Imagery in nonprofit storytelling

Picture the last time you watched a football game.  Think about a big hit that someone took to the head, whether it was a smashing tackle or someone getting upended and landing on his head.

What did you, as a spectator do?

Chances are pretty good that you cringed.  More specifically, you likely closed your eyes, turned your head from the screen, lifted your shoulders, and grimaced as if you were in pain.

And you were in pain, even though you were not in pain.  Your brain created the pain for you.  So you averted and closed off your gaze, so you wouldn’t feel any more of it.  You lifted your shoulders so as to protect your own neck.

Or, as a master of the written word put it:

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“Tell me one last thing,” said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”

Dumbledore beamed at him, and his voice sounded loud and strong in Harry’s ears even though the bright mist was descending again, obscuring his figure.

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

There is a robust debate ongoing as to whether this happening because of so-called mirror neurons or as a result of human empathy.  A good reflection on this debate is available here.   

However you come out on this debate, suffice it to say that seeing something happen to someone else can trigger the same feeling in ourselves.  But does it translate to the written word?

Absolutely.  Whoever said a picture is worth a thousand words may have simultaneously underestimated the worth of both the right picture and the right words.

Consider Hemingway’s famous challenge to write a six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.”  I’ve lost a child and those six words remind me vividly and painfully of a nursery.  We painted it to look like the blue of the sky, with a bright yellow sun.  And while I, with my complete lack of art skill, resigned myself to painting clouds and blades of grass (the ugly ones that didn’t taper properly at the top), my wife painted ladybugs and flowers and butterflies to welcome our child.

But the crib remained empty.  And while we did end up having two wonderful children, we moved from that house and used a different crib.

My point here is that words can create images.  Hopefully, you pictured our nursery a little bit above.  I used (or rather, tried to use) some of the same techniques you would see in a movie:

  • Setting the stage: a nursery.
  • Using colors to evoke an image.  Without using the Pantone or paint chip name, you have in your mind the picture of the sky and of the color or the sun.
  • Showing action: it isn’t just a static room; now it’s being painted.
  • Zooming in: on blades of grass.
  • Panning around to capture detail.

Chances are you are picturing it entirely differently from how it was (heck, because of the vagaries of memory, so probably am I).  That doesn’t matter as much as look as you are seeing a scene.

Studies of the brain find that when we read a story written this way, our brain processes it as if it is a visual and motor experience. 

And we can invite people to trigger imagery.  Good verbs like “imagine,” “remember,” and “picture in your mind” give a person the trigger to help them start to think in this way.  You still have to capture them with story and detail, but you are starting well.

Imagery in nonprofit storytelling

Do do-gooders do good deeds?

Good deeds are an odd thing.  You would normally think that a moral choice would make one more likely to follow the path of virtue in the future.  And research has shown that that when people are told they are good people, they do good things.

On the flip side, researchers describe the licensing effect — the thought that a good act gives you the license to do a bad thing and still be balanced. .  

This is well described in a New York Times piece creatively entitled “How Salad Makes Us Fat.”

Researchers tracked shopping carts and found that selecting a virtuous product make one more likely to subsequently pick a “bad” product.  

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This is your meal? Clearly, you are going to hell.

Other studies have shown that people who have eaten something indulgent are more likely to do good deeds — compensation in both directions.

How can both of these be true?  Would you rather catch your donors coming back from the gym or the Krispy Kreme?  And is it better to remind your donors that they are good people, or remind them that it’s been awhile since they last gave?

One study has worked to reconcile these in the context of donor communications.  

In the study, people were sorted into three groups.  One group was asked to write about good deeds they’d done.  A second group was asked to write about bad things they’d done.  And, not surprisingly, the third group was asked to write about neutral things.  Then they were asked whether they would like to donate a part of their fee for participating in the study to charity.

Significantly more people donated, and donated more, from the people who were asked to think of good deeds than either bad deeds or neutral things.

This is consistent with the idea that people who think of themselves as good people are more likely to do good things.  People act in relation to their self-conception.  But how does this explain moral licensing?

The study discusses this as well.  It finds that more licensing happens mostly not when we see ourselves as good or bad, but when others see us as good or bad.  For example, in the study of shopping carts discussed above, we would be judged by the person checking us out.  And if you think this doesn’t happen, you have never worked at a grocery store.

This fits with our study on slacktivism: people who did good things to help people are more likely to donate; people who did good things to get recognition as a good person are less likely to donate.

This can be well summarized in the old saw “I’m not a racist — I have plenty of friends who are [name of target group].  But…”  The person is working to establish positive external conception before saying whatever is going to follow.

(Fun fact: in the history of humankind — literally tens of thousands of years of human speech — not one thing that came after the phrase “I’m not a racist, but…” has ever been good.)

So, in an ideal world, when your donor receives your communication, they would feel like they are a good person, but feel like everyone else thought they were a bad person.  A tough balance to achieve.

I believe this comes down on the side of reminding donors not only of the good they have done in the past, but also tying it directly to the good they aimed to do.  So it would never be “you’ve given to be a part of our Founders Circle;” it would be “you’ve given to save lives and help people.”  You are telling them that they only did it to do good, not for any greater glory.

Similarly, in your lapsed communications, you would be better off establishing that clearly the donor is the type of person who gives to appeals like this one than you would be reminding them that they had lapsed.

Thus, this framing isn’t of donations like the previous few; it’s a framing of the donors that can help your appeals.

Do do-gooders do good deeds?

Validating small gifts to increase response rate

There is an old joke that actually got turned into a Robert Redford/Demi Moore/Woody Harrelson movie.  It is potentially off-color for some readers, so if you think you might be one of those readers, skip down past the image of the movie poster below and you will be fine.

A woman goes up to a man in a bar and asks him “Would you have sex with me for a million dollars?”

The man ponders this for a moment and replies that he would.

She then asks “Well, how about for $5?”

He is shocked, retorting “What kind of a person do you think I am?”

She smiles and says “We’ve established what kind of a person you are; now we’re negotiating price.”

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The lesson from the above, other than it’s less funny to read written jokes than to hear them told, is that it’s better to get someone to decide how much to donate, rather than to have them deciding whether to make a donation or not.

Researchers have found in several studies that rather than talking about a million dollars, you can have success by talking about a penny – specifically, the phrase “even a penny would help.”

This technique has some impressive results.  One study of this in a face-to-face environment increased giving from 28% to 50%.

One could argue that the success of March of Dimes in their original launch was in part a variant of this.  Although a dime meant much more then, it still was a way of giving permission to lower level gifts.

The phrase fails Kant’s categorical imperative: if everyone did it, it actually would not help.  Your penny would be eaten up by credit card fees, postage, and acknowledgments.  And I have not used this technique extensively because I’ve been worried about the anchoring effect.  My concern has been that while response rate may go up, average gift would plummet and, as a result, we’d have more lower-value donors instead of fewer high-value donors.  The former can be a strategy, but isn’t the one I’ve traditionally aimed for.

But the evidence is that people actually give significantly more than a penny.  While gift did go down on average, the total revenue from the canvass went up 64% because of the increase in response rate.

Since revenue per communication is usually a pretty good way of measuring its success (in an ideal world, you’d want to measure its impact on lifetime value, but on a one-year time horizon, you go with what you have), I would call this a win.

I would go one step further in this to say that this technique would be best combined with others to give a reason for why a penny would help.  Potentially pairs I see:

  • With membership: we want to have as many members as possible so we have the political clout to pass legislation.
  • With petitions: as we’ve seen, the humble petition can be very effective.  And the petition can make the “even a penny” part of the pitch be secondary: “please return your petition today; your voice is vital to this important issue.  And if you could also send a donation – even a penny – it would help move this issue forward even more.”
  • As a lead gift variant: I haven’t seen this tried, but you could see saying “we have a lead donor who has made a gift of $X.  We would like to report back to him/her that his/her gift inspired 50,000 other people to give.  Even a penny would…”  My thought is that, like how the matching gift variant that an additional gift would be generated for every gift made worked, this would help impact response rate positively.  If you’ve tried this, please email me at nick@directtodonor.com; I’d love to feature a case study.

Here at Direct to Donor, we don’t even need a penny; what we would love is if you would sign up for the weekly newsletter that has a digest of this type of information, plus special bonus content each week.  Thanks in advance.

Validating small gifts to increase response rate

Mental accounting and the exception expense loophole

We’ve gone through a lot of cognitive biases recently, but one we haven’t talked about is the idea of mental accounting or budgeting.  The idea here is that dollars are fungible: your picture of a dead president and/or founding father on special paper can be exchanged for rent, coffee, donations, whatever.  In fact, money says that right on it: THIS NOTE IS LEGAL TENDER FOR ALL DEBTS, PUBLIC AND PRIVATE.

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Image credit. Dollah dollah bills, yo.

But that’s not how we think about money.  In our minds, we have special categories for each type of expense.  Think of it as separate jars into which we are putting our invoice: $1400 for the mortgage, $800 for food, etc.  We experience mental pain every time we have to rob from one cookie jar in order to put it into another, so we try not to do it.

Picture how you think of money; it probably is something like this.  In fact, some budgeting software (we use You Need A Budget at Direct-to-Donor Manor*) formalizes this process to make sure you don’t overspend in a category.  We get comfort from knowing that each month, there is $X set aside for eating out.

Your donors think this way also.  Somewhere in their minds, there are mental Mason jars with “CHARITY” written on them.  There may even be several such jars: one for each organization they support.

If you think of how your donors mentally account, the implications ripple outward.  This is part of why:

So how do we diminish the pain that a donor feels from robbing from their “movie” or “eating out” or “savings” mental accounts to give to us?  Part of this, as mentioned previously, can be framing the gift against the frivolous.  But another technique that breaks through mental accounting is framing your ask as an exception expense.

One quirk of mental accounting is usually there is an “incidentals” budget.  This is a “what happens if my 2003 Saturn Ion** chooses to give up the ghost today” contingency fund that we can dip into.

One study changed the frame on their annual event.  Instead of talking about their walk as an annual event that happens every year, they talked about it as an event that only happens once per year.

You have to admit, there is hardly any difference between the two of these phrases (and it’s always nice to run a test that will slip unseen past your Brand Police).

Yet the results were impressive.  By running Google Adwords with the new, unique, once-per-year framing, study participants said they would participate in the exception version at a 46% rate, compared with 35% for the annual framing.  When they ran the ad for real, people were 11% more likely to click on the exception framing ad.

Similarly, in the mail:

“This mailing is part of a special charity drive that happens only once a year. Alex’s Lemonade Stand is requesting only one donation a year going forward.”

Beat:

“This mailing is part of a regular charity drive that happens annually. The charity is requesting a donation every year going forward.”

Some implications of this research:

  • This can help immensely with your event advertising (and you are trying to get your direct marketing donors to your events and vice versa, right?).  But for us, we also are testing removing things like “10th annual” from the press activities around an event.  The idea of themes could also be potent as a way of differentiating this year’s event as its own unique snowflake.
  • This could explain part of the effectiveness of techniques like a membership campaign and a better way to frame said campaign: “this is the one special time of the year we ask all supporters to make their membership gift.”
  • This may explain as to why scarcity, urgency, and uniqueness are effective persuasive levers.  It’s challenging to use this framing if you are sending four to 24 letters per year, and your donor knows that.  However, techniques that increase urgency or uniqueness like matching/lead gifts, deadlines, urgent petitions, etc. can help give a reason to open the piggy bank.

This may seem to contradict the idea of consistency – that people give to the same campaign year after year.  I would argue that they complement each other.  If you are trying to get someone to do what they’ve done before, play back their previous history and lean into the fact that you and they have a history.  If you are trying to get someone to try something new, you have to figure out for them which jar to take it out of and why.

So go forth and be unique in your messaging; it seems to be a better strategy that appealing from the tried and true.

 

* I have received no endorsement money or considerations from You Need A Budget. But I’m open to it!

** This is absolutely your author’s ride of choice.  As I mentioned in the post where I outed myself as overhead, the life of a nonprofit person should be neither Bentleys or ramen.

 

Mental accounting and the exception expense loophole