Revisiting social proof: does liking or doing matter more?

One of my favorite Stephen Colbert lines is from the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner:

hqdefault

Image credit 

“He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday.”

Not only is it a great piece of writing, but it also is a nice indictment of a certain type of worldview.  Evidence and continued questioning are the signposts along the path of ascent of our species, with willful ignorance its downfall.

So, as this week will contain my 100th blog post, I wanted to take a look back at some previous posts and bring new evidence to bear on them.

In December, I did a week on the principles of influence and how you can use them in direct marketing.  Social proof — the idea that people tend to want to do what other people do — can be a large part of this.

But what makes for good social proof?  The answer surprised me, at least.

An article in Advances in Consumer Research looked at whether we are more influenced by what other people like or what other people do.

My thought was that this is a slam dunk.  We have the answer in maxim form: actions speak louder than words.  But that’s not what the researchers found.

They took basic consumer goods (chewing gum, hangers, etc.) and had one person in a dyad either express her/his preference or take one of the two items.  The second person would then choose an item for themselves.  They were more likely to choose the same item as the first person when the person said what they like instead of taking one of the items.

The researchers then replicated this on Amazon and YouTube; when both preferences (ratings or likes) and consumption (sales or number of views) of other people were available, people were more likely to choose the item/video that related to preferences rather than consumption.

So what does this mean for us?

First thing is that a lot of us are doing social proof wrong.  

And I should be the first to put my hand in the air for this.

I’ve advocated for putting the number of people that are subscribed to your newsletter on the sign-up as an inducement to sign up.  But what if that read “Join the 146,233 people who enjoy our monthly newsletter” instead of “Join the 146,233 people who get our monthly newsletter”?  

This also argues for more privileged places for testimonials and other forms of liking social proof.  We talked about scope blindness and how people are more likely to donate to one good story than the story of several disparate people.  Perhaps what we see in liking social proof is that there is also scope blindness — knowing that someone (who is like them) liked this content is enough to get them to engage as well.

Anyone out there have experiences with this type of test?  I’d appreciate any insight because if you wait for me to test it, you may have to check back around my 200th post.

Revisiting social proof: does liking or doing matter more?

Trust indicators in direct marketing

Another challenge with overhead ratios is that they are proxies for trust.  People trust XX% of the dollar goes to the mission because it seems honest (even though a scam can fake this number along with all of the others).

People want to believe in something bigger than themselves.  This credulity means that we fall for cons.  But it also means that the real thing is that much more inspiring.

There are five sources that I would hold up as ways to prove yourself to someone you just met — that new constituent that you are on a first date with:

  • Charity Navigator’s Accountability and Transparency measures.  I know.  I gave Charity Navigator a very hard time on Wednesday.  But that’s only because they deserve it.

    But their accountability and transparency measures come from a really good place (other than privacy policy: running an opt-in only list exchange/rental campaign would hamper much of the good that nonprofits do nationally). They are a good starting place for your efforts.

    And if you do well there, you can point there when donors complain about your low scores on the financial side of things, where you should be aiming for about two stars, maybe three.

  • The Better Business Bureau Wise Giving standards here.  BBB is a known name and their seal can help as a trust reinforcer online and off.  I wouldn’t put it on your outer envelope since plainer envelopes get opened more, but on reply devices can help.  There’s good stuff here on cause-related marketing standard as well that other ratings don’t go into as much.

    They also made this great chart:

0dac383

  • GuideStar.  If you haven’t been there in a while, they have a beautiful new redesign that helps nonprofits lay out their logic models and the way they are making an impact.  Moreover, they don’t have a bunch of pseudo-experts spending five minutes trying to understand and judge the work of actual experts’ lifetime of experience on a topic like some organizations who will remain nameless (*cough*cough*CharityNavigator3.0*cough*cough).  Instead, they let you lay out your arguments and let educated donors decide.

  • Independent Sector.  While I don’t know of a rating system or a seal that comes from this, the 33 principles are really good and worthy for board governance.

  • Great Nonprofits.  A different model where your constituents let you, and everyone else, know what they think of you.  At first, it can be a little heavily weighted toward the loud disgruntled (as can any rating system: read Yelp lately?), but once you make it a part of your marketing, testimonials will come in, building trust and social proof.

These are all good ways of building trust without resorting to the overhead rate that cheapens us all.

