Todd Isberner “Why Using Listener Stories Won’t Raise Money”

Published On November 13, 2016 » 401 Views»

todd_isbernerThe buzz in today’s world of fundraising is all about “the story.”

Most nonprofits build their case for support around the stories or testimonies of those who were helped through their ministry. This basically gives a donor proof that the outcome of their donation does make a difference.

Who doesn’t want that?

But if a powerful story, in and of itself, was enough to move someone to give, then why ask?

That may sound a bit absurd because, of course, there needs to be an ask that accompanies the story. Right?

But there appears to be some confusion on what that ask with a call-to-action should be and how it should be presented, or whether or not it should include an incentive. Shouldn’t the ask and call-to-action be more subtle by just using the case being made from a listener story? And doesn’t an incentive just open the door for lots of hype while the real message gets lost?

Absolutely yes. And no!

It all depends on a clear understanding of what each of those components means to your on-air fundraiser and how they’re executed during the break.

Over the last 40 years, we’ve tracked and analyzed response patterns based on measurable criteria. The results are 2-3 times greater when using these crucial components during an on-air fundraising break:

  1. A compelling appeal or ask
  2. A strategically placed incentive
  3. An effective call-to-action

A compelling ask

Let’s define ‘ask’ as a message that states the case for the value of the ministry and the reason to support it.

One of the challenges during fundraisers is that your air talent love to talk and can end up spending 90% of the break making the case. After all, listeners would expect staff to try to convince them to support the station. It’s their job, right?

Inevitably it becomes a tune-out for your listeners and can actually lower response. And that can result in air talent feeling even more pressure to be more convincing and, of course, end up talking even more.

However, a listener story that gives evidence to the impact of the ministry is a more credible case for support. It still fits the age-old advertiser’s #1 go-to: let a satisfied customer tell others about what happened to them and why they should buy in.

Listeners will pay closer attention during a break when they hear a fellow listener give their story and then make an appeal. It increases their interest level and attention span.

We’ve also observed that live-to-air calls have greater impact than pre-recorded stories that are fully produced. Not everyone is comfortable handling live calls and lack of experience without training can be disastrous. That’s why we’ve developed a system for harvesting, screening, and managing the calls while providing the training and tools for staff to effectively interact with the callers.

While this has pretty much revolutionized the overall tone and reaction during on-air fundraising appeals, listener calls without using incentives, and a specific call-to-action, still result in lower response.

You probably know that after the first two days of your on-air fundraiser, your listener cume drops and most of your P1’s tune in less frequently. On average, your listener pops in 5-6 times a day and stays 10-15 minutes. Consequently, if you’re going to keep their attention during the break, you need an engaging listener story along with some kind of incentive that will trigger them into taking action during the brief moments they’re listening.

A strategically placed incentive

So what exactly is an incentive and why use it? Some mistakenly believe that an incentive would be narrowly defined as a prize or even a premium awarded to listeners who are given an added incentive to make a pledge or financial gift.

And certainly an incentive could include a listener-experience give-away prize that’s awarded in a drawing without requiring a gift. Things like concert tickets, Christian conferences, marriage retreats, and family trips are all incentives to engage the station’s listener and show appreciation. But an incentive to respond can also include:

  • dollar challenges
  • short-term goals such as X number of responses in X minutes
  • response to a specific challenge from another listener
  • urgent deadlines
  • daily targets
  • and the most effective one to date… ministry partnerships

When a station partners with another ministry during the on-air fundraiser, the donor’s gift can trigger a benefit to the partnering ministry without costing them anything additional. Our experience has shown response in some cases to more than double the number of donors and amounts given.

One station client had 360 donors at $30/mo on their previous fundraiser. After introducing a ministry partner incentive, they ended with 1,800 donors responding with $30/mo. That’s an increase of five times the number of donors and over a half-million dollar increase!

Why? Very simply, the listener loves that their station is thinking beyond themselves by working together with another ministry. They not only see this as an incentive to give to the station, but also appreciate the additional value of their gift to extend a loving, helping hand to others in need.

An effective call-to-action

Without a compelling reason to stop what they are doing long enough to take the time needed to respond, your listeners will simply procrastinate and likely never get back to you. So assuming you’ve grabbed their attention, made the case for support, offered an engaging, value-driven incentive for them to immediately respond… half your battle is won.

The other half is won by giving a very strategic, well-rehearsed and compelling call-to-action. Without it, they’re gone and you’ve missed perhaps the only opportunity you will have with that listener.

After personally producing, hosting, and coaching close to 1,000 on-air fundraisers, I can unequivocally tell you, that the call-to-action makes or breaks whether or not the listener will respond.

After years of refining the process, we train our hosts and coaches to implement three specific steps when closing the break with a call-to-action:

  • The needle and thread
  • The set-up
  • The repeat and release

Yes, your on-air fundraiser must have heart-warming listener stories to set the tone and foundation for making your case for support.

But leave it at that and you lose the battle.

Instead, balance out your appeal by also offering your listeners a variety of compelling, value-added incentives and give a call-to-action that takes them by the hand and walks them through the process of responding now. They’ll feel good about supporting your radio station when you ask for their help. And that makes a great story.


Todd Isberner is ShareMedia Co-Founder & President. With over three decades of experience, Todd has become the country’s leading expert in broadcast fundraising. He is sought after as a fundraising consultant, on-air host, and radio talent fundraising coach. Todd has published numerous articles for religious radio publications, taught workshops, held fundraising schools, conducted teleseminars and webinars, and led educational forums both nationally and internationally. He and his teams have brought their positive, ministry-centered approach to hundreds of radio stations throughout the country, producing over 3,000 broadcast fundraisers and over $1 billion raised for ministry.

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