Start a Conversation: On-Air Language for Sustainer Conversion

When it comes to on-air fundraising messaging, I prefer to leave little to chance.  Anyone who has face-palmed after hearing talent ‘let their hair down’ and ‘riff’ on scripts or talking points knows what I mean.

That’s not to say that “from the heart” pitches are all bad, especially when it comes to program Cases.  However, those of us in the marketing business who allow talent to explain something as critical as Sustainers in their own words may very well end up hearing the following:

“If you haven’t heard about our Sustainer program, you should really try it.  That’s where we go into your bank account every month and take money out until you tell us to stop.”

Face palm.  Yes, somebody actually said that.  Was the talent talking about the back-end process of Sustainer EFT deductions or is the station perpetrating a phishing scam?   I hear iterations of that and other imprecise, inside-baseball, wonky, reputation-damaging language going out on the air all of the time.  Some reasons why this happens include:

  1. Not enough staff time to write cogent, readable, clear-cut messages

  2. Talent who rejects having words put into their mouths because they have it ‘figured out’ and feel they can do better

  3. With all good intentions, talent & membership team wish to be ‘transparent’ about how things work at the station and try (unsuccessfully) to verbalize key points

  4. Concern that being repetitive will drive audience away

  5. Updated messaging sits in a binder that few pitchers ever crack open.

There may be more reasons, but let’s take those above point by point.

  1. Not Enough Time

As many of us tell the staff in pre-drive launch meetings, an on-air fundraiser is a chance to tell the station’s story and allow the audience to demonstrate their values through donations to the station.  Every minute counts, and ultimately the station’s integrity is on the line every day of the drive.  Yet there is only so much time that one can devote to freshening up messaging, especially if one wears several hats.  The key to success is to prioritize and carve out a little time between campaigns to swap, share, edit & solicit messages.  Staff (especially content producers) input is helpful, as long as the membership teams make the message donor-centric, giving the donor credit for the achievements.  Prioritize: start with scripts that contain concepts that require precise language such as Sustainers, government funding, and other funding facts.

  1. I Got This

Experienced on-air talent have a set of tried (and sometimes true) messages they trot out during drives that can at times sound like poetry.  More often it’s outdated, guilt-producing and negative (“Only 1 in 10 people give,” “You are the public in public radio”).  Talking points or carefully-crafted scripts that are written for the ear (100 words or fewer) will provide talent with the tools needed to achieve the desired effect, while maintaining the integrity of the programs.  Have talent test them out prior to the drive and help you make them sound less ‘read-y.’

  1. Transparency

Marketing is about emotion, framing, decision-making, and action.  When you make a plea and convince someone to take an action during an on-air campaign, you accomplish a kind of miracle.  A drive is neither the time nor the place for long-winded, technical, wonky or formal language.  It’s off-putting and confusing, which decreases conversions.

Let’s take Sustainers as an example. We’ve already seen how ad-libbing can get one into trouble, so to avoid those pitfalls use precise Sustainer language that addresses donor-centric benefits, such as convenience.  My colleague Amanda Goodwin distilled the essence of Sustainers into the following phrases:

Sustainers are people who make ongoing monthly contributions that automatically renew. 

Sustainers enjoy the ease of monthly giving and the convenience of automatic renewal.

I like to refer to Sustainers as people, not a program or method of payment, because Sustainers often claim that mantle themselves as a point of pride.   Some stations like to tell donors right up front how they can cancel their membership at any time, which seems like a ‘money back guarantee’ promise but sounds like they are talking the donor out of actually sustaining their Sustainer gift.  How about:

You are always in control of your Sustainer membership.  Visit (web site) to update your credit card information, give a little extra during the drive, and learn about your benefits. 

You can always explain the ‘fine print’ of Sustainer giving through a ‘bill of rights’ or FAQs on your web site.  Grab samples of Sustainer language at CDP’s password-protected site.  Please contact us if you need a password.

  1. Repetition

Given the brevity of radio drives and the serendipity of viewing during TV drives, repetition really shouldn’t be an issue for your audience.  The only people who are truly bothered by repetition are staff members.  It’s fine to vary the messages within the confines of the category (Sustainer, Case, Call-to-Action, Premiums, etc.) but keep the language and calls-to-action consistent and in use during each break.  Effective comprehension of fundraising messages requires repetition.

  1. The Rarely Used Binder

Putting scripts in a binder may keep them organized, but that doesn’t facilitate usage.  If you are frustrated that all of your editing work has gone for naught because pitchers don’t paw through the binder for messages, it’s time to provide them with specific written messages for each break.  Categories on a white board just aren’t enough to make the messaging tighter.  Some stations use 5X8 cards, but that still puts the onus on the pitchers to choose the messages for each break.  The goal should be for the producer to prepare the on-air team for each break so their time and energy could be focused on performance and conversion, rather than messaging strategy.

It can be a challenge to change culture.   The argument for being prepared with the most effective messaging that increases conversion while maintaining the integrity of the talent and station should be enough to convince staff of its benefits.  If not, just read that first Sustainer quote out loud and see if that results in a face plant.  I’d be worried if it didn’t!

What do you think?  Please share ideas and resources for CDP community stations.

Barry NelsonComment