An quick update on the science of slacktivism

Back in January, I posted about three studies on slacktivism.  And back in March, we looked at whether people who think of themselves as good do good things.  Generally, these studies found:

  • People tend to keep their commitments and do the good things they say they are going to.
  • They do this unless they did a public pledge first.  The public pledge seemed to allow them to manage their reputation as they wished, with not as much need to follow through.
  • Social media fundraising campaigns don’t really do much unless involving buckets, ice, and/or challenges.

There’s a new study out in the March edition of Sociological Science (yes, I know, March isn’t entirely new; my copy must have been held up in the mail by the fact that I am not a subscriber) that bolsters these claims.

They went through a sample of 3500 pledges for donations made through an online social media/donation facilitation platform.  Of those pledges, 64 percent were fulfilled, 13 percent were partially fulfilled, and 16 percent were deleted. However, people who broadcast their pledges on social were more likely to delete and not fulfill their pledge donations.  This fits the thesis of people who pledge do so largely to look good and are less likely to follow through.

They also found from using Facebook ads and other social media techniques, and I’m going to just let them tell this part from their abstract:

The experiment also shows that, although the campaigns reached approximately 6.4 million users and generated considerable attention in the form of clicks and “likes,” only 30 donations were made.

Please print out this quote and point to it every time someone says mail is dead because of low response rates.

So, to replay the recommendations from advocacy campaigns:

  • Do them.  A properly run advocacy campaign can increase the likelihood that someone will donate and take other actions for your organization.
  • Make them private.  Public petitions appear to satisfy a person’s desire to manage their reputation, so they were less willing to take other actions.
  • By extension, don’t do them on social networks.  Not only are they not public, but you do not have the easy wherewithal to communicate with them to get the first gift or convert to other activities.
  • Make the ask.  It can be as easy as having an ask for the donation on the confirmation page or receipt for a petition.  Folks who take private actions want to help and are in a mindset of helping.  I personally have seen advocacy campaigns with a soft ask after taking the petition raise more money than a hard ask to a full list.  Crazy, but true.

Thanks.  This is my first shorter weekend content.  Let me know if you liked or didn’t like at nick@directtodonor.com.  I saw the story and wanted to get the word out, but want to know from you, the reader, if this is valuable.

An quick update on the science of slacktivism

Learning from political fundraising: chip in change for change

You’ve seen the headlines: “Americans more divided than ever”, “Gridlock reaching threat level crimson, which is worse than red somehow”, and “Pelosi-McConnell dancing knife fight leaves two dead.”*

Seemingly, parties can’t agree on anything.

But here’s a ray of hope.  They can agree on donors chipping in:

Martin O’Malley:

chipinomalley

Rand Paul:

chipinrandpaul

Bobby Jindal:

chipinjindal

DCCC:

chipindccc

RNC:

chipinnrcc

Jeb Bush:

chipinbush

Bernie Sanders and MoveOn:

chipinsanders

John Kasich:

chipinkasich

Marco Rubio:

chipinrubio

Hillary Clinton:

chipinclinton

I’ll be honest: usually my research for this blog is harder than this.  The hardest parts of finding these were:

  1. Remembering who had been running for president.  For example, it turns out Lincoln Chafee is not a model of car.
  2. Finding photographic from former campaign sites.  There’s evidence that Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, and others used chip-in language, but couldn’t find them online.  So passes away the glory of a presidential campaign.

But nonprofits don’t seem to be using “chip in” much.  Yet.  I think BirdConservancy.org was the largest organization I could find in my Googling.

So why do political organizations almost unanimously use “chip in”?  Here are my theories:

  • “Chip in” sounds very small. Giving permission for small donations increases the likelihood of giving. This is probably part of the appeal.  This extends to the standard ask strings.  Clinton, Cruz, Kasich, Rubio, Sanders, and the current Republican frontrunner (since I pledged I wouldn’t use his name as a cheap SEO play) all start their asks at $3-25.  In fact, if you take out Kasich, the highest initial ask is $15 (ironically, for Bernie Sanders).
  • Making a cost sound small also decreases the amount of pain that someone feels from making a purchase/donation. 
  • The value of a name in political spheres far exceeds just their donation value.  A $3 donor is also a voter at worst and perhaps a volunteer or district captain.  And of course, they may be able to give more in the future.  A $2,700 donor is these things, plus someone who may be able to attract like-minded funders at a max level.

