How Opt-In Communications Overcome Channel Fatigue
“Over time, all marketing strategies result in shitty clickthrough rates.”
Consumers respond to any new form of marketing with excitement. Think how excited the villagers were to get the Wells Fargo wagon in "The Music Man" compared to how excited you are to get the mail today. Or banner ads, the first of which had a 78% click-through rate. Or early search engines, which could be hacked by repeating the text you wanted to have indexed over and over in the same color as the background.
"The Law of Shitty Clickthroughs" above shows this progress with any new medium or channel. Looking at banner ads as an example, two researchers asked users to find a piece of information on a website. They randomized users to receive the information in text links or banner ads. When the information was presented as a banner ad, users were less likely to find it. When they did find it, it took longer on average. The researchers referred to this as “banner blindness.”
What’s remarkable isn’t that this happened; it’s that the study is from 1998. The banner ad went from exciting to tuned out in four years. People have only gotten better at ignoring ads: People even ignore sections of sites that look like ads or are next to ads. The lesson here is if you ever need to hide a dead body, put it in a display ad. Our selective attention — the thing that allows us to hear our name from across a crowded room — largely tunes out the noise that is online advertising. One must