Imagery in nonprofit storytelling

Picture the last time you watched a football game.  Think about a big hit that someone took to the head, whether it was a smashing tackle or someone getting upended and landing on his head.

What did you, as a spectator do?

Chances are pretty good that you cringed.  More specifically, you likely closed your eyes, turned your head from the screen, lifted your shoulders, and grimaced as if you were in pain.

And you were in pain, even though you were not in pain.  Your brain created the pain for you.  So you averted and closed off your gaze, so you wouldn’t feel any more of it.  You lifted your shoulders so as to protect your own neck.

Or, as a master of the written word put it:

vlcsnap-2011-10-26-10h44m46s196

“Tell me one last thing,” said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”

Dumbledore beamed at him, and his voice sounded loud and strong in Harry’s ears even though the bright mist was descending again, obscuring his figure.

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

There is a robust debate ongoing as to whether this happening because of so-called mirror neurons or as a result of human empathy.  A good reflection on this debate is available here.   

However you come out on this debate, suffice it to say that seeing something happen to someone else can trigger the same feeling in ourselves.  But does it translate to the written word?

Absolutely.  Whoever said a picture is worth a thousand words may have simultaneously underestimated the worth of both the right picture and the right words.

Consider Hemingway’s famous challenge to write a six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.”  I’ve lost a child and those six words remind me vividly and painfully of a nursery.  We painted it to look like the blue of the sky, with a bright yellow sun.  And while I, with my complete lack of art skill, resigned myself to painting clouds and blades of grass (the ugly ones that didn’t taper properly at the top), my wife painted ladybugs and flowers and butterflies to welcome our child.

But the crib remained empty.  And while we did end up having two wonderful children, we moved from that house and used a different crib.

My point here is that words can create images.  Hopefully, you pictured our nursery a little bit above.  I used (or rather, tried to use) some of the same techniques you would see in a movie:

  • Setting the stage: a nursery.
  • Using colors to evoke an image.  Without using the Pantone or paint chip name, you have in your mind the picture of the sky and of the color or the sun.
  • Showing action: it isn’t just a static room; now it’s being painted.
  • Zooming in: on blades of grass.
  • Panning around to capture detail.

Chances are you are picturing it entirely differently from how it was (heck, because of the vagaries of memory, so probably am I).  That doesn’t matter as much as look as you are seeing a scene.

Studies of the brain find that when we read a story written this way, our brain processes it as if it is a visual and motor experience. 

And we can invite people to trigger imagery.  Good verbs like “imagine,” “remember,” and “picture in your mind” give a person the trigger to help them start to think in this way.  You still have to capture them with story and detail, but you are starting well.

Imagery in nonprofit storytelling

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?

Validating small gifts to increase response rate

There is an old joke that actually got turned into a Robert Redford/Demi Moore/Woody Harrelson movie.  It is potentially off-color for some readers, so if you think you might be one of those readers, skip down past the image of the movie poster below and you will be fine.

A woman goes up to a man in a bar and asks him “Would you have sex with me for a million dollars?”

The man ponders this for a moment and replies that he would.

She then asks “Well, how about for $5?”

He is shocked, retorting “What kind of a person do you think I am?”

She smiles and says “We’ve established what kind of a person you are; now we’re negotiating price.”

indecent_proposal

The lesson from the above, other than it’s less funny to read written jokes than to hear them told, is that it’s better to get someone to decide how much to donate, rather than to have them deciding whether to make a donation or not.

Researchers have found in several studies that rather than talking about a million dollars, you can have success by talking about a penny – specifically, the phrase “even a penny would help.”

This technique has some impressive results.  One study of this in a face-to-face environment increased giving from 28% to 50%.

One could argue that the success of March of Dimes in their original launch was in part a variant of this.  Although a dime meant much more then, it still was a way of giving permission to lower level gifts.

The phrase fails Kant’s categorical imperative: if everyone did it, it actually would not help.  Your penny would be eaten up by credit card fees, postage, and acknowledgments.  And I have not used this technique extensively because I’ve been worried about the anchoring effect.  My concern has been that while response rate may go up, average gift would plummet and, as a result, we’d have more lower-value donors instead of fewer high-value donors.  The former can be a strategy, but isn’t the one I’ve traditionally aimed for.

