The child’s eyes are significant. The look of the mother is a potential drawing point. Research is conducted in search of the most heart-wrenching, emotional stories. From a dozen possible stories, seven are selected for air, a focus group assisting in identifying the strongest story to be repeated during the segment.
If this all sounds like a day on a studio lot instead of an international charity, the notion isn’t completely off base. Direct-response television (DRTV) continues to be a resource for fundraisers to make giving personal with emotional touchpoints applicable across more platforms.
Stories and the emotional factor continue to be the most important elements for a DRTV spot, according to Angel Aloma, executive director of Food for the Poor, based in Coconut Creek, Fla. A 58-minute spot for the organization features eight segments, seven stories with the strongest story played at the beginning and repeated either in the middle or at the end. Decisions have been made to keep a solemn tone, as content with smiling children tends not to perform well for the charity. “The hungry dog gets the bone. The lean dog gets the bone,” Aloma explained. “If they see happy children they don’t think consciously, but subconsciously, ‘Oh, this has been taken care of.’”
Additional elements of Food for the Poor DRTV spots include appearances by Cheryl Ladd, a Christian celebrity of “Charlie’s Angels” fame who resonates with the giving generation, donor testimonials, and a few words from Aloma as a representative of the organization.
Food for the Poor began testing DRTV in 2011 and rolled out its program in 2012. The initial outlay for the two weeks of shooting in the field, production, and focus research were “very expensive,” Aloma said, declining further detail, but the program has paid for itself, he said. In addition to being a fundraising method, Food for the Poor’s DRTV spots provided recognition for the organization at call centers and through its mail program.
Aloma credited the DRTV campaign with increasing the number of credit-card donations among monthly donors. Credit-card donations provide a large advantage compared to check donors, Aloma said, because the organization is guaranteed the 12 donations instead of risking a donor forgetting to write a check. Attracting monthly donors also benefits the organization’s long-term future, according to Aloma, as monthly donors tend to stay longer and provide fertile ground to future planned giving.
At the start of Food for the Poor’s DRTV program the organization was receiving monthly gifts averaging $21 with the percentage of credit-card donations in the mid-40s. Today, the average gift is up to $25 and the percentage of credit-card donors has increased to 63 percent.
Little has changed in Food for the Poor’s approach in its five years of broadcasting via DRTV. Stories were swapped out after three years and reused in markets that had not previously seen them. A growing number of channels has been beneficial from a competition perspective as they have led to increased options and better rates. The cost of airing a 58-minute spot can range anywhere from $500 to $15,000 depending on the channel and market, Aloma said.
Local channels, predictably, tend to be less expensive than national and cable is usually the most affordable. Food for the Poor targets all of them at various times of day, testing the best combination of upfront cost and donor response. Primetime airings tend to do better than the middle of the night, but every timeslot garners some sort of response, Aloma said. As a religious organization, Food for the Poor’s spots do well when airing after religious programing, but they also do well after Law and Order reruns. “I don’t know if religious people have a mind for criminal justice, as well,” Aloma said.
The key component to a DRTV spot is visual, emotionally-driven stories, according to Geoff Peters, CEO of Moore DM Group. Such emotion needn’t be “flies in the eyes” with individuals on screen in anguish, but content that triggers some sort of visceral response — joy, sadness, anger, etc. — is necessary. Positive and uplifting tend to work best in Peters’ experience.
The other variable to consider with DRTV is the types of donors to be attracted. The long-term value with DRTV spots is with monthly, sustained donors, not one-offs, according to Peters. This is important to note for two reasons: One, the messaging in DRTV spots must display a long-term need as opposed to something that can be solved with one big campaign push; and, Two, a sustainer infrastructure must be in place or created to handle repeated transactions and donor communications.
In terms of format and cost, DRTV has traditionally functioned either in long-form — a 30-minute or longer spot similar to that of an infomercial displayed on remnant air time on weekend days and late night — or short-form — a 60- to 120-second commercial also aired on remnant time. When Moore DM Group entered the DRTV space five years ago, the firm almost exclusively keyed into short, 120-second spots. It was determined that 120 seconds was what it took to tell a good story and capture an audience as opposed to “tombstone ads,” which refer to ads that simply give an organization’s name and what they do.
Instead of following the typical short-form format, however, Moore DM Group targets vacant primetime slots. While zeroing in on unpurchased primetime slots costs 30 to 50 percent less than general primetime airtime, it’s still more expensive than remnant time, according to Peters, but potentially yields better results with vastly more viewers. A remnant-time strategy might run a client $750,000, which would cover the production of three 120-second spots, money to buy airtime, and an understanding of how DRTV works for them.
A “high-velocity,” primetime rollout can cost closer to $2 million for three 120-second spots, airtime, and strategizing. The entire sum isn’t necessary upfront, Peters said, and there are checkpoints after storyboarding, after filming, etc., in which an organization can opt out to avoid further costs.
