Fine-tuning a public TV pitch that resonates

What feels really good: helping others ‘be more’

By Katy June-Friesen

‘PBS gives everyone the opportunity to explore new worlds” — this is the meaning that station communications to viewers and donors should evoke, the network says.

PBS plans to test new messages with stations and make a new round of spots for its “Be More” brand campaign based on new research about language that moves people to donate to pubTV.

The network’s goal is to create more consistent messaging across the system, says Judy Braune, v.p. of strategy and brand management. “When we set out to do the research,” she says, “we were looking to answer the question, ‘How can we position PBS stations as a cause that people want to support for the long haul?’”

PBS discussed the research findings at the PBS Development Conference in October and will review them at the PBS Content Summit in January and at PBS Showcase in May. In March, PBS plans to supply stations with new messaging materials to use on-air, online, and in direct mail and e-mail fundraising efforts.

Be part of something meaningful

“People have a whole variety of reasons why they give” to pubTV, says Margaret Mark, whose company, Strategic Insight Inc., conducted the research. “Some of them feel a direct benefit, some of them give on impulse because they’ve just seen a show they think is really wonderful, and some of them give because they watch PBS a lot and they feel . . . they should be contributing to it.

“They’re all legitimate reasons to give,” Mark continued, “but what we found in this research is that in addition to those reasons there’s a very positive reason that people want to give, and that’s the fact that their station opens up the world for themselves and for other people in their community.”

Nineteen stations participated in the messaging research, which began with focus groups of lapsed, repeat and new contributors in Atlanta and Minneapolis. Researchers spoke with 46- to 65-year-olds and 30- to 45-year-olds from various levels of giving about what motivated them to give. A group of g.m.’s and development and marketing v.p.’s looked at the focus-group results and came up with hypotheses to explain why people give, based on ideas consistently mentioned by present and past donors: being part of something meaningful; getting something meaningful; and believing in something that benefits others. A professional writer was hired to create corresponding messages or “hooks,” and 60 of these messages were tested in Sacramento, Richmond and Boston on nonmembers and on current and lapsed members from various levels of giving.

Each respondent got a stack of index cards on which the 60 messages were printed. They were asked to sort the cards into three piles: messages that would turn them off to PBS and discourage them from giving; messages that wouldn’t affect their motivation to give one way or another; and messages that would motivate them to give. From the pile of motivational messages, they were asked to pick three messages that would motivate them the most.

“Consistently,” says Mark, “the same messages rose to the top.” They all embodied two main ideas — that PBS provides an opportunity for people to explore new worlds and that all are invited on this quest.

The top-rated messages, and some of the bottom-rated ones, are listed at left.

After the index-card exercise, participants met in groups and discussed the messages. People liked the idea that PBS invites everyone in, says Braune, “no matter what their walk of life, socioeconomic status, level of education — everyone’s invited to participate in the experience. The notion of inclusion is a really critical piece of this.” When respondents talked about pubTV providing opportunity to those who wouldn’t have it otherwise, they weren’t just talking about other people — they considered themselves part of this group.

On the flip side, people were turned off by language they felt was elitist or exclusionary. “Among our many hypotheses about message development,” says Mark, “was the possibility that maybe people would be motivated to give because they feel part of a select group of citizens who appreciate really quality programming.” Instead, she says, the majority of respondents felt the idea was “absolutely antithetical to what PBS is all about.”

The message goes out in Bozeman and Austin

The findings prompted lively discussions during and after the presentation at the PBS Development Conference. Development execs said the findings suggest new ways to tweak station messages but also validate assumptions they’d been making about what resonates with donors.

“We always have these suspicions about what people think and why people appreciate what we do,” says Lisa Titus, director of development at MontanaPBS. She says she latched on to the idea that, through pubTV, every person has the opportunity to explore, and now MontanaPBS is beginning to incorporate the idea into its communications.

“Even [in the November-December] pledge drive,” Titus said, “I was using a lot of that language in my mission pitches on the air—this idea that not only is this providing something for you, but it’s insuring that we’re available to everybody.”

One of her on-air pitches during a Three Tenors program went something like this: “Just imagine, your investment in our service ensures that this type of programming is available to everyone. Perhaps your contribution will inspire a young person in eastern Montana to follow their singing dreams, or reconnect an elderly neighbor to the music they love but wouldn’t otherwise be able to see.”

