Attribution challenges for online and offline marketers

This week, we’ve been looking at the differences between online and offline direct marketing and how the specialists from these two different worlds can talk to each other.

This difference may be no more stark than it is for attribution.

With online attribution, you can follow a Web visitors journey through your site.  You can (and should) follow them through the site and say that someone we attract to the home page is worth X; if we get them to take an advocacy alert, they are worth Y; if they download a white paper, they are worth Z.  These steps toward donation each have their place in the donor journey firmament online.

With offline, attribution is usually applied with a sledgehammer — they donated to X mail piece, so X gets the credit.

Having run a quasi-membership program, I’ve seen the absurd joy of watching donations spike to last year’s membership pieces the moment this year’s come out.  (OK, “spike” is a bit dramatic; “hill” perhaps?  They go up by a little for a time, then back down.)  People almost certainly set them aside and then, reminded by the latest piece, send in whatever reply device they have at hand.

This is one minor example of how offline attribution is often done, but simplified to the point of absurdity.  One is put in mind of the old physicists’ joke about milk production:

Ever lower milk prices were driving a dairy farmer to desperate measures, so he consulted with  a theoretical physicist. The physicist listened to his problem, asked a few questions, and then said he’d take the assignment, and that it would take only a few hours to solve the problem. A few weeks later, the physicist phoned the farmer, “I’ve got the answer. The solution turned out to be a bit more complicated than I thought and I’m presenting it at this afternoon’s seminar.”  As the talk begins the physicist approaches the blackboard and draws a big circle. “First, we assume a spherical cow of uniform density…” (here’s the origin joke, which I simplified

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So I guess was the only one who thought of that joke with oversimplification?  Sorry ‘bout that…

Anyway, this way of looking at attribution has several program-damaging faults:

  • It can cause people to cut cultivation communications.  These communications that help retain donors, learn about them, and bring them ever closer to the mission but don’t directly convert can have a big impact on eventual conversion.  In essence, you may end up cutting the wrong thing.
  • It can cause overcommunication.  If you add a communication and it nets positive, you may think it is the power of that communication, when it’s really about the the last communication but there wasn’t enough space between communications to differentiate.
  • It puts you in a mindset where you are thinking about the individual communications, not the individual donors.  This puts you in real trouble.  It’s natural to look at a mail piece or an email and think about how it “generated” the gift (when some research indicates that the last piece is about 16% responsible for a gift, leaving the vast majority to other causes).  In reality, the donor generated the gift.  How do you want to treat that donor going forward.

While sacrilegious to some, offline direct marketers would do well to take a bit of the humility from online attribution models (if not the models themselves) — there is only so much the proximate communication is responsible for.

Attribution challenges for online and offline marketers

The mindset shift in online versus offline costs

Almost everything you pay for in online direct marketing is a fixed cost.  You need to buy an email platform, an online database, an advocacy platform, donation management, a content management system, etc.  Once you have these things, they scale relatively well with few costs.  Sure, there may be tiered pricing for a lot of things, but usually not many tiers.

Almost everything you pay for in offline direct marketing is a marginal cost.  If you want to send one more mailer, you have to pay for the additional paper, printing, postage, envelope, etc.  Very few own their own printing presses; you pay someone a marginal cost to absorb that fixed cost.  

This leads to vastly different outlooks on life for online and offline marketers, each with its own flaw.  An online marketer (especially from five years ago or so) is comfortable to pray and spray, counting on multiple emails to to sway where quality of email does not.  Similarly, if ads are CPC or CPA (go here for a glossary if these terms are new), you can put out bad ads and wait for volume to save you.  Your costs were up front.

These ignore the hidden marginal costs of online: time and attention.  Time is the human resources you are putting into delivering and sending messages, which do go up with the number of different messages that are going out.  But more importantly, the attention of your audience is a finite resource.  Every time you deliver a message of valid and important to that person, you fill up that resource.  Every time you deliver an irrelevant message, you draw from that well — until there’s nothing left.

A recent DMA blog post talked about how ad blocking is a bad choice because it is a nuclear option, shutting down all ad communication with a consumer that is really trying to shut down bad ads.  I agree with the sentiment, but think the fault for that lies not with consumers choosing ad blocking or the ad blockers themselves, but in the advertisers that favor bulk over connection and interruption over permission.