Peters believes that behind-the-scenes changes coming to DRTV include back-end tracking, trying to narrow the spot seen to the donation down to the minute, an exercise made more difficult by the rise of DVR. Neuro-testing, analyzing how viewers’ brains react to content, is another area that commercial producers have worked in for three or four years that should be popularized in the nonprofit space.
Syndication is one strategy organizations are investigating on the creative side. A popular move for network television shows, syndication could allow a veterans charity, for instance, to create a 30-minute program to both entertain troops and also educate audiences on work needing be done and then sell it to networks for upfront or ad dollars.
Integration and product placement are other trails being blazed. Shriners Hospitals for Children, for example, has been featured on the soap opera General Hospital, giving the organization the opportunity to circulate its name and mission all within the constructs of a television program.
The DRTV space has evolved with the times during the past decade, added David DeBetta, vice president of media buying for Russ Reid, an agency that works with nonprofits. DRTV spots were about the sick children that needed donors’ help when DeBetta started 12 years ago. The education component is less necessary now. Anyone can turn on CNN and see that there is a refugee crisis. Explaining what the organization is doing to make an impact and detailing progress is more important with modern spots.
The rise of online fundraising has made it difficult to track which supporters were spurred by DRTV. Years ago, it was a pretty easy bet that if a person dialed a specific number to make a donation, the donor was driven to do so by a DRTV spot. “Influencer” has become a buzz word of late, referring to scenarios in which a viewer sees a video, goes online to research further, and then donates.
DRTV is also becoming a means of reactivating donors. Today, 25 to 30 percent of donors acquired via DRTV are lapsed donors, according to DeBetta, up from about 20 percent three or four years ago. Donors cut back on the number of organizations they support following the economic downturn in 2009, but are giving again. They might even still associate themselves as supporters of an organization despite having not given in a number of years. They just need to be reminded, he said.
The multiplicity of various mediums has and will continue to be a driver. Russ Reid staff now talk about “video” as opposed to “television,” DeBetta said.
The old days of just shooting a commercial are gone. Now, it’s about going into the field and shooting a full spot, a two-minute commercial, a promo, Facebook Live content, and so on. What used to be the content for the DRTV spot and B-roll footage is now more intentionally put together to develop a variety of content that provides consistent messaging across channels. A subsequent request for production pricing figures was declined.
The variety of video content options also creates increased competition for eyeballs. “I don’t think anybody watches TV anymore without another screen accompanying it,” DeBetta said.
Targeting is the new-wave capability coming down the pike. DRTV spots primarily air on Saturdays and Sundays, yet the busiest donation times are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Being able to follow up with a viewer a few days later with additional content is a big opportunity. Geo-targeting, targeting content in areas where events were recently held such as a run-walk for an organization, is also a possibility.
The question to be explored, DeBetta said, is at what point does such targeting become too Big-Brotherish? It is possible to know that somebody viewed an organization’s video content based on their Internet protocol (IP) address, but finding the right mix between targeting and coming on too strong is a challenge to be weighed.
Technological capabilities available now as compared to when Operation Smile entered the DRTV space in 2002 amaze Ryan Wallace, manager of digital strategy and media. Adjustable advertising allowing organizations to get granular with targeting opportunities and automated ad exchanges that Wallace believes are around the bend are among new and exciting capabilities nonprofit leaders might be talking about in earnest in the years to come.
DRTV fundraising in Hispanic markets is one area in which Operation Smile, based in Virginia Beach, Va., has seen a good deal of success for the past three or four years. It has been so successful, according to Wallace, that an entire Spanish-language show has been produced with actress and singer Roselyn Sánchez. Operation Smile is now expanding into digital efforts directed toward Hispanic audiences.
Core messaging has remained relatively unchanged for Operation Smile during the past decade and a half, Wallace said. The organization has an in-house content team dedicated to patient stories and the economic, medical, and volunteer impacts of cleft palate surgeries. Operation Smile redid its program in 2014 for the first time in eight years with a focus on telling the patient’s journey complete with life before surgery, how they reached the medical mission site, life after surgery, and circling back to see how they’ve done since.
“Our goal there is to demonstrate the need and demonstrate the impact of our donor dollars,” Wallace said. “I think that’s communicated naturally in the journey of a patient.”
What has changed has been the way viewers consume content and the approach in reaching them. The linear progression of producing a television spot, including a phone number, and tracking the calls in are things of the past. The omni-channel approaches have risen. With omni-channel, a similar narrative must flow through a 60-minute television spot and a 30-second online piece all while making tweaks to best meet the needs of each format.
“People are no longer thinking in that linear format,” he said. “People are channel-agnostic for the most part. Gone are the days you’re building content for one channel. You really have to take a multi-channel approach.”