Columnist confesses: 'I Read the National Enquirer!'
Yes, I read the National Enquirer. And yes, I consider it required reading for fundraisers who are serious about motivating people to join in their good causes. I hope today to show you why.
But first, let me clear the air: I know the National Enquirer is tacky. It’s low, sensationalistic and unattractive.
But it’s a superb example of a publication that’s hell-bent on being read. That’s a quality every fundraiser should cultivate.
I’ve spent a scarce amount of time studying the Enquirer, and I’ve found what I think are the keys to its power.
This is where the Enquirer’s writers really earn their salaries. They understand that without powerful headlines, you don’t draw many readers into your stories.
● They tell the story. Like good journalistic headlines, Enquirer headlines give away the meat of the story. But they do it with vigor, combining specificity with strong verbs and a focus on the emotional core of the story. Like this one: “Hero kitty saves owner’s life by keeping her awake during terrifying ordeal.” If that story appeared in a nonprofit’s newsletter, I bet the headline would be something like: “Feline companions improving quality of life.”
● They have multiple elements. Nearly every headline has a kicker (above) and a subhead (below) to complete the narrative arc of the headline. This allows a headline to really tell the story — not just label it.
● They are about human relationships. Enquirer headlines go out of their way to identify relationships: Words like “hubby,” “mom” and “boyfriend” are in nearly every headline because those things are intrinsically interesting to just about everyone.
● They use colloquial language. They are written the way folks talk, not in artificial journalese. Instead of “Martha Stewart program faces ratings struggle,” the Enquirer gives us “Martha gets THE AX.”
Nonprofits seem to prefer dignified, calm, objective headlines. That might make the journalism majors among us happy, but it misses the opportunity to draw readers into our wonderful stories. And if our stories don’t get read, people have fewer reasons to be involved with us.
Dynamic use of photos
The photos in the Enquirer are not always the best quality; grainy, blurry, poorly composed photos are common. But they are always real photos of real people in real situations.
Most stories have several photos each, often overlapping each other, or are laid out in a way that tells the story. On a photo of a quarreling couple, for example, there will be an inset of the two taken in “happier days.”
Relevant photos are hard to come by — but so important. You might — like the Enquirer — need to lower your standards in order to have more access to real photos. And by all means, avoid stock photography. It always looks fake and commercial.
Reader-centric subject matter
Virtually all the stories in the Enquirer are about people. Most of the people are celebrities, of course, but in their more “human” moments: Someone’s gaining weight; a couple is breaking up; someone is locked in a feud with a rival.
The Enquirer focuses on what’s interesting, not what’s “important.” There isn’t a human being on earth who is uninterested in what people do. You can’t go wrong by telling your donors about how their donations connect with real people. You don’t have to be tacky and lowbrow. Just zero in on the human side of your story.
The copy in the Enquirer is readable, using short sentences, short words and short paragraphs. Writing that way takes discipline. If you don’t believe me, try it!
It also has a point of view: A couple is locked in a “nasty custody battle.” Someone is a “sexpot.” A child is a “precocious tyke.” A crime is “horrifying.”
These subjective characterizations are a no-no in standard journalism. But they add color, life and personality to a story.
Unless you are an actual objective source of news, there’s no point in conforming to the standards of objective journalism. You have a point of view — and your donors share it. Don’t hide it. Trumpet your beliefs.
Did I say “energetic”? Maybe I should say “messy” or “crazy.” Whatever you call it, the Enquirer’s design is a kind of frenetic Times Square in print. Here are some of the ways it plays out:
● Hot and contrasting colors. Strong yellows and reds, especially. These draw the eye and create a sense of heat, motion and importance. That’s what gives the Enquirer its signature lowbrow look. The visual cacophony it creates probably is inappropriate for most nonprofits. But the tasteful, muted colors favored by nonprofits these days have the problematic feature of making them so visually dull that it’s hard for readers to be interested in reading them.
● Huge type. I mean HUGE. Some Enquirer headlines go beyond 100-point type, dominating their pages. It’s the visual equivalent of a blaring siren. You will pay attention to it.
● Flexible layout. While most Enquirer spreads maintain a grid, the rules are stretched to the breaking point. Headlines are sometimes below their stories. Type is over photos (headlines are more often over photos than not). Photos frequently are tilted at a slight angle, giving the sense that they are “snapshots.” Photos also are often cut out or cropped to unusual shapes, or even with “torn” edges. I wouldn’t recommend most of these techniques; you have to be a super ace designer to do stuff like that and not end up with an unreadable stew. And, well, it’s very tacky.
I point out these things just as examples of strong communication. You don’t have to follow the Enquirer’s specific techniques. In fact, you probably shouldn’t. But if you read this great American publication from time to time and overcome your high-toned distaste for it, you’ll get some great ideas that will make you a better fundraiser. FS
Jeff Brooks is creative director at database marketing agency Merkle.