 

On the flip side, offline direct marketers have been trained to the net.  Because there is a marginal cost to a piece, that cost must be covered by marginal revenue.  This leads to equal and opposite mistakes:

  • Overcommunication to donors with pieces that have positive net, never looking at the irritation caused or the declining revenues per piece until you have 20 pieces netting $.05 per when you could have four pieces netting $.50 per.
  • Underinvestment in strategies that are temporarily net negative.  This can be:
    • Acquisition, which can pay for itself over time
    • Lapsed reactivation – ditto
    • Cultivation communications.  Research shows that you can reduce churn significantly by asking about someone’s donor experience. Will this have upfront costs?  Yes.  But the cost will be more in the long term to have to reacquire those donors or get new ones to replace those to leave.

In short, offline and online need to learn from and appreciate the differences in their cost structures.  But they shouldn’t be bound by these structures to inevitable, unenviable fates.

The mindset shift in online versus offline costs

What are the open rates and click-throughs of your mail pieces?

It sounds like a non-sensical question.  And it highlights another major difference between offline and online direct marketing — trackability.

Those who live in the digital marketing space are used to being able to track what happens with their emails and campaigns down to the user level.  They complain when tracking pixels don’t work quite the way they are supposed to on every device and aim for ever better attribution models to understand where their investments are going.

XX Home Maytag B.jpgThose in the offline space are used to sending something out and waiting for results.  And waiting.  And waiting.  

Further, they are used to looking at packages as a whole.  They get one result: did someone donate (OK, two: and how much)?  Because of this, it’s tempting to think of mail testing as the thumbs up or thumbs down as in the Roman coliseum.

But you can find out things like your offline open rates and tweak them to your heart’s content. Take a simple 2X2 testing matrix.

While you won’t be able to tell what your actual open rate was, you can to content yourself with relative open rates.  With online, you have an intuitive feel for whether a 20% open rate is good or bad compared with the emails around it (and whether they generally are opened at 10% or 30%).  This same relative weighing works well in mail.  If 20% more people donating with envelope A than with envelope B all other things being equal, then you have a 20% better open rate with envelope A.

Similarly, if letter C does better than letter D by 30% with the other parts of the mail piece staying constant, you have a 30% better “click-through” rate.

And you probably already know the trick that you only have to test three of the four quadrants here.  If envelope A beats B when they both use letter D and letter C beats D when they both use envelope B, chances are pretty good that the winning test is envelope A with letter C, even though that wasn’t a tested combination.

But what you may not know is the right algorithm can do this writ large with a wide variety of variables.  Ask your vendor(s) if they can run permutations that will allow you to figure out what happens when you five envelopes, four offers, three letter permutations, six different ask strings, and so on.  They should be able to create a variablized stew that helps you run a number of tests at once.

The other thing that I’d recommend is not just taking a page from the online playbook, but using online tools to test your efforts first.  Don’t know if your teaser copy will work well?  Try it as an email subject line or a CPC ad headline first.  While the audiences are a bit different online and offline, catchy is generally catchy and boring is boring.  Working out details like this online can save your testing for things that can actually help you get to know your donor better, leading to more valuable communications and donors.  

(Or, better yet, scrap your teaser copy and test a plain white envelope — it may have the best open rate of all.)

What are the open rates and click-throughs of your mail pieces?

Online-offline translation guide for acquisition

When I was an exchange student in Japan, I carried a pocket-size English-Japanese dictionary with me.  (Pocket sized to make sure that it never had quite the word I needed, causing me to resort to “large bald person’s religion’s house” when I wanted to find the Buddhist temple.  I quite possibly offended the entire nation and thus apologize here for my adolescent self.*)

Recently witnessing a conversation between two people– one an older direct mail veteran; the other, a digital native online community builder who may never have seen a piece of paper – put me in mind of those days of mistranslation and bumbling.  They never seemed to grasp that one man’s teaser copy was another woman’s pre-header (or close enough to be getting along with).  Thus, they talked past each other and went their separate ways thinking the other was an idiot, even though they seemed to my ears to be agreeing.

Thus, this week, I’d like to try for some peace, love, and understanding between the often warring nations of offline and online.  Or at least the understanding part.

We’ll start with one of the simplest areas of cultural differences: acquisition.

Those who have been weaned on online will find the offline acquisition culture strange and terrifying.  Most notably, they trade and rent acquisition lists from each other!

For those in the offline world, don’t suggest this as a tactic for your online brethren.  Not only is it illegal (sending unsolicited emails is called spam and it’s even less appetizing than its namesake), but it is culturally not done in the online world.  (Yes, the cultural taboos are even worse than the legal ones.)

Despite, or because of, these differences, however, there is a lot that each tribe can learn from the other.

