The four American stories

Your English teacher probably told you at some point about types of stories: man versus man, man versus nature, man versus society, etc.  English teachers like this may or may not be why so few movies pass the Bechdel test.

hickey-bechdel-11-0

Anyway, there is a taxonomy of storytelling I prefer to these types of conflicts — it’s the four American stories discussed by Robert Reich in Tales of a New America.  Those stories are:

  1. The mob at the gates.  The enemy is out there and we are in here.  We are a beacon to others, but we are fragile unless we arm ourselves against the barbarian horde who want to destroy us and our way of life.
  2. The triumphant individual.  This is the person who made her own bootstraps and pulled herself up by them.  These stories include pluck, grit, gumption, not to mention moxie and spunk.  It’s hard works, late nights, and early mornings.  It’s Abe Lincoln and Ben Franklin and Horatio Alger.  It’s Rocky and Rudy and the venerated entrepreneur.  
  3. The benevolent community.  This is neighbors coming together to help.  It’s the end that we are generally good at heart and will come together as one people to solve the tough problems.  
  4. The rot at the top.  These can be aristocrats, bureaucrats, banks, the 1%, the conspiracy of the day.  These people in high places are corrupt, decadent, and reckless and the keep their boot on us all.

In their raw forms, these are the intersections of two dichotomies: optimistic versus pessimistic and few versus many.

Few stories are only one of these and powerful ones intertwine them.  A classic example of these is the ebb and flow of the fortunes of George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life.  In one scene, he defends his bank on his own (triumphant individual) against a bank run (the mob at the gates) engineered by Mr. Potter (the rot at the top) and triumphs when his neighbors agree their money is best kept in their neighbors’ houses (the benevolent community).  

So, how do you craft your nonprofit’s story and people’s places in it?  Some implications:

  • You want to yin with your yang in temperament.  An unrelentingly positive communication leaves no thought that there is still a need.  An unrelentingly negative one makes a person want to take a bath, not try to create their own hero story.  I would recommend making sure you are both heroing your donor (whether you cast them as the triumphant individual or part of the benevolent community depends on their personal bend) and talking about the threat you face, whether from without or within.
  • Like temperament, I also find that it’s good to have few versus many in opposition.  True, two evenly matched individuals or equally sized armies can make for good stories.  But when one individual stands up for what is right against the masses (there’s a narrative reason we like when the crowd isn’t chanting Rocky’s name at the beginning of the fight, especially when fighting godless Commies) or when a people throw the bums out, you have a truly gripping story.  
  • Everything that isn’t in a category here is noise.  You’ll note that there isn’t a storytelling category for talking about how great your programs are, for the same reason that the benevolent community story of a barn-raising doesn’t dwell on the awesomeness of the hammers.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about some tricks to make your story more compelling.

The four American stories

How long should a story be?

Long enough, and no longer.  There!  That was a quick post.

I just realized that I’ve referred many a time about telling quality stories, but haven’t gone into a lot of detail on how.

So that starts today with length of your story.  I like this topic partly because I get to quote Jeff Brooks’ Fundraising’s Guide to Irresistible Communications:

“I’ve tested long against short many times.  In direct mail, the shorter message only does better about 10 percent of the time (a short message does tend to work better for emergency fundraising).

But most often, if you’re looking for a way to improve an appeal, add another page.  Most likely it’ll boost response.  Often in can generate a higher average gift too.

It’s true in email as well, though not as decisively so.”

In addition to emergencies, I’ve personally found shorter to be better with appeals where urgency is a main driver (e.g., reminder of matching gift deadline; advocacy appeals tied to a specific date) and institutional appeals like a membership reminder.

Other than that, length is to be sought, not avoided.

This is counterintuitive; smart people ask why our mail pieces are so long.  And it’s not what people say themselves.  There is a recent donor loyalty study from Abila where they indicate that only 20% of people read five paragraphs in and only seven percent of people are still reading at the ten paragraph market.

Here’s a tip: if you are reading this, this data point is probably not correct.

The challenge with this data point is that they didn’t test this; they asked donors.  Unfortunately, donor surveys are fraught with peril, not the least of which is people stink at understanding what they would do (much better to see what they actually do).  We talked about this when talking about donor surveys that don’t stink.

Other questionable results from this survey include:

  • Allegedly the least important part of an event is “Keep me involved afterward by sending me pictures, statements on the event’s impact, or other news.”  So be sure not to thank your donors or talk to them about the difference they are making in the world!
  • 28% of people would keep donating even if the content they got was vague, was boring, talked about uninteresting programs, had incorrect info about the donors, and was not personalized.  Unfortunately, I’ve sent these appeals and the response rate isn’t that high.
  • 37% of donors like posts to Twitter as a content type.  Only 16% of donors follow nonprofits on social media.  So at least 21% of people want you to talk to them on Twitter, where they aren’t listening?

So length can be a strong driver and should be something you test.  But you want the right type of length.  Avoid longer sentences and paragraphs.  Shorter is easier to understand, and therefore truer.

Instead, delve into rich detail.  Details and active verbs make your stories more memorable.  And that helps create quality length, and not just length for length sake.

And don’t be afraid to repeat yourself in different words.  Familiarity breeds content.  It also helps skimmers get the important points in your piece (which you should be underlining, bolding, calling out, etc.).

This may not seem like the way you would want your communications.  Remember, you are not the donor.  Especially in the mail, donors who donate like to receive and read mail.  Let’s not disappoint.


After posting this, I heard a great line in Content Inc that stories should be like a miniskirt: long enough to cover everything it’s necessary to cover, but short enough to hold interest.  So I had to add that as well…

How long should a story be?

Cognitive fluency, your brain, and direct marketing

“Cognitive fluency” means brains like things easy.  Easy things make brains happy.  Happy brains make people do things we want them to do (proof is here). 

Options of three things are easy.  Brains Goldlocks it and pick the one in the middle – not too much, not too little.  There’s a study that shows this

Repeating things makes them easier.  Seeing something once makes you more likely to like it a second time.  Thrice is even better.  Even if it is nonsense, you like it because you’ve seen it.  

The easier something is, the more it convinces.  That’s also been shown.

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Image credit: The Boston Globe.

For example, reading Arial makes us think doing something will be easy.  Reading a script font makes us think it will be hard.  The study is here.  

Simply named stocks do better than tough ones.  Simply named people become president.  More info here.

Also, repeating things makes them easier.

So make it easy for your donors.

Have people looking at your donate button.

Repeat things.  Because repeating things makes them easier.

Build up to your ask.  Small steps like email petitions increase donations.  

Tell people what other people are doing.  That’s social proof.  Brains like social proof because it makes things easy.

Just like repetition does.

Make your text a very different color from the background.  Because this stinks.  If it’s too close, it blends in.  Blending is bad.  Reading easily is good.  

Bigger fonts are also better.

Write at the lowest grade level you can without sounding Dick and Jane.  Jeff Brooks, in his very good book, recommends 4th to 6th grade level.

Some may call this stupid.  But it’s not dumbing down.  It speeds your donor up.  It makes it easy for their brain.  And that makes you more persuasive.

So, small words.  Short sentences.  Fragments of sentences, even.

Your high school English teacher might disagree.  If s/he wants a say, s/he needs to donate.

Please make your donors’ brains happy.  Make it easy for them.  Then they will make it easy for you.

Cognitive fluency, your brain, and direct marketing

How the brain decides whether to donate

The classic of this decision-making writing is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.  In it, he talks about two thinking systems, cleverly named one and two.  System one is our fast thinking, emotional, instinctual system; system two is our contemplative, logical, slower system.  Many of the cognitive biases and heuristics that we talk about in this blog stem from system one having clever (and not-so-clever) shortcuts so that we don’t have to spend the energy to think.

There’s a subtle shift on this that more neurological minded decision theorists propose (not that Kahneman’s system is bad — there’s a reason it’s a classic).  They say there are three decision-making pathways: 

  1. Pavlovian: This is the system that makes you want a meringue cake dessert.

    300px-pavlova_dessert

    Nope, sorry.  Knew I shouldn’t be writing while watching Food Network.  A Pavlovian pathway is instinct: it’s an unconscious or nearly unconscious, reflexible behavior.  It gets its name from the ring-a-bell, get-a-treat, now-the-dog-salivates-when-the-bell-rings conditioned response guy.  This may be System 0 in the Kahneman taxonomy.

  2. Habitual: When you repeat actions over and over, they become subconscious behaviors.  There’s a neurological saying “fire together, wire together,” meaning that if you do something repeatedly, the stimuli involved in that something will tend to become associated and more efficient working together.  Think of walking the same path through grass day after day.  Pretty soon, that path becomes almost as good as a sidewalk, controlled by your basal ganglia.

  3. Goal-oriented: When you make conscious, reasoned decision based on trying to get to a positive outcome.  You likely have heard about how people like President Obama, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg wear the same thing every day so they don’t have to make that decision every morning.  There is a germ of truth in this: we can only handle so much in a day and every goal-oriented decision takes its toll.

If you would like to read about these three mechanisms and how they function in prosocial (not selfish) behavior, there’s a nauseatingly detailed study here

So what are the implications for direct marketing?  I’d love to hear yours; here are a few of mine:

  • For a certain type of supporter, is reduced cognitive load part of the pitch for a monthly donation EFT?  That is, can you take something that you have to think about in the goal-oriented pathways and put it into automatic?
  • Conversely, do you want to?  Do you want to encourage goal-oriented thinking or aim for a more conditioned response?
  • Donors will likely expect that you behave like Pavlov’s dog.  That is, you need to do what you say you are going to do, especially as it relates to acknowledgments.  If someone is going to expect that hit of dopamine upon receiving their thank you, you need to follow through on that.
  • This likely explains the reason that gifts under $100 are given with the heart and over $100 are given with the head.  At that point, a gift goes from a habitual response to a goal-oriented action full of actual thoughts.
  • What type of conditioning are you doing with your direct marketing program?  There is a chance that premiums are conditioning some of your donors, whether habitually or Pavlovianly, to donate only when they get something for that donation.
  • Are there some means of communication that are truly Pavlovian?  I’m thinking here of mobile messaging.  When someone automatically checks their phone when they get a ding sounds, it’s not too many steps removed from a salivating dog listening to the bell.
  • See if you can discern habitual behaviors in your donors.  Do you have a set of donors who gives every year in November or December, but never in the other ten months out of the year (answer: yes, you do)?  Do you still mail them or call them with all of the other donors in June?

Any other thoughts?  I’d love to hear how you are building positive habits with your donors at nick@directtodonor.com or in the comments section.

How the brain decides whether to donate

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

An ode to the mostly filled thermometer

When was the last time you saw an analog, mercury-based thermometer?  Chances are, it was in a fundraising campaign, indicating how close you were to goal.  Even as thermometers go digital, their ancestors are honored through skeuomorphism* to symbolize progress.

But we come here not to bury the fundraising thermometer, but to praise it.

Specifically, we want to praise how the fundraising thermometer, or a specific state of it, can make people more likely to donate.

fundraising-thermometer-template

Cryder, Loewenstein, and Seltman took a look at how the amount toward goal already raised impacts a person’s likelihood of giving here.

They call it the goal gradient hypothesis: they think that people will be more likely to donate the closer a campaign is to goal.

So they tested this with Kiva, the microlending site that you may remember from such hits as “does being more attractive increase your chances of getting funded on Kiva”?  (Yes, it does.)

They found that when an individual fundraising goal was 0-33% complete, the average hourly progress toward goal was 6.7%.  When it was 33-66% complete, progress was 10.8% per hour; for the final third, it was 12.8% per hour.

So, having the thermometer partial full helped increase fundraising efforts.  This would tend to make sense, since the thermometer is a measure of social proof, a potent persuader.  (It’s the same reason that servers will seed a tip jar with larger denomination bills — it helps set the pressure and the anchor)

Hey, I can hear you yawning.  Yes, I know you aren’t going to be going on Kiva tomorrow.  But we’re just warming up.  The researchers then worked with a nonprofit to mail lapsed donors.  They had three separate goals that they were trying to reach and mentioned that one was 10% complete, a second was 66% complete, and the third was 80% complete.  They also had control conditions where no progress was mentioned.

Sure enough, the 10% and 66% conditions were not significantly different from the no progress control.  However, the 85%-to-goal piece significantly increased response rate (from .5% in the control to 1.17% in the 85%-to-goal version).

They even tested the “why” of this with donor surveys.  They asked people if they would be more likely to buy candy bars from a 7th grade fundraiser if the fundraiser was two bars short of goal or 32 bars short.  Two-bars-left won handily.  Additionally, the donors who chose the two bars indicated they felt like they were having a bigger impact and were more satisfied with their donation.

So, since not everyone can be the donation that pushes you over the finish line, how can you use this?

One tactic is to have a silent period of a campaign.  For online year-end giving, I’ve worked with organizations that will set their goal and their thermometer based on what it will take to hit goal starting from November 1, but only announce the goal and the effort on Giving Tuesday.  That way, their thermometer is at least 20% full when the first donor hits the form.

Another is to ask internal audiences (especially board members) to make the first gifts.  Showing them this research may help them feel like their gift is making a difference by getting others to give more freely.

Finally, you can define down your goal.  The 85%-to-goal condition mentioned above was based on being 85% toward buying a GPS unit for an international relief organization.  This is not a high-ticket item.  By setting the goal low, they were able to talk about 85% complete easily.  This type of microcampaign, repeated writ large, can help illustrate impact for your donors.

So keep those thermometers more than half full and you should be on your way to filling it up the rest of the way.
* A design based on an older version of an item to help people understand the newfangled version.  It’s the reason that email programs look like folded envelopes and your video app probably features an old-school movie clapper.

Thanks to Tim Vandevall here for the thermometer image.


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An ode to the mostly filled thermometer

Ask strings and $100: It’s all about the Benjamins, maybe

I, like many, am currently obsessed with Hamilton despite the minor handicap of not having seen it or likely being able to see it in the near future.  (Not shockingly, the idea of someone writing like they’re running out of time appeals to me.)  But the Founding Father most relevant to our work is still likely Ben Franklin.

usdollar100front

Do not reproduce.

In nonprofit work, we tend to view the $100 level as a bit magical.  Once someone makes the psychological jump to three figures, they are likely weighing the effectiveness of your nonprofit and not just the emotion.  Additionally, when someone is giving in the same number of digits, it’s easier to upgrade.  That is, the jump from $100 to $200 seems easier for donors to make than $50 to $100, even though it’s more money to increase.  And $100 donors in acquisition are instant candidates for high-touch treatment, as they are showing significant support of your organization from the start.

There’s a lesser known place where $100 is magic: in your ask string.

Reiley and Samek did a study in which they tried two different ask strings). The first was $35, $50, $75, $95, $250, and other.  The second was the same as the first, but with $100 swapped in for the $95.

Revenue per solicitation went up 29%.  Average gift went up almost 20% and response rate went up 7.6%.  Let me repeat that: the ask string with the higher gift amount in it also had a higher response rate.  This is a rare thing.

The major reason for this, they hypothesize (and I agree), is fluency.  As I wrote in the piece on word choice:

People tend to prefer things, people, objects, etc. that are easy for them to understand. (study here). This is known as the fluency bias. There’s a reason that only eight names cover more than half of our presidents (James, John, William, George, Thomas, Andrew, and Franklin (which used to be a lot more popular than it is now)). Names that are more common help people rise faster in occupations. Believe it or not, stocks that have ticker symbols that can be pronounced as words outperform stocks that can’t be.

So, you would think logically that $100 isn’t the only fluent number.  And you would be right.  Another study looked at whether people were more likely to give $20 or a strange amount like $20.03 (if they graduated from the college in question in 2003).  People were less likely to give the strange amount (although this was not statistically significant at the .05 level).

So remember to create round numbers in your ask strings unless you have a really good reason to: the ease of recognizing and using these amounts will benefit your organization and get you more of those elusive Benjamins.

When you can, see if you can get the $100 into your ask string.  It increases your response rate with no loss in average gifts.  Wins like that don’t come along every day.


 

I’m working on a book on ask strings.  My goal is to make it free to subscribers of my newsletter here.  So if a round-up of the science and psychology of donation amounts sounds interesting, please sign up today.

PPS. Tomorrow would also be fine, as I won’t be done with the book tomorrow, but that lacks urgency, don’t you think?

 

 

Ask strings and $100: It’s all about the Benjamins, maybe