But the evidence is that people actually give significantly more than a penny.  While gift did go down on average, the total revenue from the canvass went up 64% because of the increase in response rate.

Since revenue per communication is usually a pretty good way of measuring its success (in an ideal world, you’d want to measure its impact on lifetime value, but on a one-year time horizon, you go with what you have), I would call this a win.

I would go one step further in this to say that this technique would be best combined with others to give a reason for why a penny would help.  Potentially pairs I see:

  • With membership: we want to have as many members as possible so we have the political clout to pass legislation.
  • With petitions: as we’ve seen, the humble petition can be very effective.  And the petition can make the “even a penny” part of the pitch be secondary: “please return your petition today; your voice is vital to this important issue.  And if you could also send a donation – even a penny – it would help move this issue forward even more.”
  • As a lead gift variant: I haven’t seen this tried, but you could see saying “we have a lead donor who has made a gift of $X.  We would like to report back to him/her that his/her gift inspired 50,000 other people to give.  Even a penny would…”  My thought is that, like how the matching gift variant that an additional gift would be generated for every gift made worked, this would help impact response rate positively.  If you’ve tried this, please email me at nick@directtodonor.com; I’d love to feature a case study.

Here at Direct to Donor, we don’t even need a penny; what we would love is if you would sign up for the weekly newsletter that has a digest of this type of information, plus special bonus content each week.  Thanks in advance.

Validating small gifts to increase response rate

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.

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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

But you are free not to read this post…

This week, we’ll talk about some framing that can help increase your donations or your likelihood of getting donations.

Some examples we’ve already covered:

  1. Framing your gift against a hedonic good works. That is, you can increase giving just by saying things like “that’s less than the cost of a Starbucks venti coffee.”
  2. Referring to something as a “small” fee can make people more likely to pay that fee. 
  3. Framing gifts in the context of social norms and social proof (e.g., circling a gift and letting people know that’s the average gift for the campaign) can increase the average gift significantly.
  4. Anchoring is just a pretty pretty frame you put around your desire to get larger gifts. 
  5. People are more likely to give to prevent losses than secure gains

The first one we’ll discuss this week is giving your potential donors freedom and agency.  It’s great in large part because it has a meta-analysis* behind it.

You can set up this freedom with a phrase as simple as “…but you are free to say no.”  Psychologists have a few different theories as to why this works.  One hypothesis asserts that as humans we crave control.  When someone asks us to do something (and, let’s face it, in a lot of our nonprofit communications, we lay the “why” on thick, as we should), we believe they are working to control us.  Refusal, then, is a reassertion of control.

Another hypothesis asserts that by telling someone that they are free not to do something, it feels as though we are giving them something. Reciprocity influence then demands that the donor give something in return.

I think it’s probably part of both of these, combined with a little bit of the unspoken “…but what type of person would you be?” at the end of the free to say no line.  Regardless of the exact mechanism, this technique has been shown to:

  • Increase donations face-to-face from 10% to 47.5% (study here
  • Increase face-to-face surveys completion from 76% to 90% (study here
  • Combine well with foot-in-the-door techniques (study here

And that meta-analysis says that the technique is effective across a variety of platforms. However, it did find that the effectiveness was slightly less in non-face-to-face ask situations; it also found that it is better if the thing you are asking a person to do (or not to do — it’s up to them!) is immediate.

So this is a technique you can add to your copy to increase donations.  If you’ve tested this, I’d love it if you can let us know your experience in the comments or at nick@directtodonor.com.  Also, if you enjoyed this, you may enjoy our weekly newsletter that covers topics like this in more detail.  But, of course, you are free to say no…

 

* A meta-analysis is research-speak for “we’re going to read all of the studies and summarize them for you in one paper.”  Think of it as the Cliff Notes if Cliff weren’t lazy and condensed all of Shakespeare down to one volume.

 

But you are free not to read this post…

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

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