How long should a story be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other questionable results from this survey include:

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

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

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

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

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


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

How long should a story be?

Using your real estate better: online images

As we discussed in the stop doing giant wads of text post, it’s a good idea to break up your text with images.  But too often online images stop at the first level of work for you: they show the problem or make the donor feel better or the like, but don’t do anything else.

We’re going to put pictures to work for us to do second and third level duty.  Here’s how.

Follow the eyes.  We discussed this a bit in what we can learn from political campaigns.  It’s one of my top 200 blog posts so far, so I’d recommend a read, but the TL;DR version is that we follow where people’s eyes are looking or where they are pointing.  Since having a homepage image of people pointing to your donate button is a little on the noise, having your image subject looking at the donate button can do this work for you.  Here’s a heat map sample from that earlier post:

Engage the multichannel donor.  It is well into 2016, which means not only am I no longer writing 2015 on my checks; I’m no longer writing checks.  Another implication of it being 2016 is that people are going to go to your Website to see what you are doing before donating.

So it’s to your advantage to tie the solution you telling on your site and in your offline communications together with the use of images.  If your mail piece tells the story of the impact of your mission on a child, it’s great to have a further picture of that child on your homepage with a link to the story and the ability to donate.  While you should have a personalized URL in your piece, a person may not be sitting down at their computer (laptop, phone, tablet, watch, etc.) with that mail piece in hand.

Insert key messaging.  And only key messaging.  Take a look at charity.water’s homepage monthly giving ask.  Very few words — just the essentials.  

water

 

Embed your ask in the picture.  You’ll note in the heat map above that even before we look at eyes, we seek out faces.

If the image is where people are going to be looking on your site anyway, where better to begin your ask?  If that ask is an email sign-up, you can probably do all of that in the same picture (as you only need first name, last name, email address, and maybe state or zip code.  What?  You are asking for more information on your email sign-up?  Have you tried asking for less and seeing what the difference is?  You can always ask for more in the welcome series.)

If that ask is an online donation, you might as well as for some of the starting information in the picture.  Most often, you can get someone to pre-select their donation amount in the initial image.

One of the cardinal rules for donation forms for a number of years has been to minimize the number of clicks necessary to complete the form.  Recent tests that I’ve seen may indicate this is no longer the case.  I hypothesize a few reasons for this:

  • We humans have a poor understanding of sunk costs.  A multistage donation form, then, gets people to take the first few steps quickly and then asks for more, getting the person to think “well, I’ve come this far.”
  • Multistage donation forms can often render better in mobile devices with smaller screens (and worse keyboards).
  • E-commerce has taught us how to use multistage forms.  Think of the arrows at the top of your Amazon order page telling you what step you are on and how much further you have to go.  The fact that you can probably picture an Amazon order page shows how common this has become.  (I’m not judging – I’m surprised it’s not burned onto my retinae).

Anyway, getting the person to give you the amount first asks as a commitment device and pre-checks the “sunk cost” box.  And you are saving a step: rather than clicking on donate, then putting in the amount, they are able to combine these.

Using your real estate better: online images

Learning from political fundraising: chip in change for change

You’ve seen the headlines: “Americans more divided than ever”, “Gridlock reaching threat level crimson, which is worse than red somehow”, and “Pelosi-McConnell dancing knife fight leaves two dead.”*

Seemingly, parties can’t agree on anything.

But here’s a ray of hope.  They can agree on donors chipping in:

Martin O’Malley:

chipinomalley

Rand Paul:

chipinrandpaul

Bobby Jindal:

chipinjindal

DCCC:

chipindccc

RNC:

chipinnrcc

Jeb Bush:

chipinbush

Bernie Sanders and MoveOn:

chipinsanders

John Kasich:

chipinkasich

Marco Rubio:

chipinrubio

Hillary Clinton:

chipinclinton

I’ll be honest: usually my research for this blog is harder than this.  The hardest parts of finding these were:

  1. Remembering who had been running for president.  For example, it turns out Lincoln Chafee is not a model of car.
  2. Finding photographic from former campaign sites.  There’s evidence that Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, and others used chip-in language, but couldn’t find them online.  So passes away the glory of a presidential campaign.

