Anchoring, ask strings, and the psychology of first impressions

One of the most talked about cognitive biases, for online donations especially, is anchoring. Anchoring means we rely on the first piece(s) of information we get about something more than the last.

Where this comes into play most often, and intuitively, for nonprofit direct marketers is in ask strings. People tend to key on the first value of the ask string most. Ordering your asks from high to low will increase your average gift and decrease your response rate; low to high will do the opposite. In our The Science of Ask Strings post (which is currently the most visited post on the blog, so don’t be left out (we talked about fear of missing out yesterday…)), we saw single givers were more pliable on the anchor than multi givers. Single givers receive an anchor from you; multi givers have their anchor already in their minds.

This piece of information doesn’t have to be an all relevant. People were asked to recall the last two digits of their Social Security number, then tell how much they would pay for an item. Those with higher numbers gave higher prices by 60-120 percent. This is why if you have a focal point number in your piece, it’s good to make it higher than your average gift. If you usually say four people die every hour, move it to 96 people die every day; that 96, if highlighted, will ask as an unconscious anchor on giving.

Anchoring can tie very deeply to social proof. If you give people the impression that most people are doing a thing, that’s an anchor. If you give the impression that most people don’t give, that also is an anchor for not giving. Last time, I picked on Wikipedia’s fundraising for this; now it’s Charity Navigator’s turn:

CN social proof2

I think they think they trying to anchor people to give $50 or more and they may be increasing their average gift with this because of this. However, when the first thing I hear is that less than one percent of people give to Charity Navigator, I’m less likely to give. Or I would be if my personal likelihood were not already a negative number.

The anchoring/social proof crossover also supports letting people know what the average person like them donates. As you might guess, people who have their anchor set by social proof higher give more. What this study found is people are more influenced by what their in-group was doing than their out-group and thus more anchored by their giving. Thus, I would bet good money that “most people give X” beats no anchor and that “most Texans (or whatever) give X” beats “most people give X,” because it’s a closer in-group.

This also manifests in peer-to-peer fundraising. It’s vital to educate fundraisers that the most important gift they get will be their first one (ideally, the one they give to themselves). If that first gift is $100, they will almost certainly raise more than a person who gets a $10 initial gift. Since peer-to-peer fundraising is more giving to a person than giving to a cause, people want to know what a socially acceptable donation is. We want to tell them the right number.

It probably goes without saying, but don’t advertise average gift to people who give more than the average gift.

Finally, there is an anchor you might not think about that falls into the Blink category of quick reactions. You know that first impressions matter, but you may not know how fast is fast. Research shows that people form a solid impression of a Web site in 50 milliseconds.

For perspective, a blink is at least 100 milliseconds. So in the time of half a blink, people have judged your Web site.

So the big question here is what is your first impression? Especially for mobile, what loads first on your site (if anything)?

You may want to make sure that it is your name, what you do (in quick, not in mission statement, form), and a call to action (whether donation or not). Because a second is an eternity now to set your anchor.

Anchoring, ask strings, and the psychology of first impressions

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