Influence in direct marketing: reciprocity at work

As direct marketers, we gradually become experts in why and how our donors give.  But sometimes, we can get into the weeds of control communications (“this matching gift appeal works; let’s send it again”) and forget the mechanisms by which communications work.  At least I’ve done this; your mileage may vary.

So, I’ve found it to be helpful to delve back into first principles periodically.  One of my favorite resources for this is Robert Cialdini’s Influence.  As an insight into why people do what they do, there are few better (although David McRaney’s You Are Not So Smart and You Are Now Less Dumb are great looks into cognitive biases that are a fun read and thus I will get to in other posts).

For the TL: DR version of this book, there’s an HBR summary of it here .  Cialdini articulates six principles of influence that are both core and common across cultures:

  • Reciprocity
  • Authority
  • Social proof
  • Consistency
  • Liking
  • Scarcity

Think of each of these as a way to make yourself more persuasive and have more influence that you can incorporate into your causes’ way of talking with your constituents.

I’ll take each of these in turn to give my thoughts on how these levers can be used in old and new ways.  And, since there are six of them, I’m going to use this as an opportunity to test writing on the weekends.  So for those avid followers of this blog (thanks, mom and dad!), I’ll be skipping Christmas and writing on Saturday and Sunday this week.  We’ll see how it goes.

I’ll start with reciprocity – the idea that doing something for someone makes them more likely to do something for you.  I’m starting here because this was the first one I encountered in spades in my first nonprofit direct marketing program.  In fact, it’s what many people think of when they think of direct marketing solicitations: premiums.  Whether it’s a front-end premium of labels, calendars, address books, pins, or whatever tchotchkes we can figure out how to flatpack in an envelope, or the back-end premiums exemplified by the donate-to-PBS-get-a-totebag model, these have become ubiquitous.

This is because they work; the principle of reciprocity is such that if we are given a gift, we feel obliged to respond in kind.  Add a well-thought out premium to an acquisition package and you will likely see a jump in your response rate.  In fact, this jump will be highly correlated with the perceived value of that premium.  While there are a thousand studies of this hidden behind all of our nonprofits’ firewalls, there’s a good published one here.  It shows a 17% increase in giving when a person is given a small gift and a 75% increase when they are given a large one.

There are cautionary notes to strike, however.  A program build on premiums – back or front – can become a one-note piano.  Ideally, you have a broad mix of communication types and influence levers with your constituents.  Some of the people you will acquire from premiums will be responsive only to those premiums and value your organization only for the things they get from you.  This can preclude effective upgrade and bridging strategies.  Additionally, the donors you get from these efforts can be attracted to other organizations by other premiums (or the same premium as you send).  As a result, they may become prolific tippers of nonprofits.

As a result, a program build on premiums and premiums alone will tend to have lower average gifts, lower retention rates, and a great challenge trying to kick the addiction they and their donors have to these gifts.  This is by no means to say premiums have no place in a nonprofit program, but that it’s best of they are one of the many things you do to attract and retain donors, rather than the sole one.

Cialdini says it well in his HBR article: “Ultimately, though, gift giving is one of the cruder applications of the rule of reciprocity.”

There are higher value forms of reciprocity to be had in your direct marketing program, beyond the labels and the notepads.  The first is that value does not have to be measured monetarily.  As I’ll talk about in the post on scarcity, exclusive information can be something of great perceived value that a person would want to reciprocate (a note here that these forms of influence almost always work better together than alone).  Similarly, a paper clip on a mail piece is an interesting signifier that human hands have touched the mail piece.  This human touch means that a mere machine didn’t just pre-digest this mail piece and spew it out to you; this signifier can be something that helps bring people to you.

It’s also important to look at reciprocity from the donors’ perspectives.  Sometimes you will get gifts that are a perceived payback from a donor, whether they were directly touched by your services or indirectly.  One key point here is to try to capture what a person’s connection is to your cause and customize to this.  It’s important that the principle of reciprocity says that this is something that something people want to do; the need to have our ledgers square is hardwired into us.  You can help these folks given back in the way they want to and thank them for it.

Thank you’s are also an important part of reciprocity.  Research shows that people give to causes not because they expect anything concrete in return.  Rather, they build up two expectations over time.  One is recognition for their gift, whether publicly or not.  This is a reciprocity that the donor will expect of you.  The other is performance – that you will use their donation to make the impact they would like to make.  If either of these comes as a surprise, please read my post on why we thank everyone for their gift.

We started with premiums and that’s the primary reciprocity lever at work in most nonprofits.  But it’s important to remember that just as we give gifts to people in the hopes they will reciprocate, they also expect that we will reciprocate when they give us a gift.

Influence in direct marketing: reciprocity at work

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