This is your brain on direct mail

Readers of a certain age (namely, around my own) will recognize the 80’s era PSA that taught a generation of Americans about proper egg cookery.

But the truth is that your brain is awash in drugs constantly.  They just happen to be of your body’s own making.

So this week, I want to take a look at how people’s brains receive our direct marketing communications and how it should influence our efforts.

Three caveats:

  1. I am not a brain scientist.
  2. Neuromarketing is still in its infancy.  It’s difficult to tell whether what is lighting up on an fMRI is a cause or an effect.  To a large extent, we are still black boxes, where we can observe what’s going in and coming out, but only guess at what happens in the middle.  There’s also a great deal of hucksterism in the community because of the newness.
  3. If #2 were wrong, I wouldn’t necessarily know it because of #1.

Now, if you are still with me, I’d like to talk about how the brain processes tangible marketing (e.g., mail) versus non-tangible marketing (e.g., online).

Temple University (at the request of the Postal Service Inspector General, so not the purest possible study) looked at how the brain processes mail versus online

They showed subjects a mix of 40 postcards and emails and monitored them through eye tracking (for visual attention), fingertip sensors for heart rate, breathing, sweating (for emotional engagement), and MRIs (for brain activity).  

Online efforts were distinctly better in one thing: focusing attention.  On the other hand, print won in terms of emotional interaction/arousal, engagement time, desirability for the things in the ads and recall.  The two means tied for memory recall and information processing.

Specifically, the researchers found greater activity in the hippocampus and areas around the hippocampus for physical ads than in digital ads.  The hippocampus is associated with memory formation and retrieval, meaning that participants could remember a greater context for their paper-based stimuli.

If you are a fan of Sherlock, as I am, or the book Hannibal (eh…) you know about the memory technique known as a mind palace — associating things you want to remember with physical locations.  Part of the reason this works is that tangible things are, well, more tangible and easier to retrieve out of memory.

As a result, a week later, subjects showed greater emotional memory for print.

This was replicated in a UK study and a Canadian studySpecifically, with print, more processing took place in the right retrosplenial cortex, which I had never heard of before this paper.  Apparently, this is involved in processing emotional cues and helping them get into memory.

So, in our first foray into brain science, we can say that while people may focus more on online images (in part because it is a more structured environment; life is rarely so structured outside of a computer screen), they forge greater bonds with mail.

The one caveat to this is that mail versus print ads misses the interactivity that is possible online.  It didn’t test video, or click-throughs, or quizzes: just static online ads.  So, just as we shouldn’t trumpet the death of direct mail, neither should we dismiss online as mere ephemera.  There’s more to learn here.

And we’ll do some of that tomorrow with the role of dopamine in nonprofit direct marketing.

This is your brain on direct mail

Using your real estate better: reply devices

When people in your organization review a mail piece, people expend sound, fury, and energy on the teaser copy, the word choice in the letter, and the photographs used.  

But I bet you could send around a reply envelope with the wrong return address on it and have no one notice it.  I’ve actually done this test, albeit unintentionally; I am not immune.  I caught the error in the final proof process, meaning I missed it twice before.

This is where you, as the direct marketing expert, justify your salary.  Anyone can go through a letter with a red pen and choose their own favorite words.  You get to do the unsexy things that will get results.

And the reply device is probably the unsexiest thing in mail, which is saying something.  If your mail piece were the crack spy team, the reply device would the guy in the van.

573-20091

“You know what? I’m sick of being in the van. You guys are going to be in the van next time. I’ve been in the van for 15 years, Harry.”

— Gib,  True Lies

It’s also where a mail piece is one and lost.  And it’s a place where you can implement your priorities where no one will yell boo.

So, some ideas:

  • Anchoring.  We’ve talked a bit about this here and the science of ask strings here.  However, there’s a wonderful SOFII article about the making of a mail piece here  that explains the below the reply device.

    art_51_reply

    Did you notice the $6518 option?  Not only is that a nice high anchor that people are giving toward, but they find that some people actually give that.  From the SOFII piece:

    There is, however, one twist: there is an option to donate a sum of $6,518. We put that figure in because it is the actual average cost of granting a wish. Every now and then, when I’ve done that before, you find a donor who is willing to donate at that level. We did this once for a hospital when the price point for a piece of equipment was $6,942.73. Thirteen people “bought” this device. These donors upgraded from an average of $65 to nearly $7,000. It never hurts to ask.

    Good for you, Make-A-Wish!

  • Ask for more information about a donor.  Your mind must always be in two places about a donor or prospect: where they are now and where there are the possibilities of them going. One opportunity is for this donor to become a multichannel donor; to do that, you need an email address or phone number.  And, while you can append these data, this has costs both in money and in not learning what method(s) by which your donor wants to be contacted.

