How Audience 98 can inform efforts to acquire donors in the digital era

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This is the second article in a series reflecting on enduring findings from Audience 98, one of the major studies that helped public radio grow into the significant public service it is today.

“If you don’t know where you’re going, you might end up somewhere else.” — Yogi Berra

Public radio’s success in growing its donor base over the past three decades can be attributed to two factors. First, it grew the Core audience to its service. That is, it became the favorite and most valued choice for radio among a growing number of listeners. Second, public radio got better at acquiring and retaining donors.

That success is rooted in research that helped the industry understand the meaningful differences between the listener who supports a public radio service and the listener who does not. Let’s dig in and see how the lessons learned from Audience 98 and prior studies might inform donor growth in today’s multiplatform marketplace.

Givers and non-givers

When developing a donor acquisition and retention strategy, it’s not enough to ask supporters why they give to your service. That’s only part of the equation. It is also critical to understand how a donor’s usage and perception of the service differ from those who partake but never give in return.

Audience 98’s Stairway to Given, which is somewhat akin to today’s audience funnels, helped provide that understanding. Five steps prime a listener to become a donor. This is an important point. The Stairway shows how listening and listener perceptions create the potential for giving, which can then be unlocked by fundraising. Programming is the cause of giving. Fundraising is the catalyst.

Here are the five steps in The Stairway to Given. To become a giver, in order of statistical importance, one must:

  1. Listen to the service;
  2. Rely on the service as measured by frequent and loyal listening behavior;
  3. Find the service Personally Important as measured by how much the listener would miss the service if it were to go away and by the “sense of community” one feels towards public radio;
  4. Hold certain Funding Beliefs, specifically that public radio is funded by listeners and that government support is minimal;
  5. Have the Ability to Afford a gift. Household income (HHI) doesn’t negatively affect giving if one has climbed the first four steps of The Stairway. However, all other things being equal, the wealthiest households (at least $100,000 annual HHI at the time) were more likely to give.  

The power of The Stairway to Given is that each step describes thresholds in station usage, station loyalty, levels of personal importance, and beliefs about public radio funding that distinguish givers from non-givers. Understanding those thresholds helped drive programming, promotion and fundraising strategies that led to public radio’s decades-long growth in audience and givers.

Today’s audience funnels lack the specificity of the Stairway to Given to inform such decision-making. There are a few reasons for this, the most significant of which is that our services, or brands, if you will, are now used across more than one medium. Each medium has its own data, making it challenging to paint a full picture showing how givers and non-givers differ in their usage of the station’s service.

This is where the industry needs a fundamental shift in how we gather and look at data. We need to stop thinking about audiences in terms of technology and start thinking about audiences of the brand, no matter how they access us. Instead of focusing on radio donors and digital donors, we need to focus on brand users and brand donors. Once we get into that mindset, we can bring greater specificity to our audience funnels. And those funnels can be informed by The Stairway to Given.

The remainder of this article focuses primarily on the second and third steps of The Stairway, Reliance and Personal Importance, because they offer the most immediately actionable lessons, irrespective of platform. Remember, these steps are listed in order of their power to convert a user into a giver.  Audience 98 and prior studies showed someone’s usage of the service is a more powerful predictor of giving than their perceptions of the service.


The table below shows key listening behaviors that help define Reliance on the station’s service. The Core Givers segment represents listeners in the Core audience who also give. Remember, the definition of Core is someone who spends the majority of their radio listening time with the station. The Non-Givers segment represents both Core and Fringe listeners who don’t give and are not Lapsed members of a station. Loyalty is the percentage of a listener’s total radio listening time they give to their local station.

Step 2: Reliance on the ServiceCore GiversNon-Givers
Tune-in Occasions Per Week146
% Who Listen Weekdays and Weekends80%41%
Average Years Listening to Station127

There are two key takeaways from this table:  

  • Core Givers were more than twice as Loyal to the station as Non-Givers, choosing the station more than twice as often each week and being twice as likely to listen on weekdays and weekends. That is very different behavior.
  • Non-Givers weren’t slackers when it came to using the service. Their Loyalty of 29% means they spent nearly three in 10 radio-listening hours with their station, choosing it six times per week. Yet after listening to the station for seven years, they still don’t give.