    I say this is in political spheres.  But isn’t this true for your nonprofit as well?  You want that $3 donor as a volunteer, walker, bequest donor, monthly donor, etc.  And yet we generally have higher online ask thresholds. 
  • “Chip in” implies that others are doing the same.  In fact, Oxford Dictionaries defines “chip in” as “contribute something as one’s share of a joint activity, cost, etc.”  Social proof is a powerful persuasive force and knowing that others are doing it and are counting on you too can greatly influence decisions. 
  • People like to be a part of something bigger than themselves.  This is especially true for causes, political or non-profit.  The ability to make something part of your identity that ties you into a larger in-group can be very powerful.

So I’d encourage you to try chipping in as part of your emailing strategy (and, if it works, test elsewhere) as a way of pulling these cognitive levers.

A post-script: after I drafted this piece, this came in from the Clinton campaign:

unnamed

 

* I will offer a free signed book (in that I will print out any one of my ebooks , sign it, and mail it to you) for the first person who can do a Photoshop of this based on West Side Story.

 

Learning from political fundraising: chip in change for change

It’s time to stop… sugarcoating our issues

The other day, I was looking for studies that had been done on what type of images are effective in use in nonprofit direct marketing.  So I headed over to Google Scholar and searched for “use pictures fundraising appeals.”

You would have thought I was searching for snuff films.  Here are some of the titles of journal articles that faced me:

  • The pornography of poverty: A cautionary fundraising tale
  • Pictures of me: user views on their representation in homelessness fundraising appeals
  • Imaging Humanitarianism: NGO Identity and the Iconography of Childhood
  • Fundraising portrayals of people with disabilities: Donations and attitudes.

That’s just on the first page.  Apparently, some academics do not like us using pictures of the suffering we are looking to alleviate in fundraising materials.

This was a strange place for me.  I’m rarely in conversations where I’m not the pointy-headed intellectual.  One of my tenets of this blog is to use the scientific method to improve our fundraising.

And yet as I delved deeper, the articles seemed hand-wringy and nihilistic, in that they didn’t care whether or not money was raised to solve a problem as long as these pictures weren’t used.

I’m all for getting permission from people before their stories and pictures are used.  Ideally, the subject of a piece will welcome it as a way of their story being told.

But I also hear stories of brand guidelines or boards getting involved to say that only smiling happy children should be used in fundraising pieces.  This is dissonant to a donor.  They are being told about a problem and they want to help, but the children are already happy and getting well water.

So sugarcoating our issues is going to be our final (for now) Thing to Stop Doing.

It isn’t just pictures either.  How many appeals do you see or hear with underserved people?  One gets the idea that the person is a thermometer and with just a little bit more of the nonprofit’s program, they can be filled all the way up to whatever the correct level of service is.  Or, worse, one sees underserved and reads undeserved.  That one makes a big difference, but can be easily missed when reading quickly.

Most times, underserved people are poor.  People with food security issues are hungry.  People who have been impacted by violent crime are victims (if they choose to so classify).  We can tell the story plainly and evocatively.

Likewise, things aren’t challenging.  They aren’t suboptimal.  They are bad.  They are hard.  If you are talking to the right audience, they might even suck.

We’ve talked about how readability impacts our fundraising.  The easier something is to scan and get the emotional essence of, the more likely someone is to donate to it.

And that’s the goal.  We need to touch hearts and mind.  We can’t do this with phrases written by a committee.  We should be bold.  We need to preach reality.

It’s time to stop… sugarcoating our issues

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:

vlcsnap-2011-10-26-10h44m46s196

“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.  

strawberry_26_apple_salad

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.”

indecent_proposal

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.

Onedolar2009series

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