Why won't NPR love me back?

A loyal listener wonders why her dutiful attention to the brand has gone unnoticed

Hundreds of companies have invested in harnessing and utilizing the vast amount of data that consumers readily or unknowingly give them.

Everything we watch, read, buy, skip, like, tweet, share and compare is fair game. In return, we are promised a more personal experience; tailored offers and discounts; and in some cases, concierge-like services. We, too, enjoy looking at the data trails we create. Measuring our food intake, sleep cycles, exercise habits and budget adherence, among other things, gives us a sense of having extra control over our lives.

For the companies we truly admire, we may have more frequent interactions across multiple channels. Our favorites may be tracking our behavior, and we are probably opting in too. We join fan clubs, download podcasts, share on social media, fill out surveys and much more, all on the basis of a special relationship with the company —and  maybe we will get closer. This relationship seems symbiotic and gives us rewards, except when it doesn’t.

Public radio has an evangelical following. I have listened to public radio for more than three decades, a habit I inherited from my mother. Before the Internet, I would tune in to my local station (WSKG, WVGR, and now WNYC), and I would dutifully fill out my pledge envelopes, attend events, call in to shows, and show off my often cringe-worthy tote bag. As public radio caught up, rebranded and began issuing podcasts, I started downloading all of my favorite shows. I became a sustaining member by pledging online. I have a slightly more fashionable tote bag. I follow NPR, its shows and hosts on a number of social media channels.

Many fortune 500 companies would kill for this kind of daily, unblinking loyalty. Yet, despite this attention, I have yet to be surprised or personally acknowledged by NPR. Yes, they do send a basic "thank you" e-mail when I pledge, but that is about it.

I have two theories about this. The first is that despite my self-evaluation, perhaps I am not actually a superfan. Maybe I don’t donate enough money or interact enough online. Maybe I haven’t been tagged by NPR, or my local station, as someone worth recognizing. The second and more likely theory is that NPR is far behind in the data game. Data analytics takes time and resources that a nonprofit may not have. However, at a time when our attention is tested by so many different stimuli, it is especially important for an entertainment, news and content brand like NPR to deepen existing loyalties. Data can help it do that.

Eileen Fisher, on the other hand, has made me feel like a superfan. Over the years, the woman’s fashion brand has done three things that have made me feel acknowledged, something sorely lacking from my relationship with NPR.

The first is that I have received a $100 gift card in the mail more than once. I am sure the cards were triggered by crossing a spending threshold. However, rather than explaining how many points I have accumulated, or giving a reason, the gift cards always felt like a surprise. Unlike airlines and credit cards that put your "points progress" front and center, Eileen Fisher takes a lighter touch that works well.

The second is that I receive a handwritten note before my birthday from a specific store location that offers 15% off my next purchase. Other companies do this as well, but they don’t handwrite their notes, nor do they send them from a individual store, which makes me feel like a "regular." The third is that the staff also seems to be in tune to my shopping habits.

The employees in the two stores I visit recognize me. They know my name and suggest other items I might like or enquire about my last purchase. There is also a simple loyalty program, which requires nothing more than signing up. Taken individually, these activities may not seem like much, but their collective power has forged a loyalty to the company that I could not have predicted.

Most companies tend to use data in a predictable way: acknowledging high spenders, serving up the right offers at the right times, and creating a fairly transactional relationship with a consumer. However, the true power of data is realized through more surprising applications like Eileen Fisher’s handwritten notes. While my loyalty to NPR will likely never waver, I do wish they would find a way to invite me into the organization that I care so deeply about.

Perhaps one day, NPR will surprise me through personal acknowledgement. Until then, I will continue to listen — but always wonder why it hasn’t.

Dipti Bramhandkar is head of strategic planning, Iris Worldwide.

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