Education versus emotion in direct marketing appeals

You can not educate your donors into giving.  It’s close to a cardinal rule in direct response fundraising.

At the same time, it’s a constant temptation.  You have great programs that save and change lives.  You’ve worked hard to validate that you are making a significant impact.  And you’d love to tell someone about it who cares.

Karlan and Wood tested education versus emotion in mail appeals.  And while the results are a bit more obvious than the last two days’ studies, they are still instructive for direct marketers.

The researchers sent mailers to recent donors (which they define as past three years, an interesting difference between researchers and we direct marketing practitioners, who would likely look at people who made a single gift almost three years ago as lapsed rather than recent).  In the first test, the control group (⅔) received an emotional and personal story about a participant in the nonprofit’s program.  In the test group (⅓), there was an additional paragraph in the insert, which talked about the “rigorous scientific methodologies” that demonstrated the impact of the nonprofit’s program.

For the follow-up, one-third received an emotional appeal, one-third received the control letter plus paragraphs about program effectiveness, and one-third received the control letter plus paragraphs about program effectiveness that explicitly cited Yale researchers as the source of program effectiveness.  This is likely an attempt to use authority influence similar to the Gates Foundation study discussed last week.

The researchers found that the information on program effectiveness had no impact on either likelihood of giving or amount given.

That is a nail in the coffin for those who think we should be talking about program effectiveness and double-blind studies and outputs versus outcomes versus impacts in our fundraising copy.

And we could bury that coffin now except for an interesting split that the researchers found in the data: effectiveness data turned off smaller donors and turned on larger donors.

That is to say, people who had given larger amounts (about $100+ more recently) were about one percentage point more likely to donate when given effectiveness information and donated $4.45 more.  Smaller donors were .6 percentage points less likely to donate when given effectiveness information.  With controls in place for things like household income, previous gifts, etc., the researchers were able to reject the idea that larger and smaller donors behave the same.

This goes to the idea that there are two different mechanisms for giving going on: heart gifts and head gifts.  (Or, if you prefer the Kahnemann nomenclature, gifts that come from System I and System II).

Your smaller donors are potentially giving gifts because of how it makes them feel and how you make them feel as a result.  A $10 gift is something many can do without deep contemplation.  However, if you are dedicating a more substantial part of your income to a gift, you may want to know that Yale researchers (or, better yet, Vanderbilt researchers) have backed up the program’s effectiveness.

The lesson that comes from this, in my mind, is that we should not have the same verbiage in our letters for a high dollar and a low dollar audience.  In fact, this study indicates that you can get more and larger gifts from your high-dollar donors with a simple paragraph addition to your existing emotional impact appeal.

In the unlikely event that there are social scientist researchers reading this, this study presents three questions in my mind:

  1. Does the amount at which the heart/head switch occurs depend on your income?  That is, for some, $100 is a life-changing amount of money; for others, it’s a tip at a restaurant.  My thought would be that everyone has a different threshold for what type of gift is which.
  2. Is this why we see an end to people upgrading their gifts at a certain point?  That is, once a charity has recruited your heart, is there a point beyond which you won’t give to them because they are entering the head realm?
  3. Finally, is this part of the reason sustaining gifts work well is that they break down a gift that, annualized, would require sign-off from the brain into gifts that can be given on an emotional basis?

Please leave your thoughts in the comments.

Education versus emotion in direct marketing appeals

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