3 Ways to Stay On-Message for Maximum Response
In the heat of the primary campaign in the last presidential election cycle, candidate Mitt Romney was on the hustings in Iowa giving a talk before a crowd of supporters, and that’s when it happened.
Just as he launched into his point about raising taxes on people, a heckler shouted, “Corporations!” To which Romney responded, “Corporations are people, my friend.” A testy exchange between candidate and heckler ensued, and just that fast, a skilled politician veered off-message, swerving down a perilous road.
Going off-message doesn’t happen only in politics. Truth is, it happens in fundraising more often than we’d like to admit. You can see it in appeals that send mixed messages, lack clear direction and never come together, seeming like collections of unrelated parts rather than a coherent whole with a single, compelling point.
It’s the inevitable result when the creative team strays from the most important part of any online or offline appeal — the offer. You’re in a brainstorming session with ideas bouncing around, and before you know it, your appeal ends up as a mishmash of contradictory elements, some supporting the offer, some undercutting it. What will donors think? You don’t have to guess. They’ll tell you loud and clear by not responding.
Here are three ways to make sure your appeal stays on-message for maximum impact and response.
1. Develop a strong offer
In order to stay on-message, you first need the right one. A strong offer is a clear statement about what your donor will do and what she’ll receive in return. It’s the deal, the transaction, the quid pro quo. But it’s something more, too. Your offer is the emotional link between your donor and your nonprofit’s mission. It’s an expression of your donor’s aspirations about being a good person and the validation of those aspirations, all put into action through the work your nonprofit does.
To be effective, your offer should do a number of things. It should present donors with a specific opportunity to do good. It should convey donor benefits, which can be tangible (like a premium) and intangible (like making a difference). It should tell your donor what to do and why. It should convey some sense of urgency, either implied or explicit (like a specific deadline to respond). And it should show your donor that she’s getting a good deal.
You want to incorporate as many of these “shoulds” as you can when crafting your offer. That might seem like a tall order at first. But once you get into it, you see that the strongest offers are often the simplest, such as, “Your gift of $25 will save the life of a starving child in Africa,” “Your gift will double in impact to send lifesaving medicine into poverty zones in Tajikistan,” or “Just $1.75 will provide a Thanksgiving dinner for someone who’s homeless.” Granted, getting to this level of simplicity isn’t always easy, but it’s worth the effort. You naturally want your offer to be as donor-focused as possible. So take the time to think about the most enticing opportunity you can present to your donors that allows them to fulfill their need to be good people making a difference in the world.
2. Always keep the offer in front of you
Once you craft your offer into a clear, compelling statement of need and donor opportunity, write it out and put it in front of you. Yes, write it out and keep it in front of you as you develop your appeal. Even though this step might seem too basic to bother with, especially if you have several appeals under your belt, you ignore it at your peril. Fact is, it’s just too easy to come up with a good offer and then let it languish, ignored, while other issues like lists, formats, copy style, images, executive-office approvals and countless others clamor for attention. If you want to make sure your appeal stays on-message, do this — write out your offer and keep it in front of you as you work through your creative strategy.
3. Treat the offer as your touchstone
Everything in your appeal has to relate to the offer in some way, or it shouldn’t be there. Simple as that.
The offer should be the theme of your copy, and that means all the copy — the text of the letter or email, envelope teasers, email subject lines, captions, testimonial quotes, lift letters, inserts, everything. Each copy element in your appeal is an arrow, and your offer is the bull’s eye.
The images you choose for your appeal should support the offer, not undercut it. And that means your art director has to buy in to the offer and see the opportunity you’re presenting to donors. Let’s say your offer is about saving children in Africa from starvation. Sometimes there’s a tendency to present images of happy, smiling kids, with the thought that this shows donors the impact of their gifts. But in reality these positive images weaken the offer and deny donors the emotional impact that motivates them to give. You want donors to have the opportunity to save starving kids, not to see them already well-nourished and happy. Because images are often so hard to find and hard to get client approval for, it’s easy to throw up your hands and just use what’s available. But be firm. The wrong image will work against you. You’re better off without it.
The components you include in your appeal have to be judged against the offer. Inserts, premiums, freemiums, brochures, involvement devices — anything you might add to an appeal has to relate directly to the offer, or it shouldn’t be there. A big problem is inserts. More often that not, they’re just window dressing. For example, if your offer is about helping homeless people and you include an insert about how to politely deal with panhandlers on the street, thinking that this is simply helpful information for your donors, odds are that the insert will sink response. Nothing will pull you off-message faster than larding an appeal with extra stuff that doesn’t belong.
The response device has to zero in on your offer clearly and forcefully. The remit in your mail appeal, the donation page for your email or any other response device is pretty much the last chance to give your offer full play, really selling the opportunity you’re presenting to donors. This is where you focus on giving your donor the chance to do something specific to address a problem in the world and feel good about doing it. But it is definitely not the place to bring up statistics, talk about programs, add extraneous photos or get sidetracked by other such distractions. Those only work against your offer and weaken your appeal. The response device is the last place where you want to risk going off-message. It’s that critical.
It’s true in politics, and it’s true in fundraising — you have to stay on-message. Yes, it takes discipline to make sure every element of your appeal is aligned with a strong, donor-focused offer. But that’s how to speak clearly and convincingly with one voice. And how to get the donations that your organization needs.
An agency-trained, award-winning, freelance fundraising copywriter and consultant with years of on-the-ground experience, George specializes in crafting direct mail appeals, online appeals and other communications that move donors to give. He serves major nonprofits with projects ranging from specialized appeals for mid-level and high-dollar donors, to integrated, multichannel campaigns, to appeals for acquisition, reactivation and cultivation.