After re-imagining pledge a year ago, Vermont PBS proclaims its “experiment” a resounding success! “It’s not an experiment for us anymore. This is just our way of fundraising now. We’re going forward with it.”
Last year, around this time, we reported how Vermont PBS had been working to adapt WNET’s less-is-more pledge strategy, which “gave back” primetime hours to viewers by spreading pledge throughout the year rather than intense quarterly pledge drives.
Following that example, Vermont PBS jettisoned its quarterly pledge drive in early 2018, instead building pledge into a consistent baseline weekly schedule. “We set aside Thursday night for pledge, as well as Saturday afternoons, Sunday mornings and Sunday afternoons, with some overnight peppered throughout the week,” says associate membership director Katie Graham.
A year later, Graham says the experiment was a success. On-air sourced revenue is almost 18 percent over its goal. “We’re 31 percent over where we were total in FY18,” she says. “Either way we look at that, we’re doing pretty well and we’re happy with it. So we’re going to continue with this going forward.”
“On-Air source revenue is up 31% over 2018 totals”
Graham projects that this year will end up being comparable to FY17—and that’s with fewer break minutes. In terms of membership, Vermont PBS has increased on-air sourced members by almost 50 percent. “Already, we have 426 more new and rejoined members over FY18. We’re very encouraged by that. I’m not even talking about general membership through mail or digital or anything. These are all just sourced as on-air donations,” Graham explains.
“Already, we have 426 more new and rejoined members over FY18!”
Adjusting the Schedule
Contrary to WNET’s approach, the station immediately recognized that overnights weren’t going to find success in a more rural setting. “In Vermont that just doesn’t work. We pulled that pretty quickly,” Graham says. But otherwise, the initial pledge schedule design proved to be a good idea. “I think, for the foreseeable future, we’re going to stick with Thursday nights in primetime and the standard few [mostly self-help] morning programs on Saturday and Sunday,” she says, followed by a full pledge weekend once a month. “That’s going to be our template going forward.”
It helps that the Thursday night pledge is preceded by Made Here, a weekly local series that showcases work from Vermont filmmakers, which the station promotes heavily. “We’re just trying to boost that audience a little bit to have a carryover into pledge programming,” she says.
Graham points out that, overall, the station is not exactly pledging less than the previous model, but is pledging less intrusively. “We already have ten percent more break minutes in FY19 than we did in FY18,” she says. “It’s really surprising to see.” That amount is still fewer than FY17, when the station pledged its secondary PBS Plus channel and its Create channel more aggressively.
“We’re not pledging less…we’re pledging less intrusively.”
Graham suggests those two outlets represent an area for growth over the next year. “We’ve been looking at ratings and our Create numbers are really high, so we’ve started adding pledge programming on Create to some moderate success. That’s been really encouraging as well,” she says. “We get more flexibility there, during primetime. We’ll see where that takes us.”
One of the biggest challenges of the new strategy, of course, has been rights management of pledge programming—especially for shows with limited rights. “Our programmers have been incredibly savvy in managing the rights of the pledge shows to be strategic,” says Graham. “Our hope is that this is a challenge that will be mitigated as more stations try this method of on-air fundraising.” Should that occur, she believes the demand for additional releases and extended rights will grow. “We’re hoping that changes over time.”
Another strategic piece of the puzzle has been the station’s commitment to maximizing exposure of sustainability messaging between shows. Graham and the Vermont PBS traffic department paid particular attention to how to balance that messaging among other promos and corporate support. “We wanted to ensure that we placed the fundraising messaging in spots that had a better chance of being seen,” she says.
In terms of best placement strategy, the team zeroed in on the “A” and “Z” spots—the first and last ones to run in conjunction to a program. “It’s right after the end of the show and right before the new show starts,” Graham says. “That’s our prime real estate.” She admits it’s hardly a groundbreaking idea, since everyone in the business recognizes those are prime positions. That’s why it’s so crucial to the strategy. “If we really want to highlight a show, that’s where we put that specific show promo. For the most part, that [position] is dedicated to sustainability messaging. We are just being really, really deliberate about how we program the 3 minutes and 14 seconds we get in between shows,” she says.
“Strategic placement of a spot is crucial – immediately before or after a program”
Below is a “show-specific” on-air spot that Vermont PBS created as part of its “Giving Back Primetime” campaign. These air prior to core programs during the week of traditional pledge drives.
Better for Viewers
Looking back, Graham identifies the viewer response as one of the strategy’s primary success stories. “Nobody has called us complaining. We’re keeping the members happy,” she notes. “I really do think that the spreading thin of pledge throughout the year is just great for member services and customer service.”
Before the shift, she remembers being in the second week of a March or December pledge drive and fielding countless calls from viewers asking when their programming would return. “Those calls have ceased completely—one hundred percent,” she says. “We’ve not gotten one phone call from anyone saying that we’re pledging too much.”
“Complaint calls have ceased 100%”
Better for Staff
Graham also points out that removing the workload ebb-and-flow of pledge season has resulted in a calmer environment. “I’ve worked here since 2011, and when we were doing those quarterly pledge drives, it could be a frenzy leading up to them,” she says. “It was stressful on the development staff as well as production. We’d have live nights and be pre-taping and it was this big, amped-up workflow. Then the roller coaster dipped down until the next pledge drive.”
That’s no longer the case. “Just like revenue has stabilized, the workflow has stabilized. It has become much less of a stressor on different departments,” she says. “You can still get really great numbers and have a steady workflow throughout the year.”
“Workflow has stabilized”
Better for Strategy
Instead of always planning around pledge, the change gives the station more freedom to pursue strategic efforts. “We are being more thoughtful about things, putting more projects together and partnering with more organizations and companies,” says Graham. “It’s changed the way I approach fundraising. Interdepartmental collaboration has really benefitted.”
In fact, Graham speculates that Vermont PBS doesn’t really even view the change as a test run any longer. Instead, it’s the new normal. “I just can’t see us turning back and going the other direction. Even though we are 10 percent over last year in on-air pledge minutes, we’re still below where we were in FY17,” she says. “It’s not an experiment for us anymore. This is just our way of fundraising now. We’re going forward with it.”