The power of a lead gift

Back in late December, we looked at a study that indicated that a lead gift is a better direct marketing strategy than a matching gift.  While it seemed to slightly depress response, the extra authority and social proof helped increase average gift significantly.  With a matching gift, the reverse seemed to happen: response rate went up, but average gift dropped significantly, with people thinking that they didn’t need to give as much to have the impact they wanted.

Now, there is another study that may show another impact of lead gifts, but at a cost.

The title of the article is Avoiding overhead aversion in charity, which should give you some idea of why I have some uneasiness about the cost of the tactic.  Gneezy et al found that many people are averse to covering overhead expenses of a nonprofit, wanting to fund only the work of that nonprofit.  (This, of course, leaves aside how the work of the nonprofit will get done without that overhead, but it is a concern expressed by some donors, so it is worth considering.)  So donations decreased when the percent of overhead increased.

Then, the study looked at whether having a lead donor, matching donor, or lead donor covering overhead influenced donation rates to increase.  Here were the conditions:

  • Control: “Our goal in this campaign is to raise money for the projects. Implementing each project costs $20,000. Your tax-deductible gift makes a difference. Enclosed is…”
  • Seed money: “A private donor who believes in the importance of the project has given this campaign seed money in the amount of $10,000. Your tax-deductible gift makes a difference. Enclosed is…”
  • Matching gift: “A private donor who believes in the importance of the project has given this campaign a matching grant in the amount of $10,000. The matching grant will match every dollar given by donors like you with a dollar, up to a total of $20,000…”
  • Seed money to cover overhead: “A private donor who believes in the importance of the project has given this campaign a grant in the amount of $10,000 to cover all the overhead costs associated with raising the needed donations…”

Here were the results, in response rate and revenue per piece:

  • Control: 3.36% with $.80 revenue per piece
  • Seed: 4.75% with $1.32 revenue per piece
  • Match: 4.41% with $1.22 revenue per piece
  • Seed covering overhead: 8.85% with $2.31 revenue per piece

So, having a donor or donors to cover the overhead of an endeavor raises the likelihood that someone will donate significantly, seemingly combining the benefits of authority and social proof from a lead gift and the direct donation to the cause from low overhead.

I would encourage you to tread lightly here, however.  The concern is that it could reinforce the (in my opinion) mistaken notion that overhead is bad or something to be avoided.  Not only is it necessary for organizations to exist, it’s necessary for them to grow.  Too often, nonprofits avoid investment that will bring back rewards for their cause and for their organization because it gives the perception of high overhead.

I believe in this so strongly that I dedicated all of last week to discuss overhead and vent my spleen on this.  However, if you want the TL;DR version, I strongly recommend overheadmyth.com, which goes into the mistakes of this approach.

My concern is that there will be a tragedy of the commons with regards to this.  If nonprofits choose to compete on overhead, then everyone will have to compete on overhead and it drags the industry down.

So my counsel is to be cautious with this.  It’s one thing to say that a lead donor has covered the infrastructure costs of a campaign.  It’s another few steps down the slippery slope, however, to say that this nonprofit is good because they spend 92.2% on programs, versus this one that only spends 89.3%.

The power of a lead gift

Men donate from Mars; Women donate from Venus

I recently spent a solid week trying to dispel the notion that Millennials are the most unique possible of all generations and, in fact, the idea of generational dynamics entirely.  Millennials are people and should treated like people, no better, no worse.

Since then, the Detroit News and San Diego Magazine have both done canonization pieces about Millennials and charitable giving.  I have tried not to roll my eyes, but I have not succeeded.

One of the many points in those blogs that almost any other point of demographic differentiation is better than generation for determining people’s viewpoints.

So today, I’d like to look at sex differences in giving.  To give credit where credit is due, Indiana University / Purdue University Indianapolis has a wonderful initiative called the Women’s Philanthropy Institute.  They have done a lot of the research into this; my job here is largely to present it and to try really hard not to mess it up.

On that positive note, here are some of the differences (the studies behind these are all found here):

  • Women give more to charities than men and specifically single women give significantly more than single men.
  • That said, marriage significantly increases giving of both men and women.
  • Women tend to give more to women’s issues, human rights, and environmental causes.  Men give more to issues around security, the economy, and sports.
  • Interestingly, these differences subside as women and men get wealthier, with their tastes merging a bit more.   A potential hypothesis is that larger gifts from wealthier people also tend to me more the product of familial consultation.  Thus, it may be a more literal merging of tastes.
  • Men tend to give to fewer charities; women tend to spread out their giving more.
  • Women are more likely to volunteer and more likely to donate to the organization they are involved with as a volunteer.
  • There is little difference in bequest giving patterns.

