Getting other people to do your hypercustomization

Yesterday, we talked about how changing user experiences create expectations in the nonprofit world (aka “If Amazon can X, why can’t you?”).  Today, there’s a great case study of what happens when you let go of control of your message.

In 2004, a blogger who uses the nom de plume “Yarn Harlot” created a fundraising campaign for Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) called Tricoteuses sans Frontières (Knitters Without Borders).  She put up a page on her blog talking about the important work that MSF does and urged her followers to join Knitters Without Borders in support.

Whatever you thought they raised, it’s probably too low.

knitsignal11310By the sixth anniversary of the campaign, Knitters Without Borders had raised over $1,000,000 to support MSF.  When the earthquake hit Haiti in 2010 and destroyed the hospital in which MSF was working, she put up the Knit Signal (at right, so that you know I’m not making this up) and asked knitters to support the relief efforts.

Three things are remarkable about this story:

  1. There are more knitters than you knew there were.  I live with a knitter, so I already knew.
  2. tsfbThe Knitters Without Borders logo is a parody of the MSF logo.  Think for a moment if your communications team would allow a knitting blog to parody your logo to raise money for your cause.  
  3. Here’s a part of the piece about the Haitian earthquake:

“I spoke briefly on the phone this morning with the MSF office here in Toronto, and they confirmed several things.

Things are bad.

The MSF Hospital has sustained damage that means it isn’t functioning as a hospital right now. Staff have moved to the courtyard and set up tents and what materials they could retrieve from the building and are doing their best to help people as they can. Doctors who were providing maternity care are now running a trauma centre.

They, and their sister offices in other countries spent all night figuring out who could go and how to get them there, and staff is packing as we read this to get there as fast as they can.  They’ll be taking inflatable surgery suites with them so they can use that instead of their damaged buildings.

They believe that some of their staff are among the casualties.

They recognize the power of Knitters Without Borders and the force that we can marshal in a pinch, and they are grateful that you’ve been able to help them in the past, and they would very much like your help now, and right away.”

First off, tell me that you don’t want to hire Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, the Yarn Harlot, as a copywriter today.  I know I do.  I’ve read a couple of her books and I don’t even knit.

Second, note that she got these details from MSF headquarters.  In the middle of dealing with an earthquake, they talked with a key influencer of a community.  Not later on in the week, not when they got to it between finding out what staff members they lost.  That day.

The lesson here is that people can do some of your fundraising for you, if you’ll let them.  You need to:

  • Give them tools and permission (the logo for Knitters Without Borders)
  • Recognize their power (“They recognize the power of Knitters Without Borders and the force that we can marshal in a pinch”)
  • Keep them in the loop (“I spoke briefly on the phone this morning with the MSF office here in Toronto”).
  • Appreciate them (“they are grateful that you’ve been able to help them in the past, and they would very much like your help now, and right away.”)

What a great donor communication.  And not from the organization in question.

MSF has done a great job since then of being transparent about the need, their role, and the role of their donors in Haiti (take a look here for an example).

But on their own, how many knitters would they have gotten to donate?

Getting other people to do your hypercustomization

Addressing the resource challenges of donorcentricity

Getting to an organization that is able to know about its donors and customize communications accordingly is not easy.  We often lack one centralized database that acts as the Truth.  We don’t think we have time to make donor calls to thank people where revenue isn’t attached.  Our budgets are so small that we transcend lean and mean and are now emaciated and ticked off.

But we must start somewhere.  Why?  Remember the old joke about the bear and the sneakers?

For a refresher, two guys are at their campsite when an angry bear comes charging in.  One of the guys immediately bends over to tie his sneakers.  The other one says “You idiot!  You’ll never outrun that thing!”

The guy with the sneakers replies “I don’t need to outrun the bear.  I just need to outrun you.”

So, if you have no better rationale and didn’t read my Monday post about the value of donorcentricity to our business model, remember:

  1. Donors to our organizations donate to other organizations.
  2. Other organizations are doing these types of stewardship activities.
  3. BEAR!

colbertbear

So how do you start this journey of a thousand steps?  Here are some tips to first steps to better talk to donors.