But nonprofits don’t seem to be using “chip in” much.  Yet.  I think BirdConservancy.org was the largest organization I could find in my Googling.

So why do political organizations almost unanimously use “chip in”?  Here are my theories:

  • “Chip in” sounds very small. Giving permission for small donations increases the likelihood of giving. This is probably part of the appeal.  This extends to the standard ask strings.  Clinton, Cruz, Kasich, Rubio, Sanders, and the current Republican frontrunner (since I pledged I wouldn’t use his name as a cheap SEO play) all start their asks at $3-25.  In fact, if you take out Kasich, the highest initial ask is $15 (ironically, for Bernie Sanders).
  • Making a cost sound small also decreases the amount of pain that someone feels from making a purchase/donation. 
  • The value of a name in political spheres far exceeds just their donation value.  A $3 donor is also a voter at worst and perhaps a volunteer or district captain.  And of course, they may be able to give more in the future.  A $2,700 donor is these things, plus someone who may be able to attract like-minded funders at a max level.

    I say this is in political spheres.  But isn’t this true for your nonprofit as well?  You want that $3 donor as a volunteer, walker, bequest donor, monthly donor, etc.  And yet we generally have higher online ask thresholds. 
  • “Chip in” implies that others are doing the same.  In fact, Oxford Dictionaries defines “chip in” as “contribute something as one’s share of a joint activity, cost, etc.”  Social proof is a powerful persuasive force and knowing that others are doing it and are counting on you too can greatly influence decisions. 
  • People like to be a part of something bigger than themselves.  This is especially true for causes, political or non-profit.  The ability to make something part of your identity that ties you into a larger in-group can be very powerful.

So I’d encourage you to try chipping in as part of your emailing strategy (and, if it works, test elsewhere) as a way of pulling these cognitive levers.

A post-script: after I drafted this piece, this came in from the Clinton campaign:

unnamed

 

* I will offer a free signed book (in that I will print out any one of my ebooks , sign it, and mail it to you) for the first person who can do a Photoshop of this based on West Side Story.

 

Learning from political fundraising: chip in change for change

Choosing your content marketing media

I’m a baaaaad example of content marketing media.  I have a face for radio and a voice for print, so you’ll notice there aren’t videos, Webinars or podcasts here yet.  I have less than no artistic talent, so infographics are well beyond me (for now; one can always learn).  Don’t believe me?  Here’s the cover I designed for my book:

 

underling

I suppose I could do slideshows, but since I started this blog in part to improve my writing, I’ve been a strictly one medium guy.

But you can’t be.  There are a whole work of ways to reach an audience today and depending on your mission, some, many, or all of them may work well for you.  However, each one takes a toll of time and effort.  It is better to be the master of one medium than a jack of all of them.

Blog posts

Advantages:

  • I would argue that this is the easiest entry point.  You need to write a story.  That’s it.
  • A great way of (as I mentioned yesterday) figuring out what your audience(s) is/are interested in.
  • Can serve as a host and/or a marketing platform for your other content marketing.

Disadvantages:

  • Difficult to capture an audience.  Sure, you can have an awesome weekly newsletter than anyone can sign up for here, but no matter how blatantly you name check it in the middle of a blog post, most people read blog posts individually rather in binge reading.
  • Need to do it regularly enough that people can expect new content from you.
  • Need it do it often enough to be successful.  Hubspot has some great data here that show that posting 16+ times per month gets you the most traffic:

blog_monthly_traffic

 

Furthermore, having 400+ blog posts significantly increases your traffic as well:

 

blog_total_leads

Podcasting

Advantages:

  • Good for when you have two personalities that can play off of each other.
  • Excellent way to incorporate guest contributors.
  • A very popular medium right now.

Disadvantages:

  • Take whatever time you think it will take to edit the audio for your first podcast and multiply it by ten.
  • Very production-value-dependent.  It used to be that people will put up with poor audio quality to get good content.  This is less and less true.
  • Needs to be even more regular than blogging.
  • Difficult to capture an audience, as you don’t have a record of who subscribes to your podcast.

Video

Advantages:

  • Great for people with compelling visuals.
  • You can repurpose existing assets with a little bit of editing and voice over.
  • Guest appearances become a bit easier; there’s something about a video camera that makes everyone want to be on TV.
  • YouTube is a valuable quasi-social network that allows you to be discovered by people who might not come to your site.

