In my 15+ years working in and along with public broadcasting, there’s been a growing debate on the role of “membership” in individual fundraising and whether it should continue to be emphasized in pledge drives and direct mail — or even continue to be the model at all. The generational argument is the one most often used — that Boomers don’t like to join things like their GI Generation parents did. That they don’t like the perceived commitment but would rather just throw their money at something and take their tote bag and run. And certainly many of those community bastion-type organizations popular in 50s and 60s civic life — the Lions Club and the Elks and their kin for example — have seen their numbers dramatically fall over the last few decades.
So, on public broadcasters’ websites, we don’t see “Join” or “Become a Member” as much as we see “Support this station.” But is that still the right thing to do? Has that tactic really borne fruit in the half dozen years or so since it was summed up best in a study that net consulting firm Adaptive Path did for PBS?
Asking for pledge support is a tricky proposition – a simple change in language can be perceived as crass or overly commercial. Pairing your call letters with the term “Support” broadens the concept to include Volunteer opportunities, membership, and corporate sponsors. It also helps differentiate this label from “Customer Support” – a term users frequently encounter as they browse the Web. Terms that didn’t test as well included:
• Membership — too much commitment
• Join — too direct
• Make Your Pledge — “Don’t tell me what to do!”
• Donate — too focused on money
Well, now PBS’ MediaShift blog proposes the exact opposite strategy — that memberships will in fact keep media companies going. And they’re not just talking public broadcasting.
Sure, they mention Minnesota Public Radio’s recent milestone passing the 100,000 member mark. But they start with things like the New York Times’ Wine Club. One UK newspaper declared its membership strategy in its classified ad for General Manager of its “Guardian Club.”
“Increasingly we believe our future resides at the centre of a community of engaged readers and users, whose relationship with us will be much closer and more involved,” read the ad. “The Guardian Club will be our transformational next step in bringing these customers to the centre of our business, rewarding loyalty while growing our reach and revenues. We want members of the club to feel that they are genuinely part of our organisation, and as close as it is possible to get to the editorial heart of our company.”
One blogger they quote lauds Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly’s Premium Membership for his good business model (while holding his nose at the content). But he also notes:
The O’Reilly Premium Membership isn’t especially innovative, in that some Hollywood stars, other celebrities (and especially porn stars), and athletes do the same sort of thing. E.g., Miley Cyrus‘ special fan site will cost you $29.95 a year or $2.95 a month.
So, was public broadcasting too quick in trying to kill off memberships? Granted, only a handful of stations have really made a concerted effort to lose the member language, but are they seeing overly spectacular results? Let’s not be too hasty. This might be an idea set to expire.