Get your database in order. This may mean some time working out of csv files to get your lists in order.  However, this is much better than not trying at all.  It will also help you in the long run, as the fancy pants SQL/database steps to data health are likely just automated versions of what you are doing in your spreadsheet.

Institutionalize calling.  It doesn’t need to be just development employees or just employees.  But any part of your culture that you can get to call donors to thank them – do it.  Even if it’s one call per month.  The practice of hearing donor stories helps whoever here them take what was once a figure on a spreadsheet and turn it into an understanding of why people outside your organization think you exist.

And it helps them to feel your gratitude as well.

Ditto for thank you notes.  The more these can be a cultural touchpoint, the better.

Try an unconventional thank you strategy.  We have 50 ways to thank your donors here, most of them unconventional and many of them very poorly rhymed.

Finally, once you have data from a good number of people who have randomly received thank you calls or notes or the like, run the numbers.  You should be able to see from an increase in retention rate (I hope) the impact that calling can have on your donors and your retention rate.  Sometimes that number will be enough to continue your random calling.  Sometimes it will be large enough to justify significant resource allocations changes.

After all, the quickest solution to a small budget is to get a big one.  This can help you prove it out.


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Addressing the resource challenges of donorcentricity

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.

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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

Breaking down the “my donor” mentality between direct marketing and major gifts

The first thing that many major gift officers will instinctively do when they see their donor portfolio is to shut down direct marketing efforts to those donors.  After all, you want the donor to take your call and don’t want them mistaking you for a telemarketer.

Imagine if you tried this in any other walk of life.  Imagine going to Jeff Bezos and saying “this person has been buying a lot of stuff from us on Amazon.  Let’s make sure they never get another email from us, because I really think that I can sell them the Lladro Niagara chandelier for $100,000 (plus $4.49 shipping, which is either far too much for shipping or far too little).”

bond_villainHe would laugh at you until he got stomach cramps.  Or he would have an underling, possibly with a mechanical arm, throw you in a vat of piranhas while he stroked a cat.  All depends on the mood.

Bottom line, it’s silly to take someone who has been donating routinely by one means and, by all available evidence, been satisfied with it and cut them off from that means in the hope they might give more.  You should only change this if the donor asks you to (in which case, you should do so immediately, while smiling) or if you have a relationship with the donor to the point that there’s an alternate communication strategy in place.

That said, the major gift officer is right.  You don’t want to treat a potential donor the same way as a potential $10 donor.  This is not a defense of sending someone with the capacity to give a transformative gift the same 12-mail-pieces-and-a-cloud-of-dust approach that everyone else gets. It means:

A donor newsletter.  You hopefully are doing this already.  And you hopefully are basing it on Tom Ahern’s Making Money With Donor Newsletters.  In case you aren’t, your donor newsletter should:

  • Focus on “you” — you being the donor
  • Focus on what “you” did — progress updates and impacts
  • Have short articles
  • Be written for skimmers — white space, bullets, and compelling headlines and images
  • Have a return envelope but not be as “ask forward” as a traditional mail piece.

This more cultivating newsletter will help you make money from these donors.  But it also creates a holding pattern for your major gift officer.  You’ve already made the segue to what impact the person can have, leading to a more natural conversation when the officer is able to get in front of the donor.

Higher-touch communications.  This can be simple things like crossing out the impersonal salutation on a letter and writing in “Dear Nancy,”.  Paperclips in your mail pieces show that the piece has been touched by human heads.  First-class postage is a nice touch, as is expedited postage to get the mail piece to the donor.  One nonprofit of my acquaintance has their CEO write a holiday letter in blue ink, then copies it on the color copier for a handwritten appearance.  These are techniques that can segue naturally to higher-value communications with a major gift officer.