Trust indicators in direct marketing

Inputs, activities, outputs, outcomes, and impacts in direct marketing

I’ve made the case to avoid the easy, seductive, and wrong-headed use of overhead rates as a way of assessing and marketing nonprofits.

However, this rejection can not be nihilistic; we need to be able to communicate what we do and why that matters.

And, more specifically, since we know that people donate more and more often to prevent a bad thing than to create or sustain a good thing, we need to be able to communicate it in this way.

Our activities can fall into four buckets:

  • Inputs: what resources do we have to get our job done?  The biggest of these, of course, are time and money, but people and expertise also fall into this category.  Picture the Apollo 13 scene where they have to turn this filter… into this filter… with this box of stuff.  Inputs are the box of stuff.
  • Activities: what do you do with your resources?  We love to talk about these.  We give our programs fancy trademarked names and want our donors to care about these.
  • Outputs: what do you get by using your resources?  A training program creates people who are trained.  A research effort creates a white paper and a study.  Everyone loves to talk about outputs because there is a number: we filled X beds, we had a Y% graduate rate, we served Z meals.
  • Outcomes/impacts: what is the effect of your outputs?  A humanitarian delivery of food doesn’t end when the food reaches the dock — the output is reduced hunger among this target population.  Some people look at outcomes and impacts as separate things, with outcomes being a short-term implication and impacts being the long-term impact.  For me, there’s short-term, medium-term, and long-term impacts of the action.

Impacts and outcomes are hard.  Did your delivery of food reduce hunger or was it an improvement in overall economic conditions?  Once you increased the graduation rate, did those people go on to live better lives as a result?

Donors provide us inputs.  Their goal is to buy an impact.  They think that with their donation, they can buy a little more good in the world.

And they care not at all about the name of your trademarked program or the number of outputs that you have.

Your job is to connect the dots between the donor providing the input and what change they will help create.

If you are trying to sell someone on buying a hammer and a nail, it’s easy to talk about the hammer allows you to put a nail in a wall.  Someone might say that the goal is really to hang a picture.

But what the person really wants to do is have a feeling of family, nostalgia, and memories.  To do that, you need to hang a picture and to do that you need a hammer and nail.

So, how do you present your programs without resorting to the destructive “88% of your donation goes right to the people we are trying to serve?”

You cut as much out of the middle part as possible.  In Stephen King’s On Writing, he talks about cutting the parts of the book that people skip over reading (even cutting a section he loved but that his wife Tabitha thought was not necessary).  You must do this too.

You need to cut the activities and outputs to the bone.  Your support keeps the boot of despair off of young people, allowing them to succeed as productive adults — and succeed they do: look at Brian’s story.  You will prevent empty chairs at Christmas dinner.  You make sure that our country doesn’t forget those who served us when they have a time of need.

There’s nary a program name or a 14% percent this or a discussion of logic models.  Start with the end in mind.  That’s what lights a fire in someone and causes them to care little for how much an overhead ratio goes up or down.

Inputs, activities, outputs, outcomes, and impacts in direct marketing

Charity Navigator and the overhead myth

The then-President and CEO of Charity Navigator signed on to a letter about the Overhead Myth that you can read here if you wish.  

There are a couple of key quotes in this piece:

We write to ask for your help to end the Overhead Myth—the false conception that financial ratios are a proxy for overall nonprofit performance.

While overhead can help us identify cases of fraud or gross mismanagement and serve as a part of an organization’s dashboard of financial management metrics, it tells us nothing about the results of your work (i.e., how you meet your mission).

So, financial ratios are good for catching really egregious cases of negligence and help nonprofits with their internal metrics but aren’t really something that you should base your decision to donate to a nonprofit on if they are making an impact in their community.  So says Charity Navigator.

Now, let’s look at Charity Navigator’s rating criteria for financial effectiveness:

  • Percent of expenses spent on programs: a variant of overhead ratio
  • Administrative expense percentages: part of overhead ratio
  • Fundraising expenses: part of overhead ratio
  • Fundraising efficiency: the reciprocal of fundraising expenses and thus the same thing twice, just phrased differently
  • Primary revenue growth
  • Program expense growth
  • Working capital ratio

Four of Charity Navigator’s seven rating financial effectiveness are subsets of the overhead ratio that they claim to disavow.  If using overhead ratios to measure effectiveness is an evil practice, meet the practitioners.