Disadvantages:

  • It requires some editing skill and expertise (compared with blogs, which any idiot can write)
  • A talking head looking into the camera is the most common and most boring possible video.  Sometimes it’s necessary, but hopefully you can surpass that.
  • You may do 100 videos that have almost no views; it may be that 101st that gets an audience.

Infographics

Advantages:

  • Great way to communicate complex concepts.
  • Very shareable.
  • Good adjunct to other content (e.g., if you have a complex white paper and are trying to pitch media, an infographic can help with the pitch to explain to people whose journalism majors did not cover microbiology or environmental sciences or whatever (of course, neither did my poli sci degree, so I can’t talk))
  • Who doesn’t love a picture?

Disadvantages:

  • Some infographics are now just numbers with a circle around them or some other gussying up.  Steer clear of the infographic if the pictures aren’t going to add value to the story.  Sometimes a pie chart is just a pie chart.
  • Requires graphic design knowledge.
  • Lacks interactivity and, usually, emotional content.  All of the other media can bring you to tears or to donate.  Infographics are good for the brain, but usually not good for the heart.  And the heart is what donates most of the time.

Quizzes

Advantages:

  • Fun for the whole family
  • Very shareable, especially if you make it so that people can be competitive.
  • Who knows?  Someone might learn something.
  • Can pique interest and encourage someone to learn more.

Disadvantages:

  • A bit fluffy for content — can’t get deep into an issue (which is probably OK; that’s not why someone takes a quiz)
  • Doesn’t convert particularly well.

Whitepapers:

Advantages

  • As mentioned yesterday, they are easy to create from existing content.
  • Excellent for lead generation, because you can email gate them.
  • Demonstrates subject mastery, whether justified or not.

Disadvantages:

  • Can be a bit dry when done poorly
  • More difficult to incorporate emotional content.

Print:

Advantages:

  • Not dead
  • Less competition, because people don’t believe the first bullet
  • More engaging than online content
  • Can engage in conversations, rather than dialogues
  • Can effectively get donations

Disadvantages:

  • Have to explain to people print isn’t dead
  • Cost
  • Less ability to track and capture interactions

And here are a couple I recommend against.

Slideshows:  A lot of folks do these.  I have to admit, I don’t get it.  It’s certainly easy to do, as you have the slideshow in the can already.  It’s good for a business audience, who is used to the format, and gets a lot of data out quickly.

However, it requires someone to want to sit through a PowerPoint presentation without the entertaining audio.  There’s not usually a good conversion mechanism.  And, as you know, the worst live presentations are the ones where people have all of their words on a slide and have to read them off.  These are, ironically, the only decent slideshows, because if someone relied on funny images for their original presentation, it won’t read without audio.

For my money, these are better done as a white paper if you have a dry topic (because you can get email addresses) or a video if you have a lively one.

Social media: By this, I mean posting on Facebook or LinkedIn or what-have-you, so that they own your content.  Don’t do this.  It’s all fine and dandy until someone changes the algorithm or your rules for sharing or your organic reach and your so-called strategy is lost.

Actually, it’s not fine and dandy, because even when things are going well, you are building an audience for that social network, not for yourself or your organization.  Social media is a fine place to link, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

So those are the basic media.  But once you build it, they won’t necessarily come, so you will need some good marketing strategies for your content marketing.  We’ll cover that tomorrow.

Choosing your content marketing media

Selecting your content marketing topics

The enemy of any writer or content marketer is the empty sheet of paper.  It taunts you with its blankness, telling you that your last idea was, in fact, your last idea: you have nothing more to give.

Or you have ideas, but have no idea whether anyone will want to read/interact with/donate to them.  Here are some tips to get your focus.

Check what people are searching for in your market.  Yes, keyword research: it’s not just for search engine marketing any more.  Check out what people are looking for around your issues and see if you have content to match (that has calls to action around the content.  You aren’t just doing content for charity.  Actually, you are.  But you know what I mean).  

Also, search for some of these terms yourself. You will likely see some search terms where the person who searched for that item probably didn’t find what they were looking for.  You can be what they were looking for.