Higher-value communications.  We’ve discussed the supreme value of exclusivity.  A major donor may want to be able to get a sneak preview of your upcoming report or have an exclusive briefing call with your head of government affairs.  These types of velvet rope communications can build to events where major gift officers can meet with them face to face.  Once natural enemies, direct marketing can set up the major gift relationship.

Helping define the major gift portfolio: You are looking for one of two things: a long giving history with multiple gifts per year, increasing gift amounts, and participation in the mission or someone who makes an unusually high first gift.  Usually the first group will be better prospects.

Thank extremely well.  Have you ever heard a potential major donor consider not making a major gift because they were thanked too well or too often?  Me neither.

Overall, you are looking to create a spirit of cultivation with these donors.  And you should give of your donors to your major gift officers.  By being a strong resource for them, you prevent them from trying the nuclear suppression strategy with you, allowing you to maximize revenue from these donors over time.

Breaking down the “my donor” mentality between direct marketing and major gifts

Let’s get small: microimprovements

402px-david_von_michelangeloThere is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that someone watched Michelangelo retouching every inch of one of this statues.  The bystander asked him why he bothered with such trifles; the artist replied “Trifles make perfection. And perfection is no trifle.”

In the direct marketing world, it’s difficult to say that there is such a thing as perfection.  You will likely never see, in any quantity, a 100% response rate or open rate.  But our goal is to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

There rarely is an idea that you have that will double the completion of your online donation page.  But you can find 16 ideas that each get you five percent better, each one compounding to double your response.

So without further ago, a few small ideas that may make small (or big) differences.  In no particular order:

Change the color of your donate button to something not approved in your brand guidelines.  It will stick out.  Good.  Things that stick out get clicked on.  When this starts to lose its effectiveness, change it again.

Reduce the size of your download.  A Sprint phone downloads an average of 11 MB per second on 4G .  We can easily design pages with enough extra code and random things to download to cost an extra second.  One second lost means 7% fewer conversions.

That’s probably why water.org has their homepage look like this:

water

But their donation page looks like this:

 

waterdonationpage

Increase customization by a variable.  If you do name, do name and location.  If you do name and location, add in donation history.  Et cetera.  These are more than 5% tactics

Add a small donate bar at the top of your site.  Human Rights Watch reported (at DMA’s DC nonprofit conference) that the below orange bar and a larger orange footer on their site increased donations from the home page by 256%.  Many days, I’d settle for 2.56%.

Go into Google AdWords.  And do what it says to do.  If it recommends splitting up your keywords, it probably knows that doing so will allow you to customize your copy.  Punctuate your headline properly.  It knows that increases click-throughs.  And so on.  It will keep bringing up these opportunities; you just have to act on them.

Try adding a picture.  Not necessarily guaranteed, but a quality picture will usually improve a home page, mailpiece, donation page, content marketing, etc.  I’ve found a significant difference in the traffic I get from blog posts with pictures over those without.  Hence David hanging out at the top of this one.

Call some donors.  Ideally some of your best, but these thank you’s will both help with the donor’s loyalty and give you ideas for things you can try (or stop).

Take some fields off of your donation form.  Phone number?  Ask for that afterward.  If you have the ability to divine city and state from ZIP on your form, go for it.  You are looking to streamline this process.

Similarly, reduce the clicks to get to the donation form.  Hopefully, it’s one or zero (that is, you can start entering info on the Web page).

Remove the navigation from your donation page.  Now is not the time for someone to want to look at your executive’s pictures.  Four tests show improvements from the tiny to the oh-my-goodness here.  

Run a test.  Are those ask amounts correct?  How do you know?  If you are mailing, emailing, or calling with the same thing for 100% of your communications, you are missing out on your 5% opportunities.

Hopefully, one of these gets you 5%.  If it does, please leave it in the comments.  If it doesn’t, please let us know in the comments what did.

Let’s get small: microimprovements

Let’s get small: microseconds

You haven’t got long.

We’re on to the next email, text, phone call, app.

Literally milliseconds.

What you have to do:

Make the first online images count. People know what they think of a site faster than they blink.  That impression carries over.  It impacts content, action, and donation.