Not only this, but they make the overhead ratio more arbitrary by taking out joint cost allocation.  For those who aren’t direct marketing nerds, what this means is if a mail piece is half to get a donation and half to get someone to sign a petition, 50% of the costs go to fundraising and 50% go to mission (and lobbying).

Charity Navigator says “as an advisor and advocate for donors, when we see charities using this technique we factor out the joint costs allocated to program expenses and add them to fundraising.”

The problem with this is only mail and phone scripts are joint cost allocated.  Efforts like walks are determined by the nonprofit to have a certain programmatic and fundraising component (let’s say 90% mission, 10% fundraising).  So if you put a stamp on a mail piece that asks for a donation, it’s 100% fundraising according to Charity Navigator.  If you hand it out at your walk, it’s 10% fundraising.  Were it possible to make an actively negative measure worse, they did it.

It also ignores that millions of Americans relate to nonprofits only through the phone or mail.  It’s where they learn about issues and act on the causes important to them.  To mark all of this as transactional is whatever the opposite of being an advocate for donors is.

Not surprisingly, this distorted view of charity’s financials is used by the general public and the media to perpetuate the overhead myth.  Consider CBS News’ piece on Wounded Warrior Project:

What caught our attention is how the Wounded Warrior Project spends donations compared to other long-respected charities.  For example, Disabled American Veterans Charitable Service Trust spends 96 percent of its budget on vets. Fisher House devotes 91 percent. But according to public records reported by “Charity Navigator,” the Wounded Warrior Project spends 60 percent on vets.  Where is the money is going?”

Thus, Charity Navigator may talk about the problem of the overhead myth, but it’s a problem that they help keep alive.

It should be noted that days after it contributed to the CBS News hit job on Wounded Warrior Project, Charity Navigator launched on its site and email to its constituents a new piece on “finding charities that support our troops.”  A quote:

“Donors can be confident that contributions made to the higher rated charities will be spent efficiently as these charities have low overhead and fundraising costs enabling them to use more of their resources in carrying out their mission.”

But Charity Navigator abhors the overhead myth.

And Brutus is an honorable man.

Going one step further, another thing that overheadmyth.com decries is the myth that charity CEOs are overpaid.  Here’s a snippet from their FAQ:

“This question gets at the heart of one of the most common misconceptions about overhead: that employee and executive salaries are considered “overhead” expenses. In reality, compensated staff members carry out all of the organization’s functions. Specifically, the applicable portion of employee and executive salary expense are recognized or “allocated” to three functional expense categories based on the estimated time staff members devote to carrying out each of these functions: program service activities, administration, and fundraising. While there are some paid staff (such as accounting and human resource personnel) that usually devote all their time to overhead responsibilities, the vast majority of paid staff members cumulatively devote most of their time to carrying out program service activities.

As for the question of extreme salaries, our data indicate that these circumstances are relatively rare. Rather, it is far more of a problem that mid- and lower-paid direct service nonprofit employees are underpaid than overpaid. As a matter of law, tax-exempt organizations are required to ensure that the salaries and benefits they pay their executives meet the IRS’s definition of “fair and reasonable.” That definition varies from nonprofit to nonprofit; to determine what is “fair and reasonable” for a position at a specific organization, you must research what people in comparable jobs earn at nonprofits that are of similar size and that have similar missions and programs.”

Remember, Charity Navigator signed on to this.  Thus, Charity Navigator should be talking about a holistic view of executive pay, right?  They would never conflate executive pay and overhead rates, imply that CEO salaries are all overhead, or use overhead as one simple criterion for valuing a charity…

Not really.  Their page on “10 Highly-Rated Charities with Low Paid CEOssays:

The leaders of these 10 organizations run highly-rated charities, yet they earn far less than the average compensation of $150,000 reported by the over 7,000 charities rated by Charity Navigator. The low salaries help these charities, which have earned at least two consecutive 4-star ratings, devote more than 80% of their budgets to their programs and services. That means that less than 20% of your dollars are going to such costs as fundraising and administration, including the salary of the CEO.”

Not only are they looking at executive pay in a vacuum, but they are also tying it directly to — you guessed it — the overhead rate.

gambling

Image credit here

One hopes that in the long-term, Charity Navigator will either change to meet its purported beliefs, or that they are exposed for what they are: ambulance chasers if ambulance chasers also helped cause the crashes.