Conversely, you’ll find that some of the content is pretty darn good.  If you can’t improve on it, don’t tackle it in the same format.  But if you see that the blog posts are good, but there are no videos on the topic, then a video it is.  We’ll talk a bit more about media tomorrow.

Check what people are searching for to find you.  In your Google Analytics or equivalent, you can see how people came to your site and what they searched for.  This can be illuminating.  I worked with one nonprofit that went through this analysis and found that most people that found them through search were looking for one of their tertiary services — one that they rarely talked about or promoted.  What’s more, their content on it was scattered incoherently throughout their site.

Working together, we centralized their content into one coherent page that then linked out to the various locations where this service could be found, making it much easier to find.  We also increased the fee for this fee-for-service part of their mission, figuring that good marketing could increase participation.  That was, in fact, the case and that part of their mission now accounts for a more substantial part of their revenues.

Look at what content has worked in the past.  A peek behind the Direct to Donor curtain for a moment.  Since starting this, I’ve written over one hundred blog posts.  Yet two of these blog posts, The Science of Ask Strings and Anchoring, Ask Strings, and the Psychology of First Impressions are responsible for more than 10% of the traffic to the site.  In my world of topics, ask strings are Gladys Knight and each other topic I write on is a Pip.

pips

So while I continue to write on various topics to diversify, I will likely be returning to the topic of ask strings sooner and regularly.  In fact, I’m looking to collect enough content on the topic to do my first white paper.  And what better topic than one that I know readers will appreciate?

Likewise, look at what people are clicking on in your newsletters and in social media.  While this won’t get you outside of the types of posts you’ve already been doing, it will help you find some guaranteed crowd pleasers.

Embrace content fractals.  If you really have a serious case of empty-page-itis, try rereading some of your previous strong efforts.

My theory is that every paragraph in a blog post could be its own blog post.  Take the “Now, start up your email newsletter” post I mentioned yesterday.  Obviously, starting up an email newsletter could be its own post (and will at some point).  One of the points in starting your e-newsletter will be choosing who your newsletter is from.  This idea of an online persona can make for its own post (in fact, I’ve talked about it in my post on liking as an influence point).  In it, I refer to the success of the Obama campaign in using different people for different ask.  Hey, that would make for a great topic about the success of the Obama campaigns and the lessons we can draw from that!  One of those lessons would be selling goods associated with your organization as a list building strategy.

And so on.  When you think you “don’t have any good ideas,” look at your previous content and dive deeper into one of your important points.  My post tomorrow is on the best type of content for each media type.  In writing it, I realized there’s a place for a whole post on each content type and what works there.  If these content marketing posts prove popular, expect that to be coming down the pipe.

Repurpose your content.

  • Three blog posts = an enewsletter.
  • Nine blog posts = white paper.
  • One white paper = one slideshow
  • One slideshow slide + verbiosity = blog post.
  • Your boss who loves to talk about her favorite program your nonprofit does + camera = video.
  • Your enewsletter + editing = donor newsletter

And so on.  People mind if you rip other people off.  People don’t mind if you rip yourself off.

Ask.  There’s a reason I’m writing about my process for writing, even though I feel I have a long way to go: people asked me.  There’s also a reason why I ask people to email me at nick@directtodonor.com or hit me up on Twitter at @nickellinger: I want more ideas for content.  There’s a rule for complaints that for every one person who complains, there’s nine more who didn’t.  I think suggesting content is the same way: if someone wants it, ten people probably want it.

Take from recent or upcoming events.  I personally try to stay counter-programming, but there is a great deal of content created about things like a new Star Wars movie, the NFL Championship, and Donald Trump to try to stay topical.

Now that you know the topics for your content marketing effort, how will you take advantage of it?  Tomorrow, we’ll talk about media and maximizing your topic advantage.

Selecting your content marketing topics

Creating Content Consistently and Constantly

The question I’ve gotten most often after starting this blog is how I write a blog post every working day. My answer is “not well.” I mean, have you seen some of my posts? There’s one in here that is a fake-PSA for data hygiene, for goodness sake. In 50 Ways to Thank Your Donors, I tortured rhyme schemes so much, they confessed to smuggling WMDs.

Then people clarify and ask how I find time to write a blog post every day. Ah. That’s something I can help with.