But you want to know what will cause men to give and what will cause women to give.  Well, I won’t disappoint.

A Social Science Research study  found that men have lower empathy scores when not watching Glory, Brian’s Song, Rudy, or Field of Dreams. (They omit this last part, but it’s implied.)  Given this, they looked to see if there was a way to get them to donate (noting that emotional appeals were not working as well).

The researchers tried four frames:

  • Social proof: “When you give to CRP, you join your fellow citizens in helping to fight poverty. The poor are now being helped by record numbers of charitable givers across the country. You can join the movement to eliminate poverty with your contribution to CRP.”
  • Efficacy: “When you give to CRP, your donation counts. Multiple external audits confirm that more than 98% of donations to CRP go on to directly benefit the poor. You can be assured CRP will put your contribution to work by using your donation to fight poverty effectively.”
  • Clear injustice: “When you give to CRP, you help fight the injustice of poverty today. Of the millions of people who fall below the poverty line, many of them were born into poverty and never had the opportunities that other Americans did. You can help address the injustice of poverty through your donation to CRP.”
  • Aligned self-interest: “When you give to CRP, your donation addresses a problem that hurts us all. Research shows that poverty weighs down our interconnected economy, leading to greater government spending, and exacerbating many social problems like crime. You can benefit everyone, and help make the economy strong and productive for us all through your donation to CRP.”

The aligned self-interest framing worked significantly better than the others with men.  However, this was also the worst performing with women.

So, to oversimplify, the traditional emotional appeal works best with women and appealing to “what’s in it for me” works best with men.

Has anyone has experience with testing this type of messaging?  Would love to hear your experience in the comments or at nick@directtodonor.com.

Men donate from Mars; Women donate from Venus

Priming with donation history and localization

I realized while preparing this post that I have used the phrase “play back” donation history in four different posts — in measuring retention, in the power of commitment and consistency, in my first post on customization, and yesterday.

But I realized I had not provided the intellectual background for why, other than as an example of commitment and consistency.

That ends today.  Kessler and Milkman of the Wharton School did a study of identity in charitable giving.  As they are from Wharton, they gussy up the paper with all sorts of stuff likewharton

But the paper is basically did two split tests with the American Red Cross.  The first was with lapsed (25+ month) donors, where the test version added the line “Previous Gift: [Date]” at the top of the letter (this was the only change).  Lapsed donors renewed 20% better when this statement of their donor status up front.

Also, response rates were 6-8 percent.  Can someone tell me what Red Cross was mailing to lapsed donors in 2010? Because if it wasn’t gold bricks, I want to test it.

I would wager that this is part the idea that the nonprofit knows who I am and what I’ve done.  It’s nice not to be treated anonymously, especially in this day and age.

 

farside

Copyright: someone who isn’t me. My apologies.
If it helps, I owe all of the Far Side books…

Part of this is reminder: “oh, goodness me, I meant to send a check, but I forgot.  Has it been that long?”.  Part is almost certainly shame.  Like we said yesterday, people want to feel good about themselves and a donation four years ago likely isn’t enough to cut it.

The second test looked at community identification.  People received solicitations for one of four efforts: the annual drive, the state drive, the winter drive, and the city drive (with the name of their state and city filled in).  Customizing this down to the city level significantly helped response rate:

  • City: 5.51%
  • State: 4.12%
  • Annual: 4.01%
  • Winter: 3.82% — proof that people hate winter

There was also a 4.8% higher average gift for those who received the city mailing.

The authors went a step further and looked at community size.  Sure enough, people from smaller communities were even more influenced by having the drive be about their city than people from larger ones.  After all, it’s easier to have community pride for Greendale, WI, than the entirety of Chicago, IL.  In part because Greendale is awesome, but mostly because of size.

So these two types of priming work and are thus things that can work for us in the mail, on the phones, and online, considering that the costs of these types of tweaks are typically low.  So go forth and customize!

Priming with donation history and localization

Read this article for less than the price of your Starbucks coffee

OK, you got me.  This post is actually free.

