There are nearly as many approaches to the details of an effective membership program as there are public media stations. But one thing stations with top-performing programs have in common is that they apply the full array of identified best practices when it comes to membership strategy and technique.
Many stations approach each technique in membership fundraising as if it were performing in isolation from the other techniques: How did our on-air drive perform? What was the response rate on that lapsed letter? What’s the growth rate on our sustainer program? But the long-term health of any one technique is intricately intertwined with the fundraising ecosystem as a whole.
From a long-term growth perspective, for stations where on-air fundraising is still the largest slice of the revenue pie, there is a point where the number of people willing to join as sustainers will begin to plateau. Growth will slow and increases in member numbers will begin to flatten again. We’re already seeing some of these effects as a number of stations with high percentages of sustainers on the file are having a difficult time reaching on-air revenue goals that were previously achievable.
Additionally, as we have all learned, sustainer programs are not foolproof. This revenue can be vulnerable to credit card breaches, requiring stations with large sustainer programs to develop deeper plans and to allocate staff and budgets towards managing sustainer churn, acquiring new payment information and attempting to move these donors over to electronic funds transfer, once again proving that no fundraising program is either free or a silver bullet.
While stations can (and should) intently focus on bringing as many donors onto the file over the air, particularly as sustainers, when it comes to new single-gift members joining the station, a central challenge to achieving healthy growth is the fact that typically only 30% or fewer of a station’s new on-air-acquired single-pay members will return for a second year of membership, and for many of them it will take either an expensive telemarketing phone call or another on-air premium to entice them back, leading to a cycle of member churn and high-cost fundraising.
This fact, of course, is why successful sustainer programs are so valuable to a healthy membership file today. These programs have given the system a way to make on-air fundraising a more viable activity from a net and long-term revenue standpoint.
But maximum program growth will still only occur when both pillars of “retention-positive” membership programs are fully functioning – sustained giving and acquisition mail. Indeed, the strongest and most efficient membership fundraising programs in public media today – defined as those with the largest member ranks – are diverse programs that maximize every technique available.
In fact, as we compare the basic retention curves of monthly giving; direct mail and email; and single-pay donors to on-air drives, it is clear that the retention path of direct mail and email acquired donors is a positive path. Indeed, at a number of stations, after 5+ years have passed, a higher percentage of mail-acquired donors remains on the file compared to sustainers acquired in the same year.