Make the first words count.  Average reading speed is about 140 WPM.  Average subject line is about 7 words? (makes math easy)  Ergo, subject line = 3 seconds.  That is, if you are reading and not skimming.  You are skimming.  So’s your audience.  Be sure to use pre-headers as well.  I’ll talk about those next week.  Subscribe here to get an email when it’s up.

Evoke emotion.  Emotion hits the brain 3000X faster than rational thought.  Reason hasn’t got a chance to set the hook.

Load quickly on mobile.  Only 11% of people expect content to be much slower on their phones.   One additional second = 7% decrease in conversions.  One. Bleedin’.  Second.

Send those thank you’s quickly.  Thank you speed is among the best predictors of retention.  Long-term and short-term.

Don’t wait for your mail testing.  Test to your mail audience online.  Facebook and Google ads = messaging tests.  Subject lines = teaser copy.  It’s not entirely representative.  But it will predict disasters well.

Make the ask.  The act should be in the first three paragraphs of the letter.  They need to know why you are writing.

Flood the zone.  They pitched your letter?  Even after you did outbound voice mail to let them know it’s coming?  You’ll get them in the email.  

Didn’t open the email?  We resend those to people who don’t open.

Still didn’t?  We have ads that follow them around the Web.  Then we’ll call; can’t escape just by going offline.

Multichannel is the way to get in the impressions.  Impressions are the way to get a message through.  Message is the way to get the donation.

Spend time where it counts.  Some donors actually want to read a 12-page letter.  But only if it’s written well.  Not Shakespeare well.  Not James Joyce well.  Da Vinci Code well.  Tom Clancy well.  The kind of letter that forces you to read to find out what’s next .

Sign up for my newsletter.  I won’t waste your time.  Promise.

Let’s get small: microseconds

Welcome step four: Setting up your systems

So you have your plan for your welcome series.  It is somewhere between 1 and n number of communications, depending on the person.  It crosses media where possible.  It thanks, learns, teaches, and asks.  And it honors the gift the person has given, while letting them know they can still be a bigger part of the change they seek to make in the world.

And it is worth nothing unless it is written down.

eyrha

You are working with a process that likely has:

  • At least three media (email, mail, phone) and perhaps more (mobile/texting, addressable ads, video, events)
  • Multiple vendors/systems involved (including caging, database, mail house, telemarketers, online communication systems)
  • Multiple points of differentiation, including medium, message, and high-touch v low-touch
  • Multiple people at your organization (you, donor relations staff, executives)
  • Intricate timelines.  For example, if you have three communications that you want in the order of thank you, learning about you/you learning about us, and ask, you really, really don’t want them to happen in the reverse order.  Also, every time you suppress someone from anything, things get complex.

This is not something that can be informal. In order for these systems to work together, you need to write out how.

Which does not mean you should write it in stone.  The basic principles should be (thank as quickly as possible, customize communications to the person receiving them, include both gratitude for what the person has done and opportunity to do more).  But how you accomplish them should be fluid with your testing regime.

I would say that the easiest way to create your process is to start with the simplest case and work your way up.  In this case, we have the rare example where ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny*.  So here’s how to build your program and your welcome/acknowledgment flowchart.

  1. Start with the most basic thank you by medium.  For an online gift, this is an email thank you; for an offline one, it is a mailed thank you.  Figure out how to get it out as soon as possible. 
  2. Customize those communications to the reason for giving.  A simple way to do this is to have a paragraph in the communication that changes based on the appeal to which the person gave their initial gift (since that’s usually the only information you have about the person at this point). 
  3. Create a special high-touch way to reach out to higher-potential-value donors.  This could be a policy of thanking all sustaining donors by phone or thanking all $100+ new donors and $1000+ existing donors with a handwritten card — whatever you are capable of doing.  This should be added to, not in place of, other thank yous. 
  4. Explore ways to break down your acknowledgement silos and thank people in different ways.  Put those that work into your process. 
  5. Add in a customized ask.  Yes, we’ve gotten this far before adding in an ask.  My thought is that a well-thanked donor is more likely to give to a regular-communication-stream ask than a poorly thanked one is to give to a specialized communication.  Also, you’ll note that this comes before creating a gap in communications (there likely already is one  that you can take advantage of) or learning about/educating your donor (I would rather have a less-educated donor who makes a second gift than a more-educated one who hasn’t).  This ask will be a bit more generic than we would like at this point, but you crawl before you walk. 
  6. Create your communication(s) to learn about your constituents.  These will usually be, but don’t necessarily have to be, separate communications from your acknowledgement and/or ask. 
  7. Create your if/then tree for customization from these learning communications.  That is, you should have something that says “if they are interested in advocacy, send them X paragraph in the ask; if they are interested in conservation, send them Y; if we don’t know, send them Z.” 
  8. Create the systems by which these changes will be implemented both for the ask as part of the welcome series and for all future communications. 
  9. Add communications from other media to the mix. 
  10. Create your timing for all of these communications, expressed in number of dates from the receipt of the gift.  I would encourage you to do a range, rather than an exact date for these communications — you may want to avoid having people telemarketed to on Christmas or on Sundays, for example.

Then, test the everlovin’ crud out of the system.  You are looking to break your system and then make it stronger at the broken places.  Some common things to test:

  • Do you have a plan, and only one plan, for every giving amount?  I’ve seen plans that say that donors over $100 get this communication and donors under $100 get this other communication.  They forget that a computer is going to be looking at this and ignoring people who give exactly $100. 
  • Do you have a plan for defaults?  Remember in most cases, you are not going to have additional information from the donor when you make your welcome series ask.  You want to make sure there isn’t a big blank space where paragraph three should be. 
  • What happens to your system if someone miskeys a code? 
  • What does your flowchart look like if someone does everything?  That is, you have paragraphs for people who are interested in various particular diseases, want to do advocacy, or have a personal connection to the mission.  What if they are all three, and they are a high-dollar donor?  The goal here would be to make sure you have prioritization and that you are not inundated with communications.  Remember that one of the priorities with your welcome series is to help the donor understand what to expect from you.  This should not be “I will expect to be annoyed.” 
  • How do your dates line up?  If you are integrating multiple messages and channels, you want to make sure that a person doesn’t get a phone call, mail piece, and email all exactly 21 days after their gift. 
  • How are you going to be able to handle the load?  That is, if you are going to be sending a getting to know you email seven days after the gift, will you be able to handle that on January 7th given your December 31st volume?  What?  You don’t have huge December 31st volume?  Let’s do a week on year-end fundraising at some point.

And you want to be vigilant to potential leaks even when you have this written down.  I have the privilege of working with a great donor relations person who keeps me apprised of the tone, tenor, and quantity of calls we get.  From this, she was able to discern that we were getting people calling (from a pattern of three people — like I said, she’s good) that already existing donors were getting member cards, something we include in our getting-to-know-you section of our welcome series.

What had happened was that our caging vendor had had instructions to send the new donor welcome letter to people who came in from acquisition mailings.  Since acquisition mailings often have lapsed donors in them that you are looking to reacquire, there were people who had donated for over 20 years who were being treated as if they were brand new to the organization.

Sovigilance

Image credit.

I will say that I have entirely failed to set up a welcome series for the weekly newsletter companion to this blog.  If you were to sign up for the newsletter here, what would you like to see?  Email me at nick@directtodonor.com; I’d love to use this as a test case.


* “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” is the (mistaken) idea that we go through all of the stages of our biological evolution in development of our embryos.  The catchiest treatment of this I’ve seen is in Stephen Jay Gould’s I Have Landed, where he talks about how the drawings that supposedly prove this theory (like the allegation that we have gill slits at a point in the womb) persist in science textbooks.  It’s also the theme of his first book, which is a technical book and thus one I haven’t read.  In any case, I doubt his first book has any essays on Gilbert and Sullivan, which I Have Landed does, so that’s another point for the latter work.

Welcome step four: Setting up your systems