in the platform.
As public TV leaders begin evaluating how to improve on its performance, two presentations at a Major Market Group meeting that opens Thursday at WETA in Washington, D.C., will focus the discussion. A forthcoming report by PBS consultant Dick McPherson will also gauge how stations are managing the new video service and what their needs are moving forward.
Passport is becoming a significant source of membership revenue for stations, which are acquiring new and younger donors through the platform. Some supporters argue that its performance to date has demonstrated its impact, while critics caution that it’s too early to know how the system will retain this new class of donors.
PBS surpassed a million Passport activations last month, “which is a significant milestone for the system,” said Chas Offutt, PBS senior director of development services. As of Sept. 15, 103 of 128 public TV stations offering the streaming service had seen a 39 percent increase in donations between mid-March and September. The number of donors had increased 50 percent, and 66 percent of all donors are signing up as sustainers.
“Overall, stations report around 40 to 50 percent annual retention, which is higher, if not equal to, pledge as a whole,” Offutt said.
Passport launched December 2015 and quickly drew viewers decades younger than the average public TV member, enticing lapsed members to renew and attracting first-time members.
“About 50 percent of our new donors came in via Passport,” said Susannah Winslow, membership director of KLRU in Austin, Texas, describing results from fiscal 2017, which ended Sept. 30. KLRU began offering Passport memberships in February 2016. “To me, it seems like a new type of donor that we’re still learning how to deal with the best way.”
Winslow is a co-presenter for Friday’s MMG session from the Passport Superusers Group, comprising mostly midsize-to-large stations across the country that have been collaborating and sharing information to understand Passport’s impact and potential role for public TV fundraising.
At the MMG meeting, WGBH in Boston will also present an update on Passport performance metrics, said Michal Heiplik, who directs local development and advises other stations through the Contributor Development Partnership.
CDP is building a Member Analytics Engine that gives stations an easy view into Passport’s performance, and will report on its progress, he said.
PBS invests in Passport
At PBS, Passport is considered key to the system’s sustainability, according to documents defining the network’s goals for the next three years.
The PBS 2020 Strategic Plan notes that the on-air pledge model is vulnerable, while returns on investment for digital fundraising are strengthening. In response, the plan calls for PBS and stations to overhaul their traditional model and calendar for on-air fundraising, and to intensify audience engagement efforts that can drive membership donations through mobile, social, web and over-the-top platforms. “Continued investment in PBS Passport, our membership-video-on-demand platform, is a critical step in this direction,” the document said.
The PBS FY 2018 budget also commits to continued efforts to improve Passport by offering more hours of programming and expanding the platform’s capabilities. Among possible new features are one-click donation, enhancements to PBS’s Bento content management system and cross-platform tools, according to the budget. PBS Digital and Station Development Services are collaborating on enhancements designed to strengthen member stations’ financial performance.
Passport has demonstrated the power of digital fundraising by helping stations’ development teams focus more on donation flows and effective tactics for converting viewers to members, said Ira Rubenstein, PBS chief digital and marketing officer. “I think the best practice is always giving stations options,” Rubenstein said.
The 2018 budget points to additional tools being developed to enable stations to create local fundraising touchpoints. Those include OTT, mobile and social platforms where stations have limited options for cultivating and completing donor transactions. PBS is considering Passport enhancements that would enable donations through Stripe, Apple and Google Pay, for example, and wants to offer smart donation forms, according to the document.
Learning the right mix of channels to promote Passport, as well as adequate resources and time to manage the system, is a process for stations, said Jeff Regen, VP of membership marketing and development services at WETA, and co-chair of the Superuser Group.
“Do we market Passport as well as CBS markets CBS All Access? Regen asked. “Well, no. To be fair, we’re a lot smaller than CBS, this is a much newer product and we don’t have the resources they do. It’s an ongoing process to evaluate what’s working, and to pursue appropriate channels and methods that are going to work the best.”
‘We don’t know where this is all going’
While membership revenues collected through fundraising channels like pledge drives and direct mail are flat or declining, Passport is emerging as a top source for acquiring new donors at many stations, according to several fundraising and system leaders. Although some development veterans question whether Passport is being given too much credit.
“It’s really hard to determine whether Passport is attracting people who would have given to you through pledge, or if it’s different people,” said Anne Ibach, director of membership at Oregon Public Broadcasting. “We don’t know if it’s opening up a new audience, or shifting an audience who might have given to us through on-air or mail or through anything else. I think the answer is ‘all of the above.’”
In addition to revenue growth, Passport’s advocates point to data that show it’s helping stations reach younger donors. Most PBS primetime viewers are 65 and older. At WETA, the average age of Passport-driven donors skews radically younger, with roughly 64 percent age 55 and younger.
“If we want to be relevant, and if we want to fulfill our mission and reach as many people as possible with our content, we really need to be where they are, which means we need a top-notch streaming service,” Regen said.
One critique of Passport is that these donors don’t renew consistently, but retention rates are rising, according to analyses by PBS and stations in the Superusers Group.
At WETA, for example, retention of Passport-driven sustaining members has improved significantly since the service launched. Sixty-eight percent of those who signed up for Downton Abbey in 2016 had maintained their sustaining membership after six months, and 52 percent after 18 months, according to an analysis prepared for MMG. Six months after Victoria enticed a new crop of sustainers in the early 2017, 86 percent of those donors continued their monthly gifts. Hot programs in serial formats are among top donation drivers. The Vietnam War recently surpassed Victoria for recurring donations, according to WETA.