So if you are going to crow about your Charity Navigator ranking, please make sure it’s only the part that matters: the Accountability and Transparency sections that, other than their idiocy on privacy policies, are benign at worst and actively positive in many cases.

Because a high score on their Financial section of Charity Navigator means that you are starving yourself.  And I know that’s true because I read it from Charity Navigator.

Charity Navigator and the overhead myth

The seductiveness of overhead rates

As you saw yesterday, I’m partly biased on the issue of overhead rates, because I’m professionally overhead.

However, overhead ratios are not just a suboptimal way of evaluating charities.  If that were the case, you could say stand them being part of the mix as people evaluate nonprofits.  In reality, they are actively negative ways of evaluating nonprofits — to a point, the nonprofits that do the “worst” on overhead are actually better and more effective organizations.  They avoid the starvation cycle outlined in Gregory and Howard’s article and are investing enough to build the infrastructure of a vital, vibrant organization.  

the-starvation-cycle-e1374848049660

Credit to DNA Creative Communications

Additionally, consideration of overhead crowds out consideration how much impact a nonprofit is having.  Leaving aside for the moment the obsession with overhead that caused Charity Navigator to rate an active scam of a cancer charity with three starsthere is research to bolster this negative impact of overhead.

The journal Judgement and Decision Making called this the evaluability bias: people look for and want one easy number that tells them how good something is.  They found that when people are presented with a charity, they look for a low overhead rate and value it for its own sake.  However, when presented with two charities and both overhead and effectiveness ratings, they valued effectiveness over overhead ratios.  This means that people actually care more about whether a charity is effective or not at what they are trying to do.

In other words, they look at overhead ratios because they are easy, not because they are good.  

One is reminded of the man who is looking for his car keys under a streetlight.  A policeman comes over and asks what the man is doing.  After the explanation, they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the guy replies “No, I lost them in the park.”

“So why are you searching here?”

“Because this is where the light is.”

Part of the obsession with overhead rates is because Americans believe nonprofits spend far more on overhead than they do.  This is no doubt spurred by news stories about the grossest abuses of nonprofit status and, because we can remember these, the availability bias kicks in.  We forget that the reason that the story is news is that it is the exception and not the rule.

Part of this obsession is self-inflicted.  We nonprofits are the ones who talk about how XX cents out of every dollar goes to the mission and not about how giving to others is life-affirming and one of the most powerful positive things about being human.  We plant trees so that those who come after us can sit in shade.  It’s a beautiful thing with real impacts, cheapened by a discourse of whether you spend 6.2% or 6.7% on administrative costs.

And part of it is that overhead ratings and discussions of CEO compensation are baked into some “charity watchdogs.”  I’ll cover Charity Navigator and their hypocrisy on overhead ratios tomorrow.

The seductiveness of overhead rates

The human face of overhead

I am overhead.  And I have been overhead for over eight years now.

I’ve been in charge of a direct marketing program.  I’ve participated in our board meetings, managed staff, and written fundraising strategies.

If you care whether you accidentally get two of a communication or not, that’s me.  I helped set up the database systems for our organization, set deduplication criteria, and worked to make sure our fundraising and outreach efforts run smoothly.

All of these are overhead.

When someone says they want to fund a mission or a cause, but not the overhead that goes along with it, they think they mean that they want to make sure nonprofit executives don’t fly to Gstaad on their private G6s.  

emirates-executive-lounge-area

Probably not the local homeless shelter’s board meeting. (Image credit)

What they actually mean, whether they realize it or not, is that they prefer that I and thousands of other people who work for nonprofits don’t exist.  No lawyers to sign our leases, defend our copyrights, and review our contracts.  No finance operations to make sure that every donor dollar is spent in accordance with policy and that all of the books balance.  No one on the other end of the phone to take a donation and talk with you about your monthly gift.  And no mail piece to ask you to give; you’ll just come to the Web site and do that on your own, right?  Not really, because Web software to accept and process donations is also overhead.

Not only do we need these, we want these (or, at least, we should).  Stanford Social Innovation Review said that nonprofits aren’t investing enough in these things and, as a result, are getting subpar results.

We transcend lean and mean; we are now emaciated and ticked off.