But it’s a phrase that is often used in DRTV spots: “you can X for less than the price of your morning coffee.”  The goal is clearly to get a monthly donation and to make the pain of spending money less by breaking it into smaller chunks.

But since my two most popular posts so far have been the study of ask strings and the anchoring of ask strings, I did want to update it a bit with new research on reference points in asks for donations.

In the American Marketing Association journal, there was a study that looked at referencing an indulgent product as a reference point for your ask.

This worked pretty darn well.  In each test, there was a control with no reference point, a hedonic (related to pleasure, usually with no socially redeeming value) reference point, and a utilitarian reference point.  So for example, they asked people to donate $1 to UNICEF.  People who got the hedonic version had the ask followed by “One dollar is the cost of downloading one top-ten song off of iTunes, such as the current #1 hit ‘Hallelujah’ by Justin Timberlake.” (Which dates this paper very nicely).

justin-timberlake-trolls

Image credit.  This is what comes up when I Google “Justin Timberlake hedonic condition.”  I’m really hoping I’m the first person ever to Google this…

People who got the utilitarian version got “One dollar is the cost of downloading one top-ten podcast lecture from iTunes U, such as MIT Professor of Physics Walter Lewin’s lecture, ‘Electricity and Magnetism .’”

Less than half (47%) of the control group donated, 57% of the utilitarian folks donated, and a whopping 88% of hedonic folks donated.*  

They replicated this with donations of time, where two hours was either “how long it takes to watch the season finale of MTV’s Jersey Shore” (hedonic) or “to watch the season premiere of House” (utilitarian).  Before I go to the results, I’ll say here that I will donate any amount of time you want if the only alternative is to watch Jersey Shore.**

In this case, 12% of the control group volunteered, 14% of utilitarian folks volunteered, and 30% of hedonic folks volunteered.  

They also tested with similar results in increased donations with an online $10 donation to UNICEF, which I mention only so I can repeat the hedonic condition:

“Remember, $10 is about the cost of a hand blender, which is great for making exotic cocktail drinks and is a good tool for a luxurious lifestyle.”

I love science.

The authors hypothesize this is because we feel the need to signal to ourselves that we are good people.  I’d agree.  The same element is at work as in the slacktivism study that people who didn’t take a petition were more likely to donate to an unrelated non-profit.  They were compensating for their lack of action on one thing with another action.  A similar mechanism seems to be at work here.  We like Ben and Jerry’s (because it’s gosh-darned delicious) but we also know that it is a selfish act to eat it.  Thus, thinking about it reminds us of our faults and we need to make amends by donating.

How does this work for us in direct marketing?  There’s the obvious point that bringing in a comparison that we know we shouldn’t like, but we do, can increase our giving.  It’s a good solid and now proven tactic.

I think there’s a side note to this, however.  I’m hugely in favor of the donorcentricity movement.  I think we should be learning about our donors, telling them the impact they are creating, and customizing their experiences to them.

However, sometimes we can overdo it in our copy, making it seem as though our $10 donor from 24 months ago has moved a mountain and is a saint among men.  When we do this to extreme, we trigger the opposite of this effect: people who feel very good about themselves tend to do hedonic, not charitable, things.  So, yes, customize your ask to what the person wants to give to, play back their donation history to them, and treat them well.  But when it comes to flattering copy, like Ben and Jerry’s, too much of a good thing is not an even better thing.

* This brings up the tantalizing, but not entirely relevant, possibility that for about 10% of the population, a physics lecture is a hedonic good.  Whoever you are, find me, as I long to be among my people.

** In case you think this is snobbery, let me disclose for the record that if the question had talked about Impractical Jokers on TruTV, not only would I not have volunteered, but I wouldn’t have finished the survey because I could be watching Impractical Jokers.

Read this article for less than the price of your Starbucks coffee

Revisiting social proof: does liking or doing matter more?

One of my favorite Stephen Colbert lines is from the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner:

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Image credit 

“He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday.”

Not only is it a great piece of writing, but it also is a nice indictment of a certain type of worldview.  Evidence and continued questioning are the signposts along the path of ascent of our species, with willful ignorance its downfall.

So, as this week will contain my 100th blog post, I wanted to take a look back at some previous posts and bring new evidence to bear on them.

In December, I did a week on the principles of influence and how you can use them in direct marketing.  Social proof — the idea that people tend to want to do what other people do — can be a large part of this.

But what makes for good social proof?  The answer surprised me, at least.

