Targeted Nine Network Passport Emails Help to Lift Total Activations and Minutes Watched

When Christina McPhillips attended the PBS annual meeting last year, she kept hearing about three things: sustainers, digital strategies, and Passport.

She and a colleague also heard a station representative casually mention the need for an email that highlights Passport programming, similar to what KCTS had done. As the Vice President of Business Development at Carl Bloom Associates — a long-time integrated marketing partner for PBS member stations — McPhillips knew those things were top of mind for their clients.

The Carl Bloom team decided a turnkey Passport cultivation email series could be a great help to stations. Once the pieces were aligned, CBA launched the program in September 2017. “Right off the bat, six stations said they were very interested in it,” she says. One of them was the Nine Network in St. Louis.

“We were in the first wave of launching Nine Passport in December of 2015,” says Russ Hitzemann, Director of Membership at the Nine Network in St. Louis. Though Nine didn’t aggressively promote the benefit in the beginning, they did see that it was generating members and revenue. After the first year, they began looking at retention rates. “Our retention rate for Passport is about 56 percent,” he says. “We started asking, how do we make sure we keep these people? How can we engage with them and keep them active?”

He hoped the CBA program would be a good solution. “We were looking for something just like that,” says Hitzemann. In partnership with CBA, the Nine Network began sending a regular email highlighting Passport programming to two groups. To active users, the email informed about upcoming content. To members who had not yet activated, it informed them about the benefit of Passport programming and encouraged activation.

Meeting Expectations

CBA’s “Passport Picks” emails feature a modern, minimalist design alongside links allowing recipients to access their local stations’ page or Passport. The emails deliver on Thursday, which is key to the strategy. “Binge-watching goes up on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” says McPhillips. “So we send it right before they want to watch. The goal is to drive people away from the email and on to watching the shows.”

The results have exceeded Hitzemann’s expectations. In the six months since starting the program:

  • Passport account activations increased by 115 percent compared to the previous six months, and increased 70 percent compared to the same period a year before.
  • Total minutes watched increased by 46 percent over the previous six months and 29 percent over the six months before that.
  • In addition, fewer members were lapsing and average gifts increased among Passport users. (While non-streaming members still give higher average gifts than their counterparts, Passport viewers’ average gift to Nine Network has been increasing at a much higher rate since the email program began.)

“We do know that in addition to the weekly Passport email program, other factors for increases may include the growing popularity of the Passport benefit and the return or premier of popular programs,” says McPhillips. “While our analysis shows that Passport streamers give larger average gifts, in general, Passport streamers tend to be a higher quality member.”

Why It Works

“These people have come on board and they’re engaged in online streaming,” Hitzemann says. “If you encourage them to continue that activity, they see that benefit of membership—so they’ll continue their membership.”

McPhillips can personally attest to why Passport engagement drives renewals. She lives in New York City and is a sustainer for WNET. “I’m in my mid-thirties and binge-watching is a really fun thing to do,” she says. “I’ll wait until Victoria is out on Passport and then watch it all in a couple of days. Making a sustaining gift to be able to do that is ideal for me.” Recently, her sustaining membership lapsed. “I went on immediately and renewed so I could continue watching the series I was watching on Passport.”

Hitzemann says the Nine Network is seeing this demographic trend play out in Passport activations. “If you look at who is joining because of Passport, we’re hitting a much younger group instead of our traditional audience,” he says. “Instead of members 55 and over, we’re getting into that 25-54 window. That group is much more digitally oriented.” Another perk of the Passport emails is that it gives this group insider information. “It puts them in that influencer position in their social group. They know what’s coming up. They can inform others.”

While he admits the email program alone doesn’t account for all the Passport growth at his station, Hitzemann knows it plays a significant role. “It’s an integrated, layered marketing effect. You have to view it through the lens of all the other activity,” like the spikes in Passport activations following heavy national promotions of shows like PoldarkVictoria and Ken Burns’ Vietnam. “Everything plays a part.”

The key, says McPhillips, is that the program-highlighting emails reach viewers where they are—and before they decide what to watch for the weekend. “It’s the right content, on the right day, right before they want to watch,” she says.


Really good thinking, especially leading into weekend bingeing behavior – are Nine or others also doing any social media around this concept? Kudos.