There are some lights in the wilderness.  The Ford Foundation, realizing that 10% was too little for overhead on its projects, has raised their limit to 20% And the initiative for the Overhead Myth is gaining some steam (although the irony of Charity Navigator being involved will be discussed later in the week).

But this is something we must address together.  As Ben Franklin said, “we must hang together or we will most assuredly hang separately.”

That’s why, even though they may work, I strongly encourage to remove your Charity Navigator four-star rating as a false badge of honor and for you to stop talking about the percent of your dollars that go toward your mission.  All of your dollars go toward your mission.  Some of them just take longer to get there.

The human face of overhead

What’s in a name? Word choice in direct marketing

It is an article of faith that names have power. In Genesis 1 and 2, Adam names the animals as part of his dominion over them. Many wizards in the Potterverse dare not speak the name of Voldemort, choosing He Who Must Not Be Named instead. Shakespeare asked what was in a name and it turned out it was quite a bit, given the death toll at the end of that play. Rumplestiltskin, Isis versus Ra, Doctor Who, Bilbo in Smaug’s den, YHWH, and so on: so much of our myth and mythology is about there being power in what something is called.

The truth is that, because of nominal biases, what something is called matters. I’m cheating a bit with this topic, because this isn’t one big cognitive bias, but a few different ones. They can have an impact on your direct marketing language.

People tend to prefer things, people, objects, etc. that are easy for them to understand. (study here). This is known as the fluency bias. There’s a reason that only eight names cover more than half of our presidents (James, John, William, George, Thomas, Andrew, and Franklin (which used to be a lot more popular than it is now)). Names that are more common help people rise faster in occupations. Believe it or not, stocks that have ticker symbols that can be pronounced as words outperform stocks that can’t be

Our brains are more persuadable by things that are easy to read and to hear. Winston Churchill, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (and he did some other stuff), talked about how he intentionally chose words with few syllables in his speeches. As a result, they have a fluency that sticks in the mind.

Even as an American, I can easily recall more of Churchill’s rhetoric (“this was their finest hour”, “an Iron Curtain”, “we will fight them on the beaches”, “blood, toil, sweat, and tears”) than FDR’s (“a day that will live in infamy”, “all we have to fear is fear itself”, and I hit a wall).

So never select a gargantuan word when a minuscule one will suffice.

Of course, the most fluent name for something is one’s own name. Believe it or not, people who have the same initial as a hurricane give more in disaster relief to that hurricane. The theory is that people want to distance themselves from the act that “they” are committing.

This works in other ways as well. I once tested state-specific victim stories in direct mail pieces. In half of them, I indicated that the story came from that person’s state; in half, I didn’t. Response rates went up an average of 30% when the story presented in a place the person was familiar with. Thus, customization to personalize the details of stories to your audience can raise more money.

Details also have a powerful nominative effect. In the classic Made to Stick, which I strongly recommend, the Heath brothers relay the study that stuck in my mind as the Darth Vader toothbrush study. Simulated juries were given eight facts for and eight facts against.

darth vader toothbrushThe stories differed only in detail. Half received irrelevant details for the good side: e.g., instead of just “Mrs. Johnson sees to it that her child washes and brushes his teeth before bedtime,” they added “He uses a Star Wars toothbrush that looks like Darth Vader.”

The other half received irrelevant details for the dark side: e.g., in addition to “The child went to school with a badly scraped arm which Mrs. Johnson had not cleaned or attended to. The school nurse had to clean the scrape,” they mentioned that the school nurse spilled the treatment, staining her uniform red.

Jurors who heard vivid details for the good things judged Mrs. Johnson to be a more suitable parent than jurors who heard the unfavorable arguments with vivid details. So make sure you are providing a real picture for your audience.

There is also a framing effect to word choice. Everyone in the abortion debate wants to be pro-life or pro-choice and not anti-life or anti-choice.

I find this to be especially true for verbs. Ideally, you will be able to ditch adverbs like ideally and have your verbs do the heavy lifting. In a study, witnesses were asked how fast two cars were going when they crashed. Except instead of crashed, the authors tended a few different verbs; here are the results:

  • Smashed: 40.5 MPH
  • Collided: 39.3 MPH
  • Bumped: 38.1 MPH
  • Hit: 34.0 MPH
  • Contacted: 31.8 MPH

Let me stress this: they watched the same crash. All that was different was the word that the question used and you still see an impact of almost 30%.

So how can you improve your own copy? One solution is Hemingway, an app that allows you to upload your copy. It then highlights long sentences, adverbs, passive constructions, etc. The reading ease score that comes with Word or similar software can also help.

Or ask a child to read it and see what s/he thinks.

Hope this helps your writing! If you would like some more of my favorite writings of the week, please sign up for my weekly newsletter, which has the feature “favorite thing I didn’t write this week.” I’m very creative at naming things.

What’s in a name? Word choice in direct marketing

Scope insensitivity and direct marketing: why one beats many

There is a famous study in nonprofit marketing that shows that an appeal that tells the story of a child does better than an appeal that tells that same story with information about the general problem of poverty in Africa. Even more oddly, a story of one boy did as well as the story of one girl; both did better than the story of the boy and the girl. The study is here and it is both fascinating and disheartening.

We humans think in simple narrative. We are used to hearing a story of a person (then using availability bias, which we talked about, to generalize). When we hear the story of a person, we react to it with emotion and affect. When we hear the story of many people, we react to it with logic and calculation. Or as Stalin put it: “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.”*

engaging-millennials-as-organ-donors-june-13-2011-35-728

Image credit here. Odd that Stalin and Mother Teresa had similar sentiments on this. And I don’t think anyone has ever seen them in the same room at the same time…**

Unfortunately, this leads to us (in theory) misallocating our resources. Vox did an illustration of the types of cancer people donate to, versus what they die of.

fundrasing4disease

Image credit here.

This seems to focus on special events and looks at one organization per disease, so it isn’t perfect but is emblematic of this problem. In 2010, the humanitarian aid response to the Haiti earthquake (which affected 3 million people) was more than 3 billion dollars. The flood in Pakistan (which affected an estimated 20 million people) received only 2.2 billion dollars. (study here)  People donate relatively the same amount to save 2,000, 20,000, and 200,000 birds.

So the rule you could get from this is to tell only one story at a time. Which is not a bad rule.

However, your organization likely has a scope you want to achieve. You don’t just want to help one person. You want to help one person, then another, then another, etc., until your problem is solved and you can take up golf or something.

So how do you talk about scope without turning off your donors?

One way is to talk about scope and statistics, but to do it with the right donors. I would point you to the post I did about a month ago about the study that shows that statistics depress response among smaller donors, but increase it among larger donors. Thus, you can save it for the right audience.

Another solution that was interesting to me came from a study in the Journal of Consumer Research

At first, they just found what we’ve been talking about: single identified victim works better than large numbers of victims. Scope blindness in action.

However, you can get people to donate more to large numbers of victims if the victims are seen to be entitative.

This was the point in reading the study that I had to pull out the dictionary. I thought that entitative meant “similar to a walking talking tree from Lord of the Rings.”***

In reality, “entitative” means how much people consider something to be a coherent whole. This can be helped by group membership. In the study, they found that donations to help children were greater when the children were part of the same family, instead of random so-and-sos.

Similarly, they asked about saving butterflies, showing butterflies either flying randomly (low entitativity) or together (high entitativity). The butterfly flock (is that a thing?) raised 69% more on average.

They also found when that in-group had positive qualities, people were more likely to donate. Specifically, when the starving children in Africa were said to be in the same prison, rather than the same family, the group dynamic hurt donations rather than helping them.

So if you are going to talk about multiple people, try to frame them as part of the same in-group and make that in-group as positive as possible. Then, and seemingly only then, will you be able to tell more than one story and get more donations instead of fewer.
* I’d heard a different pithier version of this also (one where if you kill one person, you are a murderer; if you kill a million, you are a conqueror). However, this one seems to have the greatest basis in fact according to Quote Investigator.

** This is a joke, of course. This seems obvious, but one can not be too careful on the Internet. Clearly, Stalin is the evil twin of Mother Teresa.

*** Yes, I know that the ents aren’t really trees. They are treelike guardians that take on the shape of the trees they herd. But I’m trying to get everyone to read to the end of this, not just people who are as nerdy as I am.

Scope insensitivity and direct marketing: why one beats many

Availability heuristics and direct marketing: what we remember easily is all there is

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.

Cell phone use and driving killed 445 people

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:

  1. The professor should consider using an antiperspirant
  2. 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 nick@directtodonor.com.

Availability heuristics and direct marketing: what we remember easily is all there is

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