An article in Advances in Consumer Research looked at whether we are more influenced by what other people like or what other people do.

My thought was that this is a slam dunk.  We have the answer in maxim form: actions speak louder than words.  But that’s not what the researchers found.

They took basic consumer goods (chewing gum, hangers, etc.) and had one person in a dyad either express her/his preference or take one of the two items.  The second person would then choose an item for themselves.  They were more likely to choose the same item as the first person when the person said what they like instead of taking one of the items.

The researchers then replicated this on Amazon and YouTube; when both preferences (ratings or likes) and consumption (sales or number of views) of other people were available, people were more likely to choose the item/video that related to preferences rather than consumption.

So what does this mean for us?

First thing is that a lot of us are doing social proof wrong.  

And I should be the first to put my hand in the air for this.

I’ve advocated for putting the number of people that are subscribed to your newsletter on the sign-up as an inducement to sign up.  But what if that read “Join the 146,233 people who enjoy our monthly newsletter” instead of “Join the 146,233 people who get our monthly newsletter”?  

This also argues for more privileged places for testimonials and other forms of liking social proof.  We talked about scope blindness and how people are more likely to donate to one good story than the story of several disparate people.  Perhaps what we see in liking social proof is that there is also scope blindness — knowing that someone (who is like them) liked this content is enough to get them to engage as well.

Anyone out there have experiences with this type of test?  I’d appreciate any insight because if you wait for me to test it, you may have to check back around my 200th post.

Revisiting social proof: does liking or doing matter more?

Trust indicators in direct marketing

Another challenge with overhead ratios is that they are proxies for trust.  People trust XX% of the dollar goes to the mission because it seems honest (even though a scam can fake this number along with all of the others).

People want to believe in something bigger than themselves.  This credulity means that we fall for cons.  But it also means that the real thing is that much more inspiring.

There are five sources that I would hold up as ways to prove yourself to someone you just met — that new constituent that you are on a first date with:

  • Charity Navigator’s Accountability and Transparency measures.  I know.  I gave Charity Navigator a very hard time on Wednesday.  But that’s only because they deserve it.

    But their accountability and transparency measures come from a really good place (other than privacy policy: running an opt-in only list exchange/rental campaign would hamper much of the good that nonprofits do nationally). They are a good starting place for your efforts.

    And if you do well there, you can point there when donors complain about your low scores on the financial side of things, where you should be aiming for about two stars, maybe three.

  • The Better Business Bureau Wise Giving standards here.  BBB is a known name and their seal can help as a trust reinforcer online and off.  I wouldn’t put it on your outer envelope since plainer envelopes get opened more, but on reply devices can help.  There’s good stuff here on cause-related marketing standard as well that other ratings don’t go into as much.

    They also made this great chart:

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  • GuideStar.  If you haven’t been there in a while, they have a beautiful new redesign that helps nonprofits lay out their logic models and the way they are making an impact.  Moreover, they don’t have a bunch of pseudo-experts spending five minutes trying to understand and judge the work of actual experts’ lifetime of experience on a topic like some organizations who will remain nameless (*cough*cough*CharityNavigator3.0*cough*cough).  Instead, they let you lay out your arguments and let educated donors decide.

  • Independent Sector.  While I don’t know of a rating system or a seal that comes from this, the 33 principles are really good and worthy for board governance.

  • Great Nonprofits.  A different model where your constituents let you, and everyone else, know what they think of you.  At first, it can be a little heavily weighted toward the loud disgruntled (as can any rating system: read Yelp lately?), but once you make it a part of your marketing, testimonials will come in, building trust and social proof.

These are all good ways of building trust without resorting to the overhead rate that cheapens us all.

Trust indicators in direct marketing

Inputs, activities, outputs, outcomes, and impacts in direct marketing

I’ve made the case to avoid the easy, seductive, and wrong-headed use of overhead rates as a way of assessing and marketing nonprofits.

However, this rejection can not be nihilistic; we need to be able to communicate what we do and why that matters.

And, more specifically, since we know that people donate more and more often to prevent a bad thing than to create or sustain a good thing, we need to be able to communicate it in this way.

