For the Nine Network, results matter and these results were fast, furious and fantastic!
As part of the PBS Sustainer Growth Initiative (SGI)—a year-long study of best practices with ten individual sustainer programs—the Nine Network in St. Louis recently tested the effectiveness of using direct mail to communicate with sustainers. The goal was to encourage sustainers to switch to Electronic File Transfer (EFT) rather than credit card payments.
“When sustainers started rolling out through PBS pledge, we got on that bandwagon,” says Russ Hitzemann, director of membership. The network had been working hard to communicate with sustainers. But when Hitzemann joined the station in 2015, he discovered the usual challenges. “We were bleeding sustainers when I got here,” he says, primarily due to expired or updated credit and debit cards.
EFT, of course, is the solution to that problem. It is the most steady, reliable, and cost-efficient way to manage a sustainer program over the long term, so the Nine Network jumped at the chance to try a low-effort, high-impact test campaign to get sustainers to make the switch.
In the Mail
In August, the network mailed out more than 7,000 mail pieces to sustainers. These letters reminded sustainers why member support was so essential. In addition, it explained how switching a pledge from a credit card to EFT would benefit the station. “Making the switch to EFT saves you credit card interest charges, saves Nine Network credit card processing fees, and ensures that your Sustaining Membership support is something we can count on, so we can continue to bring you great programs,” the letter said.
The mailing was a huge success. “We saw the response days after the mail hit,” says Hitzemann. “They received it and returned it. They came back in fast and furiously.”
To date, the station has received 570 returns, most of which arrived within a few days of the initial mailing. (A few more trickled in, week by week, during the fall.) “The biggest thing we learned was that we need to make sure we continue doing this,” he says, laughing.“I’ve never had a small mailing like that get 500+ reponses.”
The Nine Network had made the EFT request before, but in different formats. “We’ve tried inserts. We’ve used it in all our copy for lapsed and acquisition,” he says. “But it’s effectiveness online was nowhere near its effectiveness in the mail.”
Safe and Reliable
Why is that? Hitzemann has some theories. “You look at the traditional PBS audience, and they’re not as tech-savvy,” he says, noting that the average member age skews older. “They’re still in that traditional mail group. We do electronic renewals too and mail still far out-pulls the online activity. For EFT, it’s easy for someone to put a voided check or a deposit slip in an envelope for an organization they are familiar with.” He wonders if stories about identity theft and hacking may play into certain audience members’ fears about making transactions online. Direct mail takes that fear off the table.
Moving forward, Hitzemann says the success of this year’s effort will likely lead to one or two EFT-focused conversion campaigns every year—along with on-air promotions.
That strategy acknowledges that sustainers are just too important to the Nine Network’s daily operations to leave conversions to chance. “They’re ongoing and sustaining—just like the name implies—and you can budget around that,” he says. “We do in excess of $100,000 a month in sustaining processing.” With numbers like that, transactions need to come with some certainty and lower the percentage of declined payments.
That’s exactly what EFT allows, and based on the Nine Network’s experience, the old-fashioned approach of direct mail may be one of the most successful ways to get those conversions.