This is certainly something to think about as we seek to acquire and retain donors in a multiplatform world. A history of 12 years of listening, 14 tune-ins per week and 77% Loyalty might not be the minimum threshold for converting a user into a giver, but six tune-ins per week and Loyalty of 30% might not be enough to move the needle.

Knowing these thresholds at the brand level would be helpful as stations plan investments in content, marketing, engagement and fundraising. And while the big data available today cannot replicate the Loyalty measurement used in Audience 98, we can begin to build datasets that capture information on how frequently someone uses us in a week, how long they’ve been using us, whether they use us on weekdays and weekends, both in and out of home, and other factors.    

Let’s start with how frequently someone chooses your service in an average week, since an increase in those choices is a rough proxy for an increase in Loyalty. Even though radio listening is on the decline, it could very well be that your average giver is still using your service 14 times per week or more. Maybe they are only tuning in 10 times but are also opening your daily newsletter four times per week and listening to a podcast or story on demand. Imagine how helpful it would be to know how much or how little live radio a multiplatform user must consume to find themselves Reliant on your brand to the point of moving along the funnel.

That line of thinking also informs how much digital content one must publish that appeals to live radio users and how much digital content one must publish to develop Reliance among users who avoid the live radio service. Audience 98 showed six occasions per week wasn’t enough to create strong Reliance. Are six occasions enough in the digital age to create giving potential? If not, how many occasions are needed to develop Reliance among audiences that don’t use live radio, and can a station create enough content to hit that number week in and week out over years?

Personal Importance

Getting someone to use your brand a lot doesn’t necessarily mean that person will voluntarily support it. The service must be important enough that they would miss it if it were to go away. Strong Reliance and a high level of Personal Importance are both needed for a listener to move along The Stairway to Given. 

Digging a little deeper, Audience 98 uncovered an interesting component of Personal Importance: Sense of Community. This is not community defined by geography. Rather, it is a sense of belonging to a virtual community, one listeners gravitate to because it resonates with their social and cultural values. It is a community valued for the uniqueness of its news and music programming and one listeners seek out when traveling or moving residence.

The table below shows the differences in Personal Importance and Sense of Community among Givers and Non-Givers.

Step 3: Personal ImportanceCore GiversNon-Givers
% Agreeing the Station Is Personally Important98%81%
% With Strong Sense of Community80%45%

Not only does Sense of Community further define the difference between Core Givers and all Non-Givers, Audience 98 also showed that it was an important factor in explaining why some Core listeners don’t give. Here’s what it looks like when we eliminate the “Fringe” listeners who don’t give from the equation, showing us results for the Non-Giving Core.

Step 3: Personal ImportanceCore GiversNon-Giving Core
% Agreeing the Station Is Personally Important98%93%
% With Strong Sense of Community80%59%

Audience 98 shows that users become potential givers when the service they use becomes a part of who they are. This is something we know how to measure and could be applying to audience funnels today. Having such information would be very helpful in evaluating and strengthening the services we offer, developing new ones and crafting fundraising appeals.  

Go with what you know

It seems odd that many media organizations, including those in public media, cite public radio as a model for generating consumer support in the digital era but then fail to apply that proven model to their business strategies.

Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, or the stairway, perhaps it is time to get back to what we know. The underlying business principles of the Stairway to Given are sound. That’s why it looks like an audience funnel. The concept is widely accepted, even if the metrics are unique to public media.  

Let’s measure the Reliance, Personal Importance, and Funding Beliefs of those who consume our brands, irrespective of how they access us, and see how those measurements hold up. We might just find we’ve already arrived at the right answers for succeeding in today’s multiplatform world.

Next in our series: How programming economics might inform investments in building multiplatform audiences.

John Sutton is Interim Chief Content Officer for New England Public Media. His 35-year career in public media has focused on the intersection of programming, audience and finances. Past roles include Director of Audience Research at NPR and VP of Audiences and Revenue at Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting, where he also served as General Manager of WESA. Prior to that, he ran his own consultancy for 20 years, serving dozens of public radio stations and organizations.

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