Our activities can fall into four buckets:

  • Inputs: what resources do we have to get our job done?  The biggest of these, of course, are time and money, but people and expertise also fall into this category.  Picture the Apollo 13 scene where they have to turn this filter… into this filter… with this box of stuff.  Inputs are the box of stuff.
  • Activities: what do you do with your resources?  We love to talk about these.  We give our programs fancy trademarked names and want our donors to care about these.
  • Outputs: what do you get by using your resources?  A training program creates people who are trained.  A research effort creates a white paper and a study.  Everyone loves to talk about outputs because there is a number: we filled X beds, we had a Y% graduate rate, we served Z meals.
  • Outcomes/impacts: what is the effect of your outputs?  A humanitarian delivery of food doesn’t end when the food reaches the dock — the output is reduced hunger among this target population.  Some people look at outcomes and impacts as separate things, with outcomes being a short-term implication and impacts being the long-term impact.  For me, there’s short-term, medium-term, and long-term impacts of the action.

Impacts and outcomes are hard.  Did your delivery of food reduce hunger or was it an improvement in overall economic conditions?  Once you increased the graduation rate, did those people go on to live better lives as a result?

Donors provide us inputs.  Their goal is to buy an impact.  They think that with their donation, they can buy a little more good in the world.

And they care not at all about the name of your trademarked program or the number of outputs that you have.

Your job is to connect the dots between the donor providing the input and what change they will help create.

If you are trying to sell someone on buying a hammer and a nail, it’s easy to talk about the hammer allows you to put a nail in a wall.  Someone might say that the goal is really to hang a picture.

But what the person really wants to do is have a feeling of family, nostalgia, and memories.  To do that, you need to hang a picture and to do that you need a hammer and nail.

So, how do you present your programs without resorting to the destructive “88% of your donation goes right to the people we are trying to serve?”

You cut as much out of the middle part as possible.  In Stephen King’s On Writing, he talks about cutting the parts of the book that people skip over reading (even cutting a section he loved but that his wife Tabitha thought was not necessary).  You must do this too.

You need to cut the activities and outputs to the bone.  Your support keeps the boot of despair off of young people, allowing them to succeed as productive adults — and succeed they do: look at Brian’s story.  You will prevent empty chairs at Christmas dinner.  You make sure that our country doesn’t forget those who served us when they have a time of need.

There’s nary a program name or a 14% percent this or a discussion of logic models.  Start with the end in mind.  That’s what lights a fire in someone and causes them to care little for how much an overhead ratio goes up or down.

Inputs, activities, outputs, outcomes, and impacts in direct marketing

What’s in a name? Word choice in direct marketing

It is an article of faith that names have power. In Genesis 1 and 2, Adam names the animals as part of his dominion over them. Many wizards in the Potterverse dare not speak the name of Voldemort, choosing He Who Must Not Be Named instead. Shakespeare asked what was in a name and it turned out it was quite a bit, given the death toll at the end of that play. Rumplestiltskin, Isis versus Ra, Doctor Who, Bilbo in Smaug’s den, YHWH, and so on: so much of our myth and mythology is about there being power in what something is called.

The truth is that, because of nominal biases, what something is called matters. I’m cheating a bit with this topic, because this isn’t one big cognitive bias, but a few different ones. They can have an impact on your direct marketing language.

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

Our brains are more persuadable by things that are easy to read and to hear. Winston Churchill, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (and he did some other stuff), talked about how he intentionally chose words with few syllables in his speeches. As a result, they have a fluency that sticks in the mind.

Even as an American, I can easily recall more of Churchill’s rhetoric (“this was their finest hour”, “an Iron Curtain”, “we will fight them on the beaches”, “blood, toil, sweat, and tears”) than FDR’s (“a day that will live in infamy”, “all we have to fear is fear itself”, and I hit a wall).

So never select a gargantuan word when a minuscule one will suffice.

Of course, the most fluent name for something is one’s own name. Believe it or not, people who have the same initial as a hurricane give more in disaster relief to that hurricane. The theory is that people want to distance themselves from the act that “they” are committing.

This works in other ways as well. I once tested state-specific victim stories in direct mail pieces. In half of them, I indicated that the story came from that person’s state; in half, I didn’t. Response rates went up an average of 30% when the story presented in a place the person was familiar with. Thus, customization to personalize the details of stories to your audience can raise more money.

Details also have a powerful nominative effect. In the classic Made to Stick, which I strongly recommend, the Heath brothers relay the study that stuck in my mind as the Darth Vader toothbrush study. Simulated juries were given eight facts for and eight facts against.

darth vader toothbrushThe stories differed only in detail. Half received irrelevant details for the good side: e.g., instead of just “Mrs. Johnson sees to it that her child washes and brushes his teeth before bedtime,” they added “He uses a Star Wars toothbrush that looks like Darth Vader.”

The other half received irrelevant details for the dark side: e.g., in addition to “The child went to school with a badly scraped arm which Mrs. Johnson had not cleaned or attended to. The school nurse had to clean the scrape,” they mentioned that the school nurse spilled the treatment, staining her uniform red.

Jurors who heard vivid details for the good things judged Mrs. Johnson to be a more suitable parent than jurors who heard the unfavorable arguments with vivid details. So make sure you are providing a real picture for your audience.

There is also a framing effect to word choice. Everyone in the abortion debate wants to be pro-life or pro-choice and not anti-life or anti-choice.

I find this to be especially true for verbs. Ideally, you will be able to ditch adverbs like ideally and have your verbs do the heavy lifting. In a study, witnesses were asked how fast two cars were going when they crashed. Except instead of crashed, the authors tended a few different verbs; here are the results:

  • Smashed: 40.5 MPH
  • Collided: 39.3 MPH
  • Bumped: 38.1 MPH
  • Hit: 34.0 MPH
  • Contacted: 31.8 MPH

Let me stress this: they watched the same crash. All that was different was the word that the question used and you still see an impact of almost 30%.

So how can you improve your own copy? One solution is Hemingway, an app that allows you to upload your copy. It then highlights long sentences, adverbs, passive constructions, etc. The reading ease score that comes with Word or similar software can also help.

Or ask a child to read it and see what s/he thinks.

Hope this helps your writing! If you would like some more of my favorite writings of the week, please sign up for my weekly newsletter, which has the feature “favorite thing I didn’t write this week.” I’m very creative at naming things.

What’s in a name? Word choice in direct marketing

Scope insensitivity and direct marketing: why one beats many

There is a famous study in nonprofit marketing that shows that an appeal that tells the story of a child does better than an appeal that tells that same story with information about the general problem of poverty in Africa. Even more oddly, a story of one boy did as well as the story of one girl; both did better than the story of the boy and the girl. The study is here and it is both fascinating and disheartening.

We humans think in simple narrative. We are used to hearing a story of a person (then using availability bias, which we talked about, to generalize). When we hear the story of a person, we react to it with emotion and affect. When we hear the story of many people, we react to it with logic and calculation. Or as Stalin put it: “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.”*

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

Image credit here. Odd that Stalin and Mother Teresa had similar sentiments on this. And I don’t think anyone has ever seen them in the same room at the same time…**

Unfortunately, this leads to us (in theory) misallocating our resources. Vox did an illustration of the types of cancer people donate to, versus what they die of.

fundrasing4disease

Image credit here.

This seems to focus on special events and looks at one organization per disease, so it isn’t perfect but is emblematic of this problem. In 2010, the humanitarian aid response to the Haiti earthquake (which affected 3 million people) was more than 3 billion dollars. The flood in Pakistan (which affected an estimated 20 million people) received only 2.2 billion dollars. (study here)  People donate relatively the same amount to save 2,000, 20,000, and 200,000 birds.

So the rule you could get from this is to tell only one story at a time. Which is not a bad rule.

However, your organization likely has a scope you want to achieve. You don’t just want to help one person. You want to help one person, then another, then another, etc., until your problem is solved and you can take up golf or something.

So how do you talk about scope without turning off your donors?

One way is to talk about scope and statistics, but to do it with the right donors. I would point you to the post I did about a month ago about the study that shows that statistics depress response among smaller donors, but increase it among larger donors. Thus, you can save it for the right audience.

Another solution that was interesting to me came from a study in the Journal of Consumer Research

At first, they just found what we’ve been talking about: single identified victim works better than large numbers of victims. Scope blindness in action.

However, you can get people to donate more to large numbers of victims if the victims are seen to be entitative.

This was the point in reading the study that I had to pull out the dictionary. I thought that entitative meant “similar to a walking talking tree from Lord of the Rings.”***

In reality, “entitative” means how much people consider something to be a coherent whole. This can be helped by group membership. In the study, they found that donations to help children were greater when the children were part of the same family, instead of random so-and-sos.

Similarly, they asked about saving butterflies, showing butterflies either flying randomly (low entitativity) or together (high entitativity). The butterfly flock (is that a thing?) raised 69% more on average.

They also found when that in-group had positive qualities, people were more likely to donate. Specifically, when the starving children in Africa were said to be in the same prison, rather than the same family, the group dynamic hurt donations rather than helping them.

So if you are going to talk about multiple people, try to frame them as part of the same in-group and make that in-group as positive as possible. Then, and seemingly only then, will you be able to tell more than one story and get more donations instead of fewer.
* I’d heard a different pithier version of this also (one where if you kill one person, you are a murderer; if you kill a million, you are a conqueror). However, this one seems to have the greatest basis in fact according to Quote Investigator.

** This is a joke, of course. This seems obvious, but one can not be too careful on the Internet. Clearly, Stalin is the evil twin of Mother Teresa.

*** Yes, I know that the ents aren’t really trees. They are treelike guardians that take on the shape of the trees they herd. But I’m trying to get everyone to read to the end of this, not just people who are as nerdy as I am.

Scope insensitivity and direct marketing: why one beats many

Availability heuristics and direct marketing: what we remember easily is all there is

Today, we’ll look at the availability heuristic. Availability means if you can recall an example of something happening, it must be as or more important than something that you can’t easily recall happening.

A classic example of this from the literature is people overestimate the number of words that begin with the letter R. They also underestimate the number of words where R is the third letter.

Or, similarly, some people will say there are more six-letter words that end in “ing” than end in “g” (which is impossible). We can easily recall things that begin with R or end with “ing.” That’s how they are filed in our brains; thus, we think it happens more often.

This can affect how our causes are seen by the public. Quick: how many people are killed by drunk driving versus cell phone use while driving?

Got your answer?

In 2013, the last year for which we have data for both causes, drunk driving killed 10,110 people in the United States.

Cell phone use and driving killed 445 people

Chances are, if you are like most Americans, you thought these were about equivalent. You almost certainly did not think these two numbers were more than an order of magnitude different.

Why is that? Because you can look at the car next to you at a stoplight and see the driver is texting. It is far more difficult for you to look at the car next to you and see that the driver is drunk. And so our availability heuristic can easily recall cell phone use and driving and that gets moved up in our mental queue.

Incidentally, both are dangerous. If you are reading this on your phone while driving, please stop now.

So how can you use (or mitigate) this effect in your nonprofit direct marketing? The biggest example is take advantage of news. Disaster fundraising is in part successful because it speaks to a desperate, urgent need, and partly because it reminds people that those needs are with us. Similarly, if your issue is in the news, most people think to reach out via fast means like email and text messaging. However, we don’t often think to swap out our telemarketing scripts or send out a direct mail piece for an urgent issue. One solution is to pre-print appeals. You can have stationary with a reply device on hand. If there is something urgent that comes up, customize the copy, laser in the text, and go straight to postage.

It’s also important to build plausible scenarios. Were I to do marketing for an organization fighting drunk driving (you know, purely hypothetically), I shouldn’t say “When was the last time you were driving next to a drunk driver?” It’s very difficult to recall this.

However, what if I say:

“When was the last time you were out on the roads and the driver in front of you just didn’t seem right? You know, they were weaving in their lane, waited too long to brake, or didn’t seem to be paying attention…”

My guess is that you have seen numerous people who fit that description recently. In truth, not all of these people were drunk (they could be stoned, distracted, sleepy, morons, etc.), but puts the frame around something that is instantly recognizable.

A less obvious solution is to ask people for a lot of negative feedback. One study looked at course evaluations for college students and found that if they were asked to provide 10 examples of how the course could be done better, they rated the course almost 10% higher than students who were asked to provide two examples.

The idea is that two examples are easy to come up with:

  1. The professor should consider using an antiperspirant
  2. Ethan Frome sucks; we shouldn’t read it

Boom. Done. Having to come up with 10 examples taxes the brain. Thus, we think the class was better because it’s hard to come up with things that are bad to say about it.

This was a shock to me, because one of my favorite open-ended survey questions is “What is the one thing you would change about X?”. My thinking is this a way of cutting through all of the minutiae to find out what is important to people. What I’ve been unconsciously doing is priming people to focus on that bad thing and making them think it’s incredibly easy to come up with bad things to say.

This is probably also another reason to do search engine optimization and use those Google Grants. If people see your organization’s name associated with an issue in the sponsored listings, news section, images section, videos section, and organic search engine listings, you will be top of mind for them. When people are thinking about your cause, they will more likely think of your organization.

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Availability heuristics and direct marketing: what we remember easily is all there is