The last year of American politics has been nothing if not eventful, and the steady barrage of news has been a boon to television programming across the dial. As 2017 and a new presidential administration began, the news media itself even became a story. In Austin, Texas, PBS member station KLRU recognized that a unique moment was taking place.
“We felt like the opportunity was right to point out, in a non-divisive way, that PBS is your trusted local news source and worth supporting,” says Susannah Winslow, the station’s membership director. “After the inauguration and all the news out there about the political climate—and whether the media is biased or not biased—we felt it would be a missed opportunity” not to address the issue with potential donors.
Winslow and KLRU staff crafted an email campaign around PBS NewsHour, Frontline, and Washington Week, asking “What would the past year have been like without public television?” The short email acknowledged the “superior, balanced journalism” of PBS news programming and asked for donations to help support such reporting.
KLRU delivered the email to its entire database of more than 50,000 people. “We had a lot of talks at the senior staff level about sending out this kind of message,” Winslow says, noting the highly charged political environment. “We decided that if we didn’t try it, we would never know what the response would be.”
The response was overwhelmingly positive. With an above-average 20 percent open rate, the email raised almost $3,500 from 24 distinct donors. The average gift amount was $124, with 38 percent of donors becoming sustaining members. “The sustainers came in at $15 a month, which is higher than when we do a [specific] sustainer ask,” says Winslow. “Most sustainers come in at $5 or $10 a month. It was nice to see the sustainers coming in at a higher level.”
Only three negative responses resulted from the campaign, coming from recipients who either didn’t appreciate a politically charged email or didn’t approve of PBS’s reporting. “They said, ‘We love your other shows but we don’t like your news coverage,’” says Winslow.
Though this particular campaign was tied to a specific moment in politics, Winslow says email marketing in general has taken on a much larger role in KLRU’s fundraising strategy. “For the past two years, we’ve been working on really going digital when we’re in a pledge drive,” she says. Though as much as half the money raised during those drives took place online, the station had been hesitant to use email solicitations outside the quarterly campaigns. But last year, Winslow set a goal to, every month, send one solicitation email unrelated to pledge.
She believes these are most effective when they relate to current events or PBS programming. “We want to make sure the message is relevant. It’s got to be tied to something that’s happening,” she says. That message needs to find the right audience, but it won’t find any audience at all if a station doesn’t take a risk. “You have to try. You have to put yourself out there when it comes to email.”
Winslow plans to follow this email with a companion approach targeted to the 10,000 recipients who opened the first email but didn’t donate. A social media campaign and matching KLRU website graphics will accompany it. It’s a new approach, but these results have left her unafraid to experiment. “Sometimes messages fail but sometimes you’ll have a really good response. Like this one. We were pleasantly surprised.”
Natasha Hilton I Senior Associate I Development Services, Digital I email@example.com