Escaping fixed ask strings

Most of the science of ask strings that we’ve talked about is related to variable ask strings that depend on who the potential donor is.  However, when acquiring new donors, this is often not possible, since you know little to nothing about who the person is (yet).  Thus, while we’ll talk mostly about variable ask strings or topics that apply to both fixed and variable ask strings, it’s important to discuss fixed ask strings.

Namely, don’t use them whenever possible.  Yes, they are necessary for some acquisition purposes, but the effort to customize them to even what little you know about a donor is worthwhile.  Some tips:

Online donation forms are usually customizable.  CDR Fundraising Group estimates that this simple step can increase your response rate by 50% and your average gift by 40%.  In fact, they’ve posted code for how to do this in Salsa Labs. What if you don’t use Salsa Labs?  Usually searching for “dynamic ask strings XXname of giving platformXX” will get you some tips on how to.

But if these tips are Greek to you, you can always take a shortcut: setting up multiple donation forms with different ask amounts and sending the links to customized segments of your audience.  This isn’t ideal, but it gets you most of the way there.  Even if you take a very shortcut and have a $100+ versus under $100 versions of your donation form to send, you will be customizing the experience for your online donor a little bit.

Use intelligence from your outside list selects.  If you are like many organizations, your outside list selects will feature a minimum threshold below which you won’t accept donors (often $5 or $10).  Chances are you have tested into these amounts:one list is productive without a threshold, so you haven’t incurred the cost; another had subpar performance, so you asked for a more select group of donors.

Chances are, your $10+ donors from one list will behave differently from your $5+ donors from other and from your “anything goes” donors from list number three.  Thus, you can use this threshold as a customization point for your fixed ask, making sure to ask people who give more for more.

Make sure your ask string testing doesn’t select just one winner.  When you test an ask string in acquisition, there’s a temptation to treat it like a traditional control and test, where a winner is chosen and rolled out with.  Here, however, you may find that even though the majority of lists performed best with your control ask string, there were a few lists that had demonstrably better results with your test version.  Since different lists have different donor characteristics, you may get better results by keeping with an ask string that better fits those donors.

Use modeling to determine your ask.  List cooperatives will be only too happy to create models for you.  Chances are, they can do a response model that maximizes response and another that maximizes average gift.  The folly is when both of these groups get the same ask strings when they were set up with different goals in mind.

However, you don’t have to use a co-op or pay a PhD to run a basic model.  Simply take the average gifts from your current donors at acquisition by ZIP code, standardize them (rounding to the nearest five or ten for fluency), and use that as the basis for your fixed ask strings.  After all, there’s no reason you have to treat 90210 as the same as 48208 in Detroit.

Make sure you are using information from multichannel giving when running a conversion program.  Sadly, walkers, event donors, volunteers, online donors, and e-newsletter subscribers are often dropped into an offline acquisition with nary a thought as to ask string.  Please don’t do this.  You could be asking your $500 online donor or your gala chair to sign a $20 check.  It’s debatable whether it would be worse if they didn’t give a gift or if they did.

Instead, make sure all giving, not just channel-specific giving, is taken into account when formulating your asks.  Additionally, even if someone has not given, you can apply filters like ZIP code or historical data (e.g., last time, your volunteers’ average donation was twice that of your e-newsletter subscribers; why not ask for twice as much?) to your ask string.
Hopefully, these tips help make even your fixed ask string more customized.


This is a special bonus Sunday blog post.  As I was writing my mini-book on ask strings, I realized this was a topic I hadn’t covered yet on the blog, so I’m putting up a draft version of the content here.  Please let me know what you think at nick@directtodonor.com so I can improve it.  And, if you would like a free copy of the book when it is ready, sign up for my weekly newsletter here.

Escaping fixed ask strings

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