Before she passed away a few years ago, direct response expert Mary Hutchinson, from “Inspired Direct” outside Boston sent me this most excellent post that you should forward to anyone considering going on TV or starting a non-profit or religious media ministry:
Five Things You Need to Get a Response on TV
Non-profits, religious organizations, and infomercial producers are still expanding their scope to the airwaves. And why shouldn’t they? We live in a media-savvy culture, one that spends, on average, more than 20 hours a week in front of the television. Competition for our attention – like the Internet – certainly exists, but no other medium has the ubiquitous reach that television does. It’s still the one we turn to most often for news, weather, products, entertainment . . . and, for some, God.
My experience with television response brings to the forefront five fundamental functions every successful one has to have in place before airing its first program. Whether you’re a small church hoping to broadcast your Sunday service each week on a local TV channel, selling products, or raising money for a cause these aspects of response TV are must-haves and will lay the foundation for connecting with an audience.
1. Inbound phone provider
Think ahead to what your first day on air will look like. No matter what you do, you will be starting a dialogue, talking to your audience in one way or another. And because you’ll want to give viewers an opportunity to talk back, you should provide them with an 800-number during the broadcast.
The question is, who will be listening on the other end?
Some ministries think that they can take on this function themselves. After all, who can talk to viewers and provide superior customer service better than someone from their own staff? But the professionals have a lot to offer. They’re experts in effective resource management and have a malleable workforce. They can reallocate their resources when your callers need more – or less – attention. In addition, they’re trained to upsell and cross-sell, seizing every call as an opportunity to deepen the relationship between your organization and an individual caller.
If you still think some internal staffer can handle inbound calls, consider the following points:
Your donors expect – and deserve – the best. In the 24/7 consumer society we live in, people count on excellent customer service. They don’t like waiting 10 minutes for someone to answer their phone call. And if they’ve purchased a product, fulfilling their order in six to eight weeks is no longer acceptable. The professionals can deliver on service better than you can.
You can benefit from the outside perspective. Vendors work with dozens of organizations. While they cannot share specific details about their clients, they’ve seen enough of what others are doing to provide wise advice on what you’re doing and how you can do it better, cheaper, or more effectively.
If you work with a provider, the problem is no longer yours to solve. The vendor will charge you more when volume increases, but the additional cost will be incremental – not a matter of hiring two or three new salaried staffers. Keeping everything in house can detract from your mission. I’ve seen this happen again and again to ministries. The staff focuses on the Next Big Thing – organizing an upcoming conference, producing the annual report, writing a newsletter – and other aspects of the organization suffer. But something as key as inbound phone service must always be working at top performance. So, consider allowing the professionals to handle it, and do what you do best: run your ministry and reach others via TV with the Gospel.
Those four considerations don’t relate solely to your inbound phone strategy; they’re reasons to move other functions out of house too.
2. Communications strategy
Let’s say your ministry is on television. Viewers are calling in, and your inbound phone provider is doing a phenomenal job dealing with their questions, comments, and requests. Now it’s your turn to enter the dialogue again yourself – this time through the mail.
The first letter should be very affirming and nurturing. As long as you send this initial package and reply envelope as soon as you can after receiving a call, you have a good chance of getting donors to fulfill their commitment – and may even receive a second gift. The second letter should delve into your mission – not only what your ministry is doing on TV but what it’s doing elsewhere. And the final piece in this series should invite readers into a deeper partnership with the ministry.
You can glean some valuable information about your donors from this process. Some of them will not want to continue to support you financially. They were happy to make one gift, but they don’t want to stand with you in the long term. You’ll need to let some of these people off the hook. Their lack of interest may not justify the financial investment to continue mailing them. Others, however, can be propelled into a monthly mailing, a vehicle through which you can tell your story over time, regularly giving readers a reason to support you, and establish different giving levels.
Again, your knee-jerk reaction may be to bring your direct-mail program in house. But heed this warning: planning, writing, and designing direct-mail appeals is a specialty. The professionals can bring a lot to the table, and if you don’t want to sign with an agency for 90-plus days, you don’t have to. You can work with a team of outside experts on an as-needed basis, so consider all your options before deciding.
