Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Public Radio Puzzle

I'm here in hot, hazy and humid Orlando, Florida for the annual Public Radio Development and Marketing conference. So why should anybody outside of the public radio system care? Because at the core of this conference, these professionals deal with one of the fundamental problems of Internet businesses -- especially content providers.

Problem: How do you get people to pay for something they can get for free?

Anyone can tune their radio to the low end of the dial and listen to a public radio station for free. They can also watch a public television show for free, too. But these media need the financial support of their audiences to survive. So how do you get people to pay for something they get for free?

While this conference will really go into the nuts and bolts of various specialized fundraising techniques, the overall concepts apply to just about any Internet content provider.

1) Deliver quality content. If it's presented as having no value, it's tough to ask people to pay for it. Public broadcasting makes a point of delivering (and telling their audiences they deliver) quality programming.

Look at the music industry. The public "knows" that the price (and therefore the value) of a song is only 99 cents. That's what it is on iTunes, and that's what it is most everyplace else. Sure, it's a different price at Amazon -- it's lower. So when someone shares or illegally downloading a song, they figure the record company's at most only out a buck. Music isn't valuable, so taking it shouldn't be a big deal. See the problem?

2) Be specific about what you want the audience to do. People will generally cooperate if they understand what's expected of them. For public radio, it's explaining why they need the money, and how the listener can help.

For a website trying to build traffic, it's making sure the navigation is clear and intuitive -- and that the user doesn't have to jump through hoops to get to the content.

3) Develop more than one source of income. Public broadcasters get a small amount from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (they're not entirely funded by the government as some like to think). Pubcasters also bring in money through underwriting (sort the equivalent to advertising). And even listener support takes many different forms -- one-time donations, monthly contributions, thank-you gifts for certain pledge amounts, trips, prizes, special exclusive events, estate planning, and more.

The goal of any business with a web component should be to maximize the opportunities. It's a recurring theme in our WJMA website case study. A radio station that thinks its sole source of income is selling ads for its over-the-air broadcasts is living in the last century. Some income streams will be stronger than others. But which is worse: to have your primary source of income dry up, or to have your sole source of income disappear?

And that's why a lot of folks are here in Orlando. To share ideas and figure out how to persuade people to voluntarily pay for what they can get for free, and to broaden the revenue streams as much as possible for the rocky economy looming ahead. And who among us isn't thinking of that as well?

- Ralph

Day 32 of the WJMA Web Watch.

No comments:

Post a Comment