Though stations want to quickly assess what Passport is doing for their membership programs, McPherson, who is collecting station feedback for PBS, cautions against jumping to conclusions. “We don’t know where this is all going.”
McPherson, CEO of New Donor Strategies, agrees that it’s too soon to understand how Passport users, especially new donors, will value their monthly or annual gifts to stations, or whether they will behave like traditional members. His study for PBS reviews 18 months of experience with Passport, based on interviews with stations across the country. As he prepares his report for its expected release later this month, McPherson said he could draw only one firm conclusion: Passport users seem motivated by the promise of watching PBS programs, either for greater convenience or choice.
“What we don’t know about Passport members is much more than what we do know at this point,” McPherson said.
Raised bar for member services
Stations do know that the work of meeting Passport’s demands for customer service is an ongoing challenge. Roughly 75 percent of customer service calls to Ozarks Public Television in Springfield, Mo., are from people “just needing help setting up their Passport for the very first time,” said Jamie Henline, assistant membership manager. Most of the remaining calls are from people who have activated, but are having password issues or trouble getting Passport on their Roku devices.
The station often talks about whether this level of customer service is sustainable, Henline said. On an average day, it is. But when a big show like The Vietnam War or Victoria drops on Passport for the first time, “we will see a huge uptick in Passport activations as well as Passport support calls,” she said.
“As viewers start to understand what the member benefit is and how it works, we’ll probably have an easier time, but it’s still new to them,” Henline said. Overall, the staff at Ozarks Public TV are pleased with Passport and learning as they go. It, too, is a member of the Superusers Group.
Another common challenge for stations is managing the data Passport churns out for stations.
Henline and her membership manager recently tried to review how much money Passport donors brought in, and whether they are renewing or giving additional gifts. “It was a tough nut to crack,” Henline said. “I think we were all pleasantly surprised with how great Passport started performing out the gate, but we’re still trying to maximize the return on it.”
PBS does not report on user behavior with Passport, except in aggregate, said Betsy Gerdeman, senior VP of development services. ”It’s not that we’re unwilling to do that; it’s that we’re unable to do that based on Passport policy,” she said. Decisions about data analysis were made two years ago when PBS established the platform’s business rules. Stations requested that PBS give them the raw data and help them develop relationships with donors at the local level, Gerdeman said.
“How does anybody at a station get their arms around so much data?” McPherson asked.
This is a problem CDP is working to address, and will share with MMG this week. CDP is using aggregate viewership data of more than 40 stations to build analysis and benchmarking capabilities for stations, Heiplik said. The Member Analytics Engine pulls viewership together with other data sources, including giving overlays and demographic overlaps, to produce marketing insights and an overall understanding of the trends related to Passport, he explained.
“In near future, this tool will also enable very precise donor profiling based on content consumption habits and all the other data,” Heiplik said.
This kind of analytic capability is what Skyler Reep of KSPS wants from Passport.
Reep, membership director for the station in Spokane, Wash., said segmentation analyses of Passport data would help improve the recommendations KSPS sends to users. Being able to point them to other content based on their interests is “going to make this thing even more valuable,” he said.
In his interviews with station staff, McPherson also heard concerns about whether people drawn to Passport will lose touch with their local programming. At KLRU, for example, more than half of Passport-specific donations are being referred to the station’s donation form through PBS.org.
“With over 50 percent coming from PBS.org, maybe those people don’t know that KLRU is their local station and what we do in the community,” Winslow said. To help educate new donors, KLRU has started a three-part email welcome series, where donors are encouraged to follow the station on social media, asked what they think about Passport and told the impact of their gift. “We have seen our retention numbers go up, so I’m hoping that’s helping,” Winslow said.
Border stations like KSPS face unique challenges. Half of its KSPS members are Canadians, whose access to Passport and other PBS.org content is extremely limited because of geo-blocking, said Dawn Bayman, director of development. KSPS doesn’t market Passport online to Canadians, and it controls the audiences that see Passport promotions. On air, Passport is promoted with a disclaimer that it’s available only in the U.S. If PBS could acquire North American streaming rights for its programs, that would help border stations offer Passport to Canadian viewers.
“We love Passport; we really want to promote it, but it’s not a good thing when somebody in Canada sees a spot that says, ‘Watch Passport,’ and then they go to our website and they can’t get it,” Bayman said. “We’d much rather take the aboveboard approach to let them know it’s not available in Canada.”
“It’s certainly affected our enthusiasm about promoting it as broadly as other stations,” Reep added.
At PBS, questions about how to accommodate and measure this new class of donors are among the top issues under discussion, Offutt said. Systems for setting and tracking metrics may have to evolve.
“A concern we have in development services is, ‘How do we bring our system up to meet this new class of donor?’” Offutt said. “‘How do we create some organizational readiness to meet not just Passport, but digital?’ Bringing the system up to address the needs of a new class will continue to be a challenge.”
Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Passport is a premium service. It is not a premium service. It also incorrectly reported the number of public TV stations offering the streaming service who completed a survey, and the time period for which some saw an increase in donations. As of Sept. 15, 103 of 128 public TV stations offering the streaming service had seen a 39 percent increase in donations between mid-March and September.