At KLRU in Austin, Texas — winner of this year’s top PBS Development Award in membership fundraising—the PBS research findings mirror what the station learned from focus groups two years ago, says Director of Membership Shane Guiter. He has found that people donate to organizations and causes that they believe will help other people.

Yet some donors haven’t been persuaded that pubTV helps everyone, Guiter said. They see that a donation pays for their own viewing but not for opportunities for others in the community. Talking more about how PBS and KLRU “do it for everyone,” he says, could be useful.

In direct-mail, pledge and major-donor fundraising, KLRU’s messages have been focusing on what the station brings to the community — on and off the air — with the tag “KLRU: TV and Beyond” and pitches such as “We’re doing a lot of great work in this community. With your support we can do a lot more.” The important thing — especially for major donors — is to show the critical impact a station has on the community, says Guiter.

Further, giving donors tangible feedback about where their money goes is critical, says Roberta MacCarthy, senior director of marketing and development at Boston’s WGBH. “Anytime you’re more direct with people and say, ‘Your contribution will fund this particular program’, it has much more success. That’s true in philanthropy in general — especially with boomers, [who] are much more into wanting to see where their dollars go.”

The most important lesson of the messaging research, says Guiter, “[is to] keep asking our viewers and members what’s important to them and how they’d like to be communicated with.”

Member, contributor or investor?

Research indicates that many donors — especially younger viewers — interpreted the word “member” to be exclusionary. The usefulness of the word has been an ongoing discussion among pubcasters, and some stations have experimented with other language such as “contributor.”

Focus-group participants responded positively to inspirational words such as “investor,” “illuminator,” “creator” and “visionary,” said Mark in her presentation. “That language should [not] necessarily replace ‘member,’” she told Current, but it underscores the attractiveness of language that has an exciting and inspirational quality.

Titus wasn’t surprised by the aversion to “member.” “I kind of could relate to that to some degree — maybe it’s being a Gen-Xer,” she says. “We’ve . . . been getting away from it — I’ve been using the term ‘investor’ and talking about making a contribution or donation.” The word “investor,” she says, “has a sense that you’re building something rather than just kind of throwing money at something.”

Stations’ messages also depend on the culture of a place they’re serving. MontanaPBS has generally stayed away from language that is potentially exclusionary, says Titus. “Montana just isn’t a place where any sort of elitism resonates,” says Titus, “so we really haven’t played that up much at all. The big thing that we always play up anyway is our local connection. We talk about MontanaPBS as being the electronic town square for the whole state.”

The findings don’t mean the word “member” is dead, says Beth Suarez, PBS v.p. for development. But, she says, “we shouldn’t necessarily limit [ourselves] to that one word.” The study didn’t find any particular word that fundraisers should use instead, she said.

“One of the things we want to encourage stations to do is experiment with communicating in different ways about the relationship with people who support them,” adds Braune. “Instead of ‘Become a member today,’ maybe say ‘watch,’ ‘log on,’ ‘volunteer,’ ‘contribute’—more action words, more invitational, more representative of the entire experience.”

Although the “membership” concept works well for WGBH, MacCarthy doesn’t want people to think it’s the only way to get involved with a station. “I think that membership is just such a traditional way to contribute to an organization — whether it’s the Smithsonian, or your local museum — that I doubt the word will be going away. But the important thing is for us to realize it’s not a fit for absolutely everybody and we need to have options.”

With the rise of new media, she thinks, people are expecting more and more that communications be tailored to their specific interests.

To motivate people to give — whichever way they choose — messages must be consistent, says Braune. PBS plans to incorporate the concept of opportunity and exploration for everyone into all of its messaging. “The most important thing,” she says, “is consistency of messaging — if we want to really break through and have people really hear us and remember and act upon it.”

Language that causes people to take action reminds them of something they already know, says Mark. “Often there’s a motivator that’s very powerful, but it’s kind of latent — either in the messaging or in people themselves. When we uncovered this [new] messaging, it wasn’t a radical new way to think about what PBS does. It was something that people intuitively sense, but they’re not very conscious of. That’s what really powerful marketing does — it triggers or activates something that people already believe to be true.”

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