Today, we’ll look at the availability heuristic. Availability means if you can recall an example of something happening, it must be as or more important than something that you can’t easily recall happening.
A classic example of this from the literature is people overestimate the number of words that begin with the letter R. They also underestimate the number of words where R is the third letter.
Or, similarly, some people will say there are more six-letter words that end in “ing” than end in “g” (which is impossible). We can easily recall things that begin with R or end with “ing.” That’s how they are filed in our brains; thus, we think it happens more often.
This can affect how our causes are seen by the public. Quick: how many people are killed by drunk driving versus cell phone use while driving?
Got your answer?
In 2013, the last year for which we have data for both causes, drunk driving killed 10,110 people in the United States.
Chances are, if you are like most Americans, you thought these were about equivalent. You almost certainly did not think these two numbers were more than an order of magnitude different.
Why is that? Because you can look at the car next to you at a stoplight and see the driver is texting. It is far more difficult for you to look at the car next to you and see that the driver is drunk. And so our availability heuristic can easily recall cell phone use and driving and that gets moved up in our mental queue.
Incidentally, both are dangerous. If you are reading this on your phone while driving, please stop now.
So how can you use (or mitigate) this effect in your nonprofit direct marketing? The biggest example is take advantage of news. Disaster fundraising is in part successful because it speaks to a desperate, urgent need, and partly because it reminds people that those needs are with us. Similarly, if your issue is in the news, most people think to reach out via fast means like email and text messaging. However, we don’t often think to swap out our telemarketing scripts or send out a direct mail piece for an urgent issue. One solution is to pre-print appeals. You can have stationary with a reply device on hand. If there is something urgent that comes up, customize the copy, laser in the text, and go straight to postage.
It’s also important to build plausible scenarios. Were I to do marketing for an organization fighting drunk driving (you know, purely hypothetically), I shouldn’t say “When was the last time you were driving next to a drunk driver?” It’s very difficult to recall this.
However, what if I say:
“When was the last time you were out on the roads and the driver in front of you just didn’t seem right? You know, they were weaving in their lane, waited too long to brake, or didn’t seem to be paying attention…”
My guess is that you have seen numerous people who fit that description recently. In truth, not all of these people were drunk (they could be stoned, distracted, sleepy, morons, etc.), but puts the frame around something that is instantly recognizable.
A less obvious solution is to ask people for a lot of negative feedback. One study looked at course evaluations for college students and found that if they were asked to provide 10 examples of how the course could be done better, they rated the course almost 10% higher than students who were asked to provide two examples.
The idea is that two examples are easy to come up with:
- The professor should consider using an antiperspirant
- Ethan Frome sucks; we shouldn’t read it
Boom. Done. Having to come up with 10 examples taxes the brain. Thus, we think the class was better because it’s hard to come up with things that are bad to say about it.
This was a shock to me, because one of my favorite open-ended survey questions is “What is the one thing you would change about X?”. My thinking is this a way of cutting through all of the minutiae to find out what is important to people. What I’ve been unconsciously doing is priming people to focus on that bad thing and making them think it’s incredibly easy to come up with bad things to say.
This is probably also another reason to do search engine optimization and use those Google Grants. If people see your organization’s name associated with an issue in the sponsored listings, news section, images section, videos section, and organic search engine listings, you will be top of mind for them. When people are thinking about your cause, they will more likely think of your organization.
If you liked this post, please consider signing up for our weekly newsletter that bundles these along with other hopefully valuable stuff every Saturday.
And if you didn’t, please send me 17 reasons why not to email@example.com.