OK, you got me. This post is actually free.
But it’s a phrase that is often used in DRTV spots: “you can X for less than the price of your morning coffee.” The goal is clearly to get a monthly donation and to make the pain of spending money less by breaking it into smaller chunks.
But since my two most popular posts so far have been the study of ask strings and the anchoring of ask strings, I did want to update it a bit with new research on reference points in asks for donations.
In the American Marketing Association journal, there was a study that looked at referencing an indulgent product as a reference point for your ask.
This worked pretty darn well. In each test, there was a control with no reference point, a hedonic (related to pleasure, usually with no socially redeeming value) reference point, and a utilitarian reference point. So for example, they asked people to donate $1 to UNICEF. People who got the hedonic version had the ask followed by “One dollar is the cost of downloading one top-ten song off of iTunes, such as the current #1 hit ‘Hallelujah’ by Justin Timberlake.” (Which dates this paper very nicely).
Image credit. This is what comes up when I Google “Justin Timberlake hedonic condition.” I’m really hoping I’m the first person ever to Google this…
People who got the utilitarian version got “One dollar is the cost of downloading one top-ten podcast lecture from iTunes U, such as MIT Professor of Physics Walter Lewin’s lecture, ‘Electricity and Magnetism .’”
Less than half (47%) of the control group donated, 57% of the utilitarian folks donated, and a whopping 88% of hedonic folks donated.*
They replicated this with donations of time, where two hours was either “how long it takes to watch the season finale of MTV’s Jersey Shore” (hedonic) or “to watch the season premiere of House” (utilitarian). Before I go to the results, I’ll say here that I will donate any amount of time you want if the only alternative is to watch Jersey Shore.**
In this case, 12% of the control group volunteered, 14% of utilitarian folks volunteered, and 30% of hedonic folks volunteered.
They also tested with similar results in increased donations with an online $10 donation to UNICEF, which I mention only so I can repeat the hedonic condition:
“Remember, $10 is about the cost of a hand blender, which is great for making exotic cocktail drinks and is a good tool for a luxurious lifestyle.”
I love science.
The authors hypothesize this is because we feel the need to signal to ourselves that we are good people. I’d agree. The same element is at work as in the slacktivism study that people who didn’t take a petition were more likely to donate to an unrelated non-profit. They were compensating for their lack of action on one thing with another action. A similar mechanism seems to be at work here. We like Ben and Jerry’s (because it’s gosh-darned delicious) but we also know that it is a selfish act to eat it. Thus, thinking about it reminds us of our faults and we need to make amends by donating.
How does this work for us in direct marketing? There’s the obvious point that bringing in a comparison that we know we shouldn’t like, but we do, can increase our giving. It’s a good solid and now proven tactic.
I think there’s a side note to this, however. I’m hugely in favor of the donorcentricity movement. I think we should be learning about our donors, telling them the impact they are creating, and customizing their experiences to them.
However, sometimes we can overdo it in our copy, making it seem as though our $10 donor from 24 months ago has moved a mountain and is a saint among men. When we do this to extreme, we trigger the opposite of this effect: people who feel very good about themselves tend to do hedonic, not charitable, things. So, yes, customize your ask to what the person wants to give to, play back their donation history to them, and treat them well. But when it comes to flattering copy, like Ben and Jerry’s, too much of a good thing is not an even better thing.
* This brings up the tantalizing, but not entirely relevant, possibility that for about 10% of the population, a physics lecture is a hedonic good. Whoever you are, find me, as I long to be among my people.
** In case you think this is snobbery, let me disclose for the record that if the question had talked about Impractical Jokers on TruTV, not only would I not have volunteered, but I wouldn’t have finished the survey because I could be watching Impractical Jokers.