  • Ask about other opportunities.  Would this donor be interested in more information about becoming a monthly donor, leaving your organization in their will, or donating a used car?  You will never know unless you ask.

  • Customize based on what you already know.  Usually, reply devices are mass printed, which seems to be a missed opportunity.  If you already have the person’s email address or phone number, you shouldn’t ask again.  Likewise, if someone has ignored your checkbox for planned giving five times in a row, perhaps a monthly giving offer is more her/his speed.

There’s also the reply envelope; if the reply device is the guy in the van, the envelope is the guy in the van’s intern.  Usually these are blank.  However, messaging on the envelope can:

  • Reinforce the person’s decision to donate with trust indicators like the BBB seal.
  • Build urgency with messages like “Rush this envelope to save lives.”
  • Spread program awareness (e.g., “If you or a loved one has been affected by X, please call our hot line at 800-XXX-XXXX”)
  • Help with the program allocation of your mail piece in joint cost allocation.  (For those not familiar with this procedure, you should be looking at each of your pieces and determining what percentage of this content is for each of your programs and what is fundraising for the purposes of your tax returns.  Additional program messaging on the envelope gives a slight boost to the programmatic content.)

Just because the reply mechanisms don’t have as much messaging doesn’t mean that you still can’t make them work for you.  Hopefully, these tips have helped you customize your reply so that you can get more replies.

Using your real estate better: reply devices

It’s time to stop… vanity metrics

I’m writing this during the South Carolina Republican primary.  The votes haven’t started being counted yet, but I know who is going to win.  Because I know that Ben Carson has 35% of the Facebook likes among GOP contenders in the state; Trump is second at 25%.  Thus, Carson will get approximately 35% of the vote.

What?  Doesn’t it work that way?  Facebook likes aren’t a reliable indicator of support, donations, interest, or almost anything else?

The bitter truth: Facebook likes are a vanity metric.  They have little to do with your ultimate goal of constituent acquisition, donor conversion, and world domination, yet people will still ask what that number is.  And when they hear it, they will nod, say that that’s a good number, and ask what we can do to increase it.

That’s when a tiny little part of you dies.

So, in our Things To Stop Doing, we have vanity metrics.  These metrics may make you feel good.  They may be easy to measure.  And some of them may feel like a victory.  But they bring you little closer to your goals.  We are creatures of finite capacity and time, so the act of measuring them, talking about them, or (worst of all) striving for them drains from things that actually matter.

Facebook likes and Twitter followers are probably some of the better-known vanity metrics.  But they are far from the only ones.  And while some of these are partly useful (e.g., Facebook likes is an indicator of a warm lead repository for marketing on the platform), there’s almost always a better measure.

Because it always comes back to what your goals are.  Usually, that goal is to get people to take an action. Your metrics should be close to that action or the action itself.

Without further ado, some metrics to stop measuring.

Web site visits.  Yes, really.  This is for a couple of reasons:

  1. Not all visitors are quality visitors.  If you’ve been using Web site visits as a useful metric, and wish to depress yourself, go to Google Analytics (or your comparable platform) and see how long visitors spend on your site.  Generally, you’ll find that half or more of your users are on your site for more than 30 seconds.  Are 30 seconds long enough for people to take the action you want them to take on your site?  Not usually (except for email subscribes).

  2. Not all visitors are created equal.  Let’s say you find that people coming to your site looking for a particular advocacy action sign up for emails 10% of the time; those who come looking for information about a disease sign up 5% of the time; those who look for top-line statistics sign up 1% of the time.  Which of these is the most valuable visitor?

    This isn’t a trick question.  You would rather have one person looking for advocacy actions than nine people looking for stats.  Except that the metric of Web site visits lumps them all into one big, not-very-useful bucket.

These are both symptoms of the larger problem, which is that if you had to choose between two million visitors, of whom 1% convert, and one million visitors, of whom 3% convert, you’d choose the latter.  Thus, potential replacements for this metrics are visits to particular pages on the Website where you have a good idea of the conversion rates, weighted Web traffic, and (most simply) conversions.

Mail acquisition volume.  You get the question a lot – how many pieces are we sending in acquisition?  Is it more or less than last year?  And it’s not a bad estimate as to a few different things about a mail program: are they committed to investing in mail donors?  Is the program growing or shrinking?  What are their acquisition costs?

But from a practical perspective, all of these things could be better answered by the number of donors acquired (and even better by a weighted average of newly acquired donors’ projected lifetime values, estimated from initiation amount and historical second gift and longer-term amounts, but that’s tougher).  A good rule of thumb is:

Never measure a metric that someone could easily game with a counterproductive action.

And you can do that with mail acquisition volume by going on a spending spree.  Of course, you can also do that with donors acquired, but it will spike your cost per donor acquired, which you are hopefully pairing with the number of donors acquired like we recommend in our pairing metrics post.

Time on site.  You notice that people are only spending an average of 1:30 on your Web site, so you do a redesign to make your site and content stickier.  Congratulations – you got your time on site up to 2:00!

Someone else notices that people are spending 2:00 on your Web site.  They work to streamline content, make it faster loading, and give people bite-sized information rather than downloading PDFs and such.  Congratulations – you got your time on site down to 1:30!

Therein lies the problem with time on site – whatever movement it makes is framed as positive when it could be random noise.  Or worse.  Your sticky site may just be slower loading and your bite-sized content may just be decreasing conversion.

So another rule of good metrics:

Only measure metrics where movement in a direction can be viewed as good or bad, not either/both.

Here again, conversions are the thing to measure.  You want people to spend the right amount of time on your site, able to get what they want and get on with their lives.  That Goldilocks zone is probably different for different people.

Email list size.  While you totally want to promote this in social proof (like we talked about with McDonalds trying to get cows to surrender), you actually likely want to be measuring a better metrics of active email subscribers, along the lines of people who have opened an email from you in the past six months.  These are the people you are really trying to reach with your messaging.

When you remove metrics like these from your reporting or, at least, downplay them, you will have fewer conversions with your bosses that ask you to focus on things that don’t matter.  That’s a win for them and a win for you.

I should mention that I am trying to build my active weekly newsletter subscribers.  Right now, we have an open rate of 70% and click-through rates of 20%+, so it seems (so far) to be content that people are enjoying (or morbidly curious about).  So I’m hoping you will join here and let me know what you think.

 

It’s time to stop… vanity metrics

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?

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

Mailing the humble outbound petition

Yesterday, I mentioned how allowing people to take private advocacy actions for your cause helps them take additional actions like donating.

You can think of it as a foot-in-the-door technique if you’d like, but prefer to think of it as a valuable part of cultivation.  If there are people who believe in the rightness of what you do, you are providing them and those you serve a benefit by allowing them to take action in an easy and organized way.

And you can see the planets of social influence aligning in a petitioning strategy.  You are triggering:

  • Consistency by asking people to put their money where their advocacy is
  • Scarcity of time, as petitions frequently have a due-by date to them (e.g., “while the legislature is still in session”, “before we testify on the bill”, “so we can present the petitions at our national conference”).
  • Authority, as you will have to be presenting a strong case for your legislation or action
  • Social proof, as you can talk about the thousands who have already taken an action.

So how can you mail a petition to maximum effect?  Here are some tips:

  • To maximize social proof, you can run an online campaign first, so you can honestly talk about how many have taken action already.  In fact, you can think of it like you would structure a matching gift campaign (or, if you read the study on matching gifts, perhaps a lead gift campaign): we have X petitions already; we want Y to have maximum impact; please send your petition by Z along with your most generous donation.
  • Petitions can be a strong way of driving your offline donors online, so be sure to include a URL where the person can learn more about the issue, take the petition action online, and donate.  After all, if you are building urgency properly, they may want their action to happen now.
  • Let your donors exactly what you are going to do with the petitions.  This concreteness will build trust.
  • Actually do what you say you are going to do with the petitions.  So much the better if you can get a picture of the stack of petitions you are delivering to the governor/senator/congressperson/delegate/etc. and report back to the donor with the impact their voice had.  This can be done through a caging vendor if you wish.
  • Avoid policy speak. I have had the pleasure of working on the US highway bill in years past.  When writing about this, it’s tempting to use the language policymakers use for the bill: e.g., “we don’t want another continuing resolution.  We need to get the authorization through the conference committee, so we can then appropriate the money to the program and distribute the Section 402 funds to the states.”  Here’s what your constituent hears:

    smurf
    If they didn’t cover it on Schoolhouse Rock, don’t expect the person to know it.  Remember, your donor/advocate is likely looking for impact, rather than the minutia.
  • Customize your petition to appeal to opinion leaders.  Let’s say your goal is to get Senate cosponsors for a federal bill.  If you have 12 already, you should ask your advocates for those senators to thank their senators for taking the action you want, rather than sending them the same “do this action” petition everyone else gets.  This helps your organization’s credibility.  And since thanking officials is infrequent, you will get a positive reputation that will help you in the future.
  • Make sure your donation ask is tied to your advocacy ask.  You can get specific here — send in your petition to pass this bill and donate to help us advocate for this and other vital legislation.  Those people who are advocates know that advocacy is important and thus are likely willing to donate to support it.
  • Make this one of your conversion efforts for your online advocates.  This fits with the idea of the “one change at a time” conversion effort I advocated recently.

How have petitions worked for you as an organization?  Please let us know in the comments.

Mailing the humble outbound petition

Increasing your non-electronic mail open rates

These direct marketing kids today, with their emails and analytics and the Facebook — they don’t know how hard it used to be.  Back in my day, we sent people letters.  You couldn’t measure open rates!  You’d just see if they sent back their check and hoped they opened it!  And the mail carrier walked uphill both ways.

The problem is that my day was yesterday.  We still can’t tell if people are opening our envelopes.  Given the amount of testing of colors and windows and teaser copy that goes into this area that can only be measured tertiarily, this is a pity.

Today’s study doesn’t entirely solve this but takes a nice step forward in understanding what gets people to open and react to envelopes.

[TANGENT]

I know I shouldn’t be talking about this right now — I should be writing about direct marketing New Year’s Resolutions, just like I should have done the year in review last week, Star Wars content the week before that, and preparing for year-end giving content in November.

And maybe I’ll do that some day, but for right now, I’m going to try to remain counterprogramming.  Think of me as the nonprofit direct marketing Puppy Bowl — if you tire of zigging, come over here and I’ll probably be zagging.

puppybowl

As Chekov said, if you mention the Puppy Bowl in Act 1,
you must show an image of it in Act 3.

[/TANGENT]

To test envelopes, GfK has a panel of German households who give GfK the direct mail pieces they do not want at the end of each month, either opened or unopened.  The study authors (Feld et al) then looked at the impact of envelopes on the open rate and keeping rate of the mail pieces.  They looked at 68 attributes of 36 design characteristics across almost 400 nonprofit campaigns.  You can get the whole study here if you want the full list, but suffice it to say that when you are looking at what percentage of the response device in an envelope is colored and have five different segments for this, you are doing a pretty comprehensive look at the piece.

The first big result to note is that the open rate did not correlate to the keeping rate. I’ve seen this personally — when an envelope promises something the contents do not deliver, the piece is shredded with extreme prejudice.  Now on the nitty-gritty:

  • Colored envelopes decreased open rates.  I know, it’s difficult to cut through the clutter, but that apparently isn’t the way to do it.
  • Larger envelopes, questioning teasers, and a promotional design on the envelope back all increase open rates.  I would go one step further and advocate for questions that can’t be answered with a yes/no and that elicit curiosity.  While you could put “What is the capital of North Dakota?”* on your envelope, I wouldn’t recommend it.
  • Pre-stamped return envelopes increase keeping rate; postage paid on the outside envelope decreases open rates.  These may seem obvious, but you will have to assess whether the cost involved is worth the increases, as both will increase your cost per piece.
  • A testimonial from a helper increases keeping rates.  It seems like I’ve been talking about variants of these for the past couple of weeks — how social proof and authority can help your appeals, as well as how information can enhance persuasiveness among high-dollar donors.
  • Premiums can work, but expensive ones decrease keeping rates.  People like to receive things (reciprocity at work), but the idea that the nonprofit is spending more on the premium than on the mission is a significant turnoff.
  • Efforts to recruit new members decrease keeping rates. My guess here is that it’s too much too soon.  I’ve seen membership efforts do very well to existing donors (who likely want a sense of belonging), but for new supporters, it might be like proposing marriage on the first date.
  • In the letter, logos and fax numbers increase keeping rates.  Yes, fax numbers.  It also appears that having the phone number decreases keeping rates.  I have no idea why this would be.  If you do, please leave it in the comments to help illuminate us.
  • People kept letters more closer to the end of the month.  Perhaps a “more disposable income” effect at the end of the month?  I’m not sure here either.

Finally, longer letters and personalization increase keeping rates.  I’ve talked about personalization helping your efforts.  Longer, in this case, means more than one page of letter, but my guess is that there may be a sweet spot after that in the 2-4 page range.

We hear about information overload, but I would argue that there is mostly an overload of bad content generated by the same people who created Mad Libs (e.g., [number] ways to [verb] your [noun]; [number] videos that will keep you [verb]ing: number [number] will blow your mind).

A well-written letter, by contrast, can be a beautiful and effective thing.

So, the idea mail piece in this study (were cost no object) would be a larger than average white envelope.  It would not use the impersonal “postage paid” indicia, would ask an enticing question to get the potential reader interested, and the reverse would feature a strong offer.  A letter with your logo and fax number (for now, don’t question it — just go with it) that is more than one page would be on the inside, featuring a testimonial from a helper.  And your return envelope would be prestamped.

Nothing completely earth-shattering here, I would say, but these are some very solid tips for making your pieces more effective.


* It’s a trick question — both the N and the D are capitals.

Increasing your non-electronic mail open rates