And, since I’m on the record as taking whatever topics you ask of me in the comments section or at nick@directtodonor.com, it looks like we are doing this thing. But let’s broaden it out a bit more to:

How do you create content consistently?

Since that will be of more use to more people. Today, I’ll describe my process, such as it is. Then, this week, I’ll cover topic, medium, marketing, and conversion strategies.

I should mention that an actual specialist on this, Kivi Leroux Miller, has written a full book on content marketing for nonprofits here. I’ve not yet read it, but I’ve read some of her other work and if it is half as good as those things, it’s still worth a read.

So, to the question of how I do whatever it is I’m doing here, here goes:

Write every day. Every single day. Even if it’s just for a few minutes. Jerry Seinfeld talks about how he puts an X on every day when he has done his writing. His goal is not to break the chain of Xs (that probably goes back for years). Since part of my goal for this was to improve my writing quality, this exercise is little different from working out every day to stay in shape.

better-writer

Thanks to Brian Clark and Copyblogger.

I know. Sometimes life gets busy. But we all have some cognitive surplus time.

Ideally, you could get 25 minutes of uninterrupted time to work on it (aka a pomodoro technique). This should be a findable about of time. I cut my video game intake for part of it; I also work between when my daughter gets me up and when I would actually get up in an ideal world.

For you, it may be something different. Property Brothers is a great show, but if you want to get 25 minutes to write, here’s how that episode begins:

  • Brothers take couple to a house.
  • Couple can’t afford it.
  • Somehow, this is the brothers’ fault.
  • But don’t worry; they can make a fixer upper just like this house.
  • Montage of house shopping at worse houses.

See? It’s like you are right there watching it. When in reality, you are writing your content.

It doesn’t necessarily need to be writing to paper, either.

a6862217a

TOBY: You want to play?

CHARLIE: Aren’t you supposed to be writing?

TOBY: I am writing.

CHARLIE: I don’t see paper.

TOBY: “We can sit back and admit with grave sensitivity that life isn’t fair and the less-advantaged are destined to their lot in life and the problems of those on the other side of the world should stay there, that our leaders are cynical and can never be an instrument to change, but that, my friends, is not worthy of you, it’s not worthy of the President, it’s not worthy of a great nation, it’s not worthy of America!” Paper’s for wimps. Wanna play?  — The West Wing

Even if it is organizing your thoughts for a future blog post while indisposed or showering or what-have-you, this is a conscious effort that you want to build into a habit.

And writing is a fundamental part of any content strategy. Yes, even if it’s for a podcast, infographic, or video: you are going to want a written script or outline. It’s harder to write short than long, so you may find yourself spending more time to come up with the 17 perfect words to go alongside your home page image than a journal article.

My tools of choice:

  • Google Drive for writing. It’s stripped down with few distractions and you can access it wherever.
  • Hemingway to help edit and cut my adverb usage.
  • Grammarly for proofreading.
  • WordPress for posting.

Read every day. There have been a few pieces floating around the Internet of late about how to read a book a week or similar advice. I don’t really get these; for me, an equally useful article would be “Why You Should Try Breathing.” But there are some for whom this isn’t a habit and I don’t know how you would create good content without it. You will get ideas and inspiration and rage-face from the things you read and it will inform your content.

My tools of choice:

  • Feedly for aggregating blog posts.
  • Pocket for saving things that I’ll want to refer back to. Other people like Evernote.
  • Audible for audiobooks. If you are going to be reading every day, you can’t just read books.
  • PodCruncher for podcasts. Ditto

Embrace suck. My first blog post actually contains the line “Now, start up your email newsletter.” Oh, I’ll just spit that out then, shall I? No directions on how to do that?

You are never going to get to the good stuff until you get through this. Write, post, get comments, revise. Suck a tiny bit less next time.

Take breaks. I sometimes have the opportunity to write for hours straight (read: I sometimes am on airplanes and arrive the day before the conference/meeting). Even when this happens, I take short breaks every 25 minutes per the pomodoro method and long breaks after two hours. During long breaks, I find activities like showering and exercising (not in that order) help, because I’m alone and able to edit or outline the next piece in my head.

Ask people to become a part of your family. For me, it’s asking people to sign up for my weekly newsletter. What’s yours?

Creating Content Consistently and Constantly