For online folks, just because you can’t and shouldn’t exchange or rent lists online doesn’t mean that you can’t create mutually beneficial relationships.  You can do this through shepherded emails.  Let’s say another nonprofit has a similar constituents or issue area to you.  You might consider sending an email to your list saying, in essence, that if you like us, you might like them.  And vice versa (of course; there is no quo within the quid).

Similarly, you might try engaging your corporate partners to see if they will run a shepherded email for you to their constituents, urging them to engage with you.  This has its own built-in incentives — the for-profit looks like the valuable philanthropic member of the community they are and you reap the list building benefits.

For offline folks who think the no-list exchange or retail rules are overly puritanical, know that an opt-in model for mail is on the visible horizon.  For those in the US, our friends in Europe are facing this by virtue of EU/UK regulations.  (How politicians justify themselves being able to send mail as they wish with opt-in only for nonprofits baffles me, but I suppose that’s what happens when you write the laws yourself.)

And opting in does provide a stronger bond between you and the donor or potential donor.  Thus, you can learn from your online partners how to build that bond.  Some tips:

  • As we’ve advocated, make sure you are setting expectations for what communications a person will receive in your welcome series.
  • Make it easy for a person to change the frequency, timing, and/or nature of their communications.  One tactic smart online folks will do is have multiple lists for which someone can subscribe.  If a communication is not to the person’s liking, they can be removed from those emailings without losing a constituent.  If a person does not want (for example) premiums, they should be able to request that and have it be honored.
  • Make it easy to opt-out with clearly visible instructions.  A person who asks to be taken off of your mailing list is doing you a favor (not as much of one as they might have done, but a favor nonetheless).  They could simply let you mail away and waste your money, but instead, they are helping you save it.  Help them help you.
  • Get your list through organic means.  Online and offline content can help you build a subscriber and constituent list.  This content marketing isn’t good for just online activation — it can be used for mailing as well.

Hopefully, these will help you discuss acquisition fluently across channels.  Tomorrow, we’ll talk about the cost implications from offline and online, using fun and exciting terms like “marginal costs.”  You won’t want to miss it.

 

* Of course, if I’m apologizing for my adolescent self, we’re talking about way more people than just the entire nation of Japan…

Online-offline translation guide for acquisition

Mental accounting and nonprofit giving

Back in March, we looked at how people have different mental buckets for their expenses.  Certain amounts are set aside for home expenses, car expenses, utilities, entertainment, education, etc.  And there’s a bucket for many for charitable giving.  We talked about this in the context that you can (sometimes) get someone to make a gift they wouldn’t normally make by framing it as an exceptional expense — something they wouldn’t normally budget for.

Since then, there’s been a more in-depth look at mental accounting in nonprofit giving.  Monica LaBarge and Jeffrey Stinson published an article called “The Role of Mental Budgeting in Philanthropic Decision-Making,” as well as doing a podcast about it that you can listen to here.

Some key highlights from how people mentally account for their donations:

  • Generally, people substitute one charitable act for another, not for a non-charitable act.  That is, people substitute sports for movies or church giving for alma mater giving, but they don’t generally substitute movies for church giving.
  • The amount allocated to charitable giving is usually at about 10%.  It’s interesting to hear this, as this is the amount often suggested by religious institutions as the amount to give to them; generally, however, it seems to be a rule of thumb for charitable giving.  Even non-religious givers centered around 10%.
  • Interestingly, tickets to galas and events can be considered charitable gifts or in other buckets.  One donor to whom the researchers spoke talked about how buying a table for a gala was a business expense because that was his goal in sponsoring.  In the next breath, he talked about giving to an organization through a ticket purchase because he knew the person being honored.  Thus, it’s important to understand how the giver classifies their giving to you.  You may be able to take multiple buckets to maximize your giving.
  • The happier people are with their giving to you, the more they are able to give.  This sounds obvious, but when someone enjoys giving to you, they are willing to dip into other buckets (like entertainment) that may not normally be open to you.
  • You may be able to work with business people who support your organization to sponsor in ways that help their business, giving you access to their business budgets.  Focusing just on philanthropic giving caps your upside with your donors.

Much of this comes back to the dictum “know thy donor” — the more you know about how your donors think of you and their experiences with you, the better off you are.

Mental accounting and nonprofit giving

Winning the battle against scope insensitivity, part 2

A reminder for those joining our program already in progress: scope insensitivity means that people are willing to give the same about to solve a program almost no matter how big it is.