3. Database provider
Supporting both the inbound phone calls and direct-mail pieces is data. That information – donor names, addresses, phone numbers, gift amounts, product purchases, etc. – is your most valuable asset. Without it, you don’t know anything about your donors, and without your donors, you may not be able to continue your broadcast.
Five words of advice for you on this front: move it out of house. Those reasons for farming out your inbound phone function still apply, but also consider these factors when evaluating how to administer your data.
Your data’s safer in someone else’s hands. I’ve seen the worst happen: a ministry cedes control of data to a single employee, someone who can write proprietary software and keep your database purring. Do not give one person this responsibility. What will you do if he or she becomes sick – put your organization’s activities on hold? What will you do if that database employee gets mad, really mad . . . and destroys years of data? (It sounds extreme, but I’m not kidding. I’ve seen the giving records of 100,000 people go up in smoke because an employee with a monopoly on the data was upset over a sermon made by the head of the ministry.)
An outside vendor can give you access to cutting-edge technology. A good database administrator knows the value of staying ahead of the curve, and you need cutting-edge technology and statistical procedures for the best data analysis.
You’ll benefit from a flexible data environment. As your organization grows, so will your database. An outside vendor will scale your service with your needs and ensure a solid database structure that can be used for years to come. If you keep this function in house, buying a new server or two is your expensive responsibility. You’ll get Web access to your data. A quality external vendor should provide 24/7 access to graphical reports showing database performance trends and campaign reporting.
So, shop around. Hear what potential providers have to say. It’s amazing how an experienced perspective can bring even more value – in the form of clean, reliable, well-analyzed data – to your most important asset.
4. Caging and banking plan
Perhaps the least exciting – yet integral – function to have ready on day one is your caging and banking plan. At the most basic level, you need to decide who will open your mail and where that money will go. So, you could conceivably assign staffers to handle incoming mail, and you could choose the bank you want to do business with. Done – caging and banking plan in place.
As your donor base grows or you sell more product, however, the landscape becomes decidedly more complex. You may be processing a high volume of credit-card transactions, auto-debit relationships, or product returns. At that point, talk to professionals.
You may find one vendor that offers caging and database functions – and does it more cheaply than two separate vendors. And perhaps that makes most sense for an organization of your size. But if caging and database administration happen at two different vendors, they can still talk to each other, updating information and keeping your living and breathing database as current as possible.
If you’ve followed my advice so far, you have incoming phone calls, a communications strategy, database administration, and caging and banking covered. Once your ministry starts airing on TV, become the donor/product buyer/interested viewer yourself. Call your own operations and see what’s being done well . . . or not at all. If it takes your operators 40 rings to answer your call, you have a problem – but you can fix it. Your TV ministry can touch the hearts of believers and nonbelievers alike; don’t let the behind-the-scenes operations affect how viewers see your organization and its triumphs for the Kingdom.
5. A reason for people to support you
Four out of five of these must-haves for TV ministries provide vital framework to support your program. This final step addresses what happens when your ministry is in front of the camera. You have to ask yourself, “Why should people support this ministry?”
It may be difficult to talk about your work for the Lord from a business or financial vantage point, but still, consider that question for the sake of the ministry’s future. The truth is, people turn to Christian TV for different reasons. For some, Christian programming is their church; for others, it’s a way to get through the day. One way or another, however, they’re probably already following someone else’s program – even before you shoot your first show – and they’ve already decided how much of their income to allot to charitable giving.
If your ministry doesn’t have a unique calling, you won’t be on TV long because you won’t be able to attract those viewers and their financial support. But if you can offer them something different, when you tell them that you need their gift to continue programming, they’ll respond.
Maybe your calling is connected to a homeless outreach you do. Maybe you minister to Muslims or people who were brought up in a church tradition but wandered from God. Whatever you do, it needs to resonate with people in a way that will make them turn on their television when your show is scheduled.
Does it seem like you have a lot of research and planning to do before your first show? You do, but the outcome make your time and effort worthwhile. After all, by setting your organization on the path God created for it, you can end up touching countless lives.