Make your donor fill in the blanks

What’s brown and sticky?

This is my wife’s favorite joke in the world.  And it puts me in mind of the power of either asking the person who gets your communication to fill in the blanks or evoking their curiosity, compelling them to read on.

Of course the answer is at the end.  How would I do a blog post about building interest through questions and not put the answer at the end?

While it may be fatal to our feline companions, curiosity is a basic human motivator.  Jerome Kagan, one of the forefathers of development psychology found in a 1972 paper that what he termed “uncertainty resolution” is a primary motivator of human behavior.  We are hardwired to want to know.

This can work to our advantage in direct marketing.  More and more research indicators that the donating decision isn’t a yes/no dyad; it’s a series of microconversions that lead up to the act of pulling out the credit card/checkbook/wallet/etc. and giving the gift of a life saved or changed.

Our goal, then, is to shepherd the potential donor through the little steps that lead to that big step.  One of these is often the decision to open, whether it’s a physical or virtual envelope.

A good question in a subject line or intriguing statement in teaser copy can help draw in a prospect.  One of my favorite subject lines of all time was one that was intended to show our gratitude, but could be read one of two ways:

Look what you’ve done

When you opened the email, it was telling the story of what the person’s support had meant: the small dent they put in the world that year.

But I’d be surprised if at least some of the people who opened it (and it had a 25%+ open rate) didn’t think we were saying:


Incidentally, you might think of this as a bait and switch, but not shockingly, no one complained about being tricked into being thanked profusely.

You can also create an information gap.  Think of the teaser of your local news: “Coming up after the break: what common household object could kill you today?”  Sometimes, asking the question that your email aims to answer can get people to read and read all the way through.  Just like brown and sticky things.

There’s a specific manifestation of completionism that is particularly interesting.  It started with Austrian waiters.

See?  “It started with Austrian waiters.”  You can’t help but read on to resolve the uncertainty that comes with a statement like that.

Psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik was watching waiters in Vienna.  She noticed that their memory was astoundingly good for orders that were in progress, but very bad for those that were already served.  She went back to the lab and found that our memories work well for unfinished or incomplete things (know as the Zeigarnik effect).  Subsequent testing has shown it works best for tasks that are very important to a person.

There are a good number of ways to deploy this:

  • Don’t put a period (or God help you, an exclamation point) on the end of your subject line.  Punctuation there (other than a question mark) signals that the thought is complete and you need not read on.
  • Test out two-step opt-ins.  This is the not only the perfect compromise by the people on your Web site that want to reduce form friction and the ones who think you need your participants middle initial and blood type (you don’t; the first people are right).  Simply have the person fill out the most basic information on the first screen (usually just email address).  Then ask for some of the important information on screen two, with a big friendly opt-in button (note: it should not say opt-in) right there for the taking.
  • Finally, you should end your content with an idea that the content will continue on in another letter, post, email, etc..  There’s a reason every Bond movie ends with “James Bond will return” — there’s always more to the story.  So tune in tomorrow for the end of story week when we talk about story arcs and hero’s journeys.

* What’s brown and sticky?  A stick.

Make your donor fill in the blanks

What the Greeks have to teach us about fundraising rhetoric

Classic rhetoric structures almost always have no place in fundraising letters.  We govern largely in prose, not poetry.  In an effort to simplify, the flowery and verbose take a back seat to hard-punching Anglo-Saxon words of action.

But there are a few classical rhetorical devices worth knowing for even the humblest of appeals.

The first is that we tend to remember things in opposing twos and common threes.

For those of you keeping score at home, having opposing pairs is called antithesis.  The most famous of these is “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”  Many forget that Dickens then went on in that vein for quite some time, showing that he was paid by the word.

These opposing pairs can be a powerful way of setting an expectation and then denying it.  An opening sentence could be something like “Mary and John had long dreamed of owning their own home; little did they know that dream would become a nightmare” then going on to talk about the predatory lending practices that did them in and how you want to solve them.  While not a true antithesis (as those tend to have the same rhetorical structure), we tend to remember pairs of things.

We also remember three things if they are in a similar structure (known as tricolon).  We wouldn’t remember how Julius Caesar took Gaul if he just said “check Gaul off the list.  Conquered it.”  But because he came, he saw, and he conquered, it’s memorable.  We remember Churchill’s blood, sweat, and tears.  What we forget is that Churchill actually asked for blood, toil, sweat, and tears.  Even a master rhetorician as he went a rhetoric bridge too far.  We aren’t equipped to remember four things together.


For our purposes in writing, the rule of three often applies well to adjectives.  A strong three adjective pile-up can add emphasis, focus, and detail to a sentence.

An additional rhetorical device that is very useful is intentionally grammatical mistakes (catachresis, if you are feeling fancy).  Some effective ones:

  • Saying “over” when you technically mean “more than.”
  • Avoiding your brand speak (e.g., ® and ™ and capitalizing many a word, as if they were special)
  • And starting sentences with “and” or “but.”

When in doubt, ask if it’s how people speak.  If it is, you are probably fine.

Yes, your copywriters will run a river of red ink through these.  Ignore them, unless they are prepared to pay you the difference in donations.

Finally, alternating hypotaxis and parataxis can be effective at getting people to think about what they’ve read.  In English, this means mixing up your long sentences with subordinated clauses (your flowery sentences designed to evoke a mood) with short ones.  This breaks up the mind and allows for some rest between longer orations.

Most of the other rhetorical devices you can keep; a fundraising letter full of alliteration or written in iambic pentameter is too cute by more than half.  But these help keep attention.  And that’s our goal.

What the Greeks have to teach us about fundraising rhetoric