Part of this is likely that humans don’t reckon big numbers well.  After all, in our salad days, we needed to figure out how many animals were nearby and how many people were in our group, but we didn’t need to count the stars or, God help us, remember how many zeros are in a petabyte (answer: a lot).

Which leads us to have troubles with numbers like this:

1000_times

Thanks to xkcd for the illustration.

So how do you make large numbers comprehensible to your target audience?  In a great piece on Gizmodo, mathematician Spencer Greenberg covered some important ways to anything over a thousand into perspective.  His tips include:

Breaking the number down.  When MADD talks about the cost of drunk driving, the amount talked about is usually not the billions of dollars; it’s $500 for every adult in the United States.  Everyone can picture $500 or what they could buy with it, whereas we don’t know where to start with a billion dollars.

Actually, we do — with a vintage battleship gray Aston Martin DB5 — but that’s only a start.

Change the unit of measurement. The example he gives in the article is when talking about the deepest point in the ocean, don’t say 36,000 feet; say almost seven miles.  I would argue that for nonprofits, you may want to change the type of unit of measurement.  When doing earthquake relief, 8.4 on the Richter scale may not mean much.  But “I saw a sign that talked about the building being earthquake-proof buried under a pile of rubble” gives someone an idea for the force we are talking about.  Or 8.4 can be “the same force as the largest nuclear weapon ever tested.”

Batching the numbers.  We can’t picture 2.3 million people.  But we can picture the football stadium we saw on TV last night.  So “every NFL stadium filled to capacity at once” gets the message across.

Incorporate time.  In the article, he mentions that during the Battle of Stalingrad, Russians broadcast the message that “every seven seconds, a German soldier dies in Russia.”  That gets the message across (that message being “RUN!!!”) in a way that 388,000 people dying each month does not.

These are some good tips.  I would add another — infographics.  For the modern nonprofit, an infographic can explain in a way that simple numbers can not.  There is a strong article in this month’s Bulletin of the Association for Information Sciences and Technology (get it on any quality newsstand today!) that highlights tips for creating a good infographic.

They include:

  • Identify a meaningful comparison for your audience. It has to be something that resonates with your audience, not just you.
  • Tell your audience what you want them to do or think. Like all things, we want to begin with the desired action in mind.
  • Don’t crowd your message with less important numbers or statistics.

There are some good nonprofit examples in the article, so I recommend a read.  Hopefully, you can now get your millions and billions down to something that people feel like they can do something about.

Winning the battle against scope insensitivity, part 2

Winning the battle against scope insensitivity, part 1

Back in February, we talked about how humans have scope insensitivity; that is, they don’t look at the scope of a problem.  This manifests that we are more likely to give to an individual story than to a global problem; it also means that we are willing to give just as much to help save 2000, 20,000, or 200,000 birds.  Even though the problem is greater, we have the same mental bucket for the amount we are willing to allocate.

What if you could change this with your copy?

It turns out you may be able to.

Hsee et al experimented with a way to combat scope insensitivity called unit asking.  The method is deceptively simple: before asking how much a person would give to support a group of needy people, ask how much the person would be willing to give to support a needy person.

The psychology here is brilliant: by setting a mental anchor for an individual person, suddenly the scope of your program is working for you instead of being a spectator in your ask.

Their first experiment was with a survey: people were asked how much they would donate to help 20 children in need.  Half of the audience had a preceding question:

“Before you decide how much to donate to help these 20 children, please first think about one such child and answer a hypothetical question: How much would you donate to help this one child? Please indicate the amount here: $____.”

People who got this priming question expressed a willingness to donate more than twice as much as the control group ($49 versus $18).

Then, like good researchers, they wanted to see if this would actually have an impact in the real world.  They worked with a company in China that was raising money among its 800 employees to help 40 school children in the Sichuan province, which had just gone through an earthquake.

The company emailed its employees, half with a unit ask, half without.  Average gifts went up 65% among those asked to envision what they would give to support one children first.  Additionally, response rate was unaffected (actually, response rate was slightly higher with the unit ask, but not significantly so).

They then tested the wording in the mail, with even bigger results — those who received the unit ask first had gifts that were four to five times higher than those who received a plea for the 40 children alone.

So, if you have a large number of people affected, ask how people would treat one person first.  Here, we return to the wisdom of Mother Teresa again:

engaging-millennials-as-organ-donors-june-13-2011-35-728

That probably works for numbers that people can picture.  I can picture one child, multiplied by 40, to get 40 kids.  What do you do if you are working with numbers large enough that people can’t picture it?  We’ll talk about that tomorrow.

Winning the battle against scope insensitivity, part 1