Balancing PBS Passport as a Channel

Passport packs a lot of power. Only once in a generation do we see an innovation that can have so profound an impact on Public Media. Passport can and will continue to drive acquisition, renewal and cultivation strategies moving forward. But we all know what comes with great power. We may be tempted by this remarkable impact to rely on it too heavily. Our great responsibility, then, is to resist that temptation and work to balance this tool within a broader strategic development program.

Think of it like a health craze. Who hasn’t been swayed by the latest miracle cure or fad diet? The new and exciting shifts everyone’s focus away from a holistic point of view—just as we may see in our treatment of Passport. Your doctor wouldn’t tell you to focus solely on your Vitamin C intake when we require so many vitamins and nutrients to stay healthy. Similarly, to keep our donor program healthy, we can’t focus on just Vitamin Passport. We must also keep up with Vitamin Pledge, Vitamin Direct Mail and the other vital donor nutrients. 

When Passport launched, stations saw an influx of new donors attracted by the benefit. Stations felt energized with this new growth, but growth stimulated by something new cannot continue at the same rate forever. In fact, we have already noticed Passport-driven growth beginning to plateau. Stations sharing data with CDP have seen Passport acquisitions drop between 8% and 30% year over year. We have also seen total monthly revenue from Passport donors decline, indicating Passport's efficacy as a retention tool is waning. For example, we see a 28% attrition rate of non-Passport acquired sustainer donors after a year, whereas the rate for Passport acquired sustainer donors is 34%. There is no disputing that Passport has value as an acquisition and retention tool, but these numbers demonstrate it is only one piece of the balanced meal needed to keep our programs healthy.

Finding balance will demand better understanding of Passport as its own donor communication channel. What are its strengths and weaknesses relative to the other channels we use? We know Passport can attract younger donors and people motivated predominantly (or, in cases, solely) by the benefit. We also know that Passport donors can lower our average gift and they tend to be more transactional and do not stay active donors as long as others.

How can you optimize Passport as an appropriately balanced donor channel within your program?

Be careful when designing your online giving forms for instant gratification. Instant gratification may confuse donors not specifically motivated by the Passport benefit, resulting in an inadvertent reaction of “What is this? Did I get charged extra?”

Don’t market Passport so heavily that it overshadows the importance of our mission. Remind donors that public media is much more than another streaming provider. (And keep in mind that, other than Netflix, most streaming providers have high churn rates—not a model we seek to emulate.)

Do what you can to increase Passport acquired donors’ engagement through regular alerts about the content available to them. CDP currently offers stations two monthly Passport emails: The first highlights two to five programs or series, and the second provides an in-depth promotion of a single Passport program or series.

Avoid bundling premiums into your Passport-dedicated pages. Our testing has shown conversion rates drop with the addition of a premium offer, and the decreased conversion rates negated any gains in average gift created by the bundling. Adding premiums only exacerbates the appeals' implicit transactional tone.

Again – Passport is powerful and here to stay. But it's not a cure-all. No one channel can work miracles. Rather, all of them must work together to nourish Public Media so we can continue to serve our donors and society at large.

Frank AuerComment