The science of ask strings

Today’s direct marketing paper says, in essence, the less you ask for, the more people respond and the less they give.  Duh.

But there are some great surprises in the paper that make it well worth exploration.

De Bruyn and Prokopec took a look at anchoring effects in ask strings.  Specifically, they worked with a large and anonymous European non-profit to mail to their donor list.  They did so with a 3 x 3 matrix of ask strings set by two criteria: 1) is the initial ask below, at, or above their previous contribution? and 2) is the ask string steep (20% increases in levels), steeper (50% increases in levels), or steepest (80% increase in levels).  The ask strings were four items long.

This is a bit confusing, but here are initial and final asks for each condition, assuming a $100 donor.  You’ll note they are appropriately rounded:

Lower Equal Higher
Steep $85 … $140 $100 … $170 $120 … $200
Steeper $70 … $230 $100 … $350 $150 … $500
Steepest $55 … $320 $100 … $580 $180 … $1000

Some of these may look to you as they looked to me — fairly aggressive.  In the higher steepest condition, you are asking your $100 donor to donate $180, $320, $580, or $1000 — not a common ask string by any means.  That’s why I’m glad there are studies like these that test this with other people’s money.

As I mentioned, they found asking for more got more in average donation but suppressed response rate.  However, there were several other elaborations on this:

  • Ask string steepness didn’t affect response rate. Only the lowest, left-most ask seemed to affect response rate significantly.  The lesson here is that you can ask for more and get more without hurting response.  This is potentially free money.
  • Steepness did increase average gift.  So 80% increases won in this case.
  • Multi-donors were more set in their ways. Indexing off of higher than their previous contribution was related to a big drop — from an average of 10.5% among those who had the ask string that started at equal to 9.1% among those who were asked for higher.  It is, not shockingly, as if the multi donors were saying that they had already told the nonprofit what they give and don’t forget it.
  • The worst thing you could do was ask single donors for what they gave before.  This surprised me.  Response rates for the single donors were 5.3% in the lower group, 4.1% in the equal group, and 4.3% in the higher group.  Indexed average gifts were .937 (lower), .909 (equal), and 1.162 (higher).  So there was a trough in both response rate and average gift for asking a single donor for the same thing they gave before.

They didn’t give the net revenue per piece charts in the study; I found them invaluable in understanding the implications.  These are indexed to a $100 donor to make the math easy:

Single donors Lower Equal Higher
Steep $4.74 $3.54 $4.23
Steeper $4.76 $3.96 $5.62
Steepest $5.49 $3.68 $5.26
Multi-donors Lower Equal Higher
Steep $10.42 $10.16 $9.96
Steeper $9.30 $10.44 $9.67
Steepest $10.46 $10.53 $10.68

All this indicates something to me that I hadn’t thought of before (and maybe you have and have tested it — if so, please put it in the comments or email me at nick@directtodonor.com so we can have a report from the trenches): different ask strings for single versus multi-donors.

The hypothesis that I would form based on these results is that people who have given before are set in their ways of what they want to give and thus we should index from the previous contribution or the HPC.  Single donors are more pliable, so we can work to get more value out of them early in the relationship, elevating their support before they get set in their ways.

science-pinkman

Hope this has been as valuable for you as it has been for me.

The science of ask strings

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