Animated character draws big response for TV station

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Independent station KCSM-TV's annual fundraising direct mail campaign has generated a 120 percent increase in the size of the average gift from lapsed members thanks to a geeky animated character modeled after the San Mateo, CA, station's own program director.

Initially, however, Goodman Marketing Partners, which created the campaign for KCSM-TV and whose clients include Autodesk and St. Supery Vineyards, wasn't even sure it wanted to bid for the business.

"When [KCSM-TV] went looking for a new partner, they did it in a typical nonprofit way, which was to have procurement run the request for proposals process," said Carolyn Goodman, managing partner of Goodman Marketing, San Rafael, CA. This meant the focus was on price with no mention of strategy.

Goodman put its hat in the ring anyway and won the bid because it was the low-price leader. But it would have to create a yearlong campaign upfront in order to save costs by going on press only once.

At the initial meeting with KCSM-TV - Goodman never met with station representatives during the RFP process - there was a lot of talk about how tough it is for the independent station to compete with the local PBS affiliate. While KCSM-TV has a contract with PBS that allows it to air the broadcaster's programming, the station also has a program director who travels around the world selecting programming that he thinks viewers would like.

"As we probed more and more, we found that Steve (Opson, the program director) was interesting in and of himself," Ms. Goodman said, and so Goodman proposed Steve be made the focus of the campaign in that first meeting. KCSM-TV liked the idea "because it was so different from what they'd done before and from what other PBS stations had done," she said.

"Steve is a little bit of a know-it-all, dorky intellectual type," Ms. Goodman said. As Goodman designed the four direct mail and two postcard campaigns for the year, it tried to have them reflect Steve's message that independent programming is about viewers having the chance to tell him what they want to see, but that without money he can't air anything. It used a cartoon representation of Steve created for the campaign by an illustrator to represent him in the materials.

In the direct mail pieces, Steve says things like: "What do Boston, London, Toronto and Sydney have in common? ME! I'm so lucky. I get to travel the globe looking at what PBS and independent stations have to offer in the way of new programming."

The first mailing dropped in September to the station's entire mailing list of nearly 20,000 viewers and set the stage for who Steve is and that the station is seeking feedback from viewers. It asked recipients to donate $100.

While the response for that initial mailing was on par with rates from the previous year at 0.158 percent, it was with the second mailing in November that KCSM-TV and Goodman Marketing saw a difference.

That mailing went to people whose memberships were about to expire and those whose memberships had lapsed a year ago, for a total of 2,042 pieces. The response rate was nearly 30 percent, compared with 1.7 percent last year, and the average gift increased 120 percent.

To date, the station is already ahead of its revenue goals for the campaign. In addition, viewers are giving their input, another aim of the campaign.

"People call all the time and ask if they can speak to Steve" about their programming ideas, Ms. Goodman said.

In addition to the new messaging, Ms. Goodman attributes the campaign's success to a few strategic changes. KCSM-TV had never included a postage-paid business reply envelope in direct mail campaigns but did so this time at Ms. Goodman's urging. She also encouraged the station to create a dedicated Web page for the campaign so that people who are interested in visiting KCSM-TV online after they receive one of the direct mail pieces don't go to a general landing page.

The third mailing was a postcard from Steve, who is now traveling the world looking for programming. It mailed Jan. 3 to lapsed memberships and members who are up for renewal. KCSM-TV will continue to mail to this group every other month.

Based on the success of the campaign, KCSM-TV has incorporated Steve into its on-air programming by displaying one of the illustrations of him when a program comes on that he has chosen. It also added him to its monthly programming guide and is considering creating Steve T-shirts and bumper stickers.

"Independent TV stations have small budgets," and employees often see it as a steppingstone to a bigger station, Ms. Goodman said. The success of the Steve campaign, however, "has given everybody new hope and a new attitude." Well, everybody except for maybe the real-life Steve.

"Steve believes he has always deserved these kinds of accolades and glory and the rest of us have finally figured it out," she said.

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