UNC-TV Sees Revenue Rise: Ups Digital Investment & Reduces On-Air Fundraising

Last summer, the University of North Carolina’s public television network, UNC-TV, hired Jen Newmeyer as its digital fundraising manager. Newmeyer is a digital fundraising veteran with a long history of nonprofit work, and her position represented the first of its kind at the state-wide network. Over the next fiscal year, that hiring paid off. The network cut on-air fundraising by $500,000, but more than made up the difference, with online giving increasing by $600,000. From FY16 to FY17, online revenue jumped from $831,000 to $1.4 million—an impressive 70% increase.

Newmeyer says the change wasn’t a deliberate decision to reduce one type of fundraising and reinvest in the other. Rather, it was the result of a top-down structural challenge. In July of 2016, after nine years at WSKG in Binghamton, New York, Brian Sickora became UNC-TV’s Executive Director and General Manager. He encouraged the UNC-TV staff to pursue the most effective fundraising methodologies, giving them the freedom to experiment.

His staff was up to the challenge. “It’s my understanding that UNC-TV was among the top ten stations in terms of live on-air fundraising hours,” she says. “There were times when we were holding on-air fundraisers for up to four weeks. We formed a task force and made a list of everything we had heard from the audience that they didn’t like.” Topping that list was the perception that UNC-TV had far too many on-air drives. Those realizations led to a year in which the network began dialing back traditional on-air fundraising efforts—some campaigns used less self-help programming, others simply reduced the number of live days—while also working hard to coordinate every element of on-air fundraising with a digital component.

“It’s been a great learning process,” says Newmeyer. The digital emphasis was broad-ranging, and included collaborations with on-air efforts as well as separate, digital-only campaigns. “We worked together to have a robust email campaign and beefed-up social media involvement for the on-air drives. When we were on-air, we were not only pitching for fundraising purposes but we also incorporated the social presence.” During on-air drives, social media drawings—whether concert tickets or institutional items—brought in thousands of new followers on Facebook.

Separate from pledge, on the digital fundraising side, Newmeyer says Passport did a lot of the heavy lifting. “Of the [$600,000] revenue increase, $327,000 came from Passport,” she says. “When I started, we started working Passport into all of our email communications.” Passport received heavy promotion in specific email campaigns as well as on social media. Although UNC-TV had previously purchased Facebook ads, they began placing ad specific to Passport. The first for Passport reached over 120,000 people and 2,000 clicks. “It’s gone crazy,” says Newmeyer of the response to that ad. “All of that, plus we started mentioning Passport more in the on-air fundraisers as well. We incorporated a Passport message in all of our channels.”

FY16- FY17 Overall Online Revenue Breakdown Comparison

Sustainer growth represented another large section of the $600,000 increase in online revenue, at about $126,000—look for a post about those efforts soon—as did fundraising from several brand-new email initiatives. “When I first started, a lot of my work was making sure our email and donation forms were responsive,” says Newmeyer. “Those online projects were to make sure we look good. Then we began incorporating new campaigns.” Newmeyer expanded the network’s house email list from 80,000 addresses to include prospects by importing them from the PBS Prospect Portal, resulting in a total of more than 230,000 addresses.

“I expected we would see a very large, immediate attrition that would drop right back down,” she says. That didn’t happen. “We’re still at around 210,000.” With that massive list in hand, she began thinking about email fundraising in terms of video series. Several included a brief video from Sickora that asked recipients to support the organization. Others featured viewer testimonials. “We brought in donors who talked about the importance of public media in their life,” Newmeyer explains. Still others pushed premium giveaways or promoted events like the PBS Nerd pilot.

“I always keep the emails very brief,” she explains about her email practices.
“They’re not text-heavy or cluttered. I use a lot of visual elements. The images are compelling and nice and big. With the subject lines, we’re trying to capture the attention of the audience, especially for the email series initiatives we have.” The unsubscribe rates for these email campaigns remained below one percent throughout the financial year.

FY15-FY17 Online Revenue Growth

Other digital tools included free advertising thanks to the $10,000 Google Ad grant and online giveaways of items like cookbooks or train tickets as an email acquisition strategy. UNC-TV even used Facebook to try to re-engage inactive members. “With our file of inactive email addresses, we took them and imported them into Facebook, and ran ads to that group to try to bring them back into the digital world,” says Newmeyer. “We’re doing the same thing now with lapsed donors.”

Since joining UNC-TV and the successes of FY17, Newmeyer has been promoted to Director of Digital Engagement and Fundraising, a position that oversees the social/digital engagement team as well as annual giving initiatives. She hopes to continue to break new ground with on-air and online collaboration across multiple channels. “Our combined digital and off-line efforts were incredibly powerful this year. It’s not quite perfect yet, but we are making great strides.”