Oxytocin and direct marketing: beyond the cuddle chemical

 

Oxytocin is a hormone produced in the hypothalamus, which is responsible for a number of major autonomic (or unconscious, like breathing) functions of the body.

Oxytocin is sometimes called the cuddle chemical or the hug hormone.  It’s a natural classification.  Oxytocin is released naturally as a part of childbirth and is associated with maternal behavior and social attachment.  

However, it goes much beyond this.  More recent research has shown it’s important in the formation of trust.  People dosed with oxytocin are more willing to trust their money with strangers.  Some researchers think this is because they are also more able to read facial expressions and emotional states.

On the dark side of oxytocin, while it promotes trust with in-group members, it also increases distrust of foreigners and outgroup members (study here)

More to the point of nonprofit direct marketing, when people empathize with a story, oxytocin levels are on average 47% higher. (study here)  (More so among women than men, which is perhaps why women are more likely to empathize and give charitably).

This translates to additional giving.  Subjects who received oxytocin gave to 57% more causes and 56% more money after exposure to PSAs (study).

But that’s nothing compared with what is possible.  In the same study, they looked at what happened when people experienced increases in both oxytocin and a fast-acting arousal hormone called adrenocorticotropic hormone (which people abbreviate ACTH for obvious reasons).  When the PSA increased both of these, giving increases 261%.

This means that the story has to both arouse empathy (releasing oxytocin) and draw the person in (stimulating ACTH).

So how do you do that with your narrative?

First thing is to take what your high school English teacher taught you about the five-act structure of plays, where you have rising action, leading to a climax, then a falling action that leads to a resolution.  Remember that?  (You may even remember the term Freytag’s pyramid, in which case, good job, Hermione.)

Now crumple it into a ball, throw it away, and try to forget it ever existed.  As we’ve said before, all pyramids are lies.  Even in the two-minute video that Zak used to test his subjects, attention tended to drift until tension raised again.  This is far less Freytag’s pyramid and far more the latest Avengers movie, where there has to be a tension set piece every so often to hold interest.

The goals are emotional resonance and attention holding.  When you have a narrative that does that, you release oxytocin and ACTH.  And when you do that, you get donations.

We’ve talked a lot about ways to do this, imagery and specific details being particular favorites.  However, when it boils down to it, take a look at your story.  If there are any paragraphs, sentences or words (especially adverbs!) that don’t help one identify with the people in the story or hold the attention of the reader/listener/watcher, cut it.

It’s brutal, but you need to hold attention and create empathy with it in order to succeed.

Tomorrow, we’ll get out of chemistry and into how people make decisions.  

Oxytocin and direct marketing: beyond the cuddle chemical

Doping in your direct marketing

lance_armstrong_tour_de_france_2009_-_stage_17

Not this kind of doping.

Our brains are miracles of electricity and chemistry.  Each electrical and chemical reaction is a way of communicating from one part to the other.  And there’s hardly a more fun chemical in the brain that dopamine.

Dopamine is what’s called a neurotransmitter.  It is released by nerve cells (neurons) to send messages to other nerve cells.  And it moves through special dopamine pathways.  One of these is called the mesolimbic pathway, aka the reward pathway.  There will not be a test on this.

Think of the classic rat-pushes-a-level-and-gets-a-reward-experiment.  That’s what dopamine does.  Do good.  Get a dopamine reward.  Most addictive drugs work through dopamine and most anti-addictive medicinal treatments repress dopamine.  In fact, there are case studies, including this very readable one from The Atlantic, of people who are addicted to giving because of their neural pathways.

Dopamine dulls pain, arouses, causes pleasure, and dilates the eyes.  I mention this last one so I can give you a good tip for reading people by way of Sherlock.

tumblr_n3qys4fdr51qbskx5o1_500

Sherlock: because I took your pulse: elevated; your pupils: dilated. I imagine John Watson thinks love’s a mystery to me, but the chemistry is incredibly simple and very destructive.

As a result, it’s a pretty nice thing to have on your side in nonprofit direct marketing.  The “warm glow” of giving is largely a dopamine reward (mediated by oxytocin, which we’ll talk about tomorrow).  When researchers look at fMRI data, they found that when someone gives to charity, the nucleus accumbens (which is usually associated with unexpected rewards) lights up and produces dopamine.

So how do you build dopamine and how do you use it?

The first is obvious and we’ve talked about it ad nauseum: thank your donors well.  Part of why dopamine is addictive is that the brain tends to anticipate it.  And you don’t want to deny someone that hit of dopamine for their good deeds.  Conversely, an unexpected reward can have the same impact that unexpected flowers or a gift can have for a spouse or loved one.  No, not the wondering what you did wrong one — the good one.

Beyond that, it’s something you can stimulate in your copy and storytelling.

Seeing other people happy releases dopamine and makes the person who observes them happy.  While I’m on the record not to sugarcoat our issues, when you can show the after and the impact you are having, you can do so in a way that makes your donor happy as a result.

Affirmations.  On online buttons, you’ll notice a lot of conversion buttons are now starting with “Yes,” or its excitable cousin “Yes!”.  This is because a positive affirmation can release dopamine and excite the person seeing it.  We become the rat pushing the lever.

Exclusivity can also give a dopamine hit.  We’ve talked about its power in persuasion; dopamine is part of why.  Here there’s a double shot; once when you know things that no one else knows and once when you share it with them.

And finally, use lists.  Our brains love to complete things, thanks to the reward it gives itself every time.  Bullet points tend to work better than comma’ed lists with each one making a nice mental check every time it’s read.

So that’s dopamine in a nutshell (or a skull).  Please check back tomorrow to learn about oxytocin, or sign up for our newsletter and never miss a post!

Doping in your direct marketing

This is your brain on direct mail

Readers of a certain age (namely, around my own) will recognize the 80’s era PSA that taught a generation of Americans about proper egg cookery.

But the truth is that your brain is awash in drugs constantly.  They just happen to be of your body’s own making.

So this week, I want to take a look at how people’s brains receive our direct marketing communications and how it should influence our efforts.

Three caveats:

  1. I am not a brain scientist.
  2. Neuromarketing is still in its infancy.  It’s difficult to tell whether what is lighting up on an fMRI is a cause or an effect.  To a large extent, we are still black boxes, where we can observe what’s going in and coming out, but only guess at what happens in the middle.  There’s also a great deal of hucksterism in the community because of the newness.
  3. If #2 were wrong, I wouldn’t necessarily know it because of #1.

Now, if you are still with me, I’d like to talk about how the brain processes tangible marketing (e.g., mail) versus non-tangible marketing (e.g., online).

Temple University (at the request of the Postal Service Inspector General, so not the purest possible study) looked at how the brain processes mail versus online

They showed subjects a mix of 40 postcards and emails and monitored them through eye tracking (for visual attention), fingertip sensors for heart rate, breathing, sweating (for emotional engagement), and MRIs (for brain activity).  

Online efforts were distinctly better in one thing: focusing attention.  On the other hand, print won in terms of emotional interaction/arousal, engagement time, desirability for the things in the ads and recall.  The two means tied for memory recall and information processing.

Specifically, the researchers found greater activity in the hippocampus and areas around the hippocampus for physical ads than in digital ads.  The hippocampus is associated with memory formation and retrieval, meaning that participants could remember a greater context for their paper-based stimuli.

If you are a fan of Sherlock, as I am, or the book Hannibal (eh…) you know about the memory technique known as a mind palace — associating things you want to remember with physical locations.  Part of the reason this works is that tangible things are, well, more tangible and easier to retrieve out of memory.

As a result, a week later, subjects showed greater emotional memory for print.

This was replicated in a UK study and a Canadian studySpecifically, with print, more processing took place in the right retrosplenial cortex, which I had never heard of before this paper.  Apparently, this is involved in processing emotional cues and helping them get into memory.

So, in our first foray into brain science, we can say that while people may focus more on online images (in part because it is a more structured environment; life is rarely so structured outside of a computer screen), they forge greater bonds with mail.

The one caveat to this is that mail versus print ads misses the interactivity that is possible online.  It didn’t test video, or click-throughs, or quizzes: just static online ads.  So, just as we shouldn’t trumpet the death of direct mail, neither should we dismiss online as mere ephemera.  There’s more to learn here.

And we’ll do some of that tomorrow with the role of dopamine in nonprofit direct marketing.

This is your brain on direct mail

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