Susannah Birkwood: Will BRTV become the new DRTV?

Spending by charities on direct response TV advertising has increased significantly in recent years but its limitations could lead them to look at an alternative, writes Third Sector's senior reporter

Susannah Birkwood
Susannah Birkwood

There’s been a sharp rise in investment in television advertising by charities over the past year. As figures obtained by Third Sector last month showed, spending on this channel increased to £123m in 2015 - a 20 per cent rise on the previous year.

But there is a fear in the advertising world that this spending could start to slow down soon as a result of rule changes. The Telephone Preference Service rules taken up by the sector last year prevent charities from calling even their existing supporters registered with the service and charities voluntarily switching to opt-in-only communication policies mean that the television isn’t as good a substitute for the telephone fundraising as some may have thought.

The value-exchange ad model – such as Diabetes UK’s campaign that offered a free pedometer and diabetes guide to callers – has driven much of the growth in TV advertising over the past five years but it only worked because charities were able to call people who responded to the ads and convert them into donors. According to Genevieve Tomkins, client development director at media planning agency MC&C, that’s no longer the case: "Charity advertisers are now giving people the opportunity to opt out, so they’re losing up to 50 per cent of their potential calling pot. In the next few months, we’ll see advertising volumes shifting."

So how are charities handling this?

Some of them are changing the style of their ads, directing people towards their websites rather than asking them to give a donation straight away. The new approach – known as brand response television – is more about having a long-term conversation with supporters on charities’ websites or on social media and then getting them to donate after a couple of months – and keep on giving. It is an approach that has been embraced by the likes of WaterAid, Oxfam and Macmillan Cancer Support, but isn’t something more cash-strapped charities are likely to look at just yet.

Tearfund, which launched its first-ever TV campaign in March, tells me it can’t afford to invest a lot of money in a TV ad and then wait several months to reap the rewards. Its ‘Give Like Jesus’ ad follows the more traditional formula of asking viewers to "give £5 a month now".

"There’s still an awful lot of charities out there who just do direct response television," says Maria Phillips of WPN Chameleon. "BRTV is more expensive because it takes place in peak times and tends to have higher production values." 

Yet for those charities that do have the budget, BRTV may be the best way to differentiate themselves from the competition. Some have been forced down that route because results for the more traditional models just aren’t as strong as they used to be: spending on advertising might have risen by 20 per cent last year, but the number of people who viewed charity ads grew by just 3 per cent.

For others, the approach chimes with their overall attitude to fundraising since last year. Less churn and burn, and more "softly, softly" donor-centricity.

"Most charities are saying ‘we want to engage with the public about the work we do or a different matter before we even ask them for money,’" says a source who advises clients on TV campaigns. "It’s a very different way for the market to be operating in."

If it leads to a rise in genuinely committed givers who stick around for the long haul, it will be a better way too.

Susannah Birkwood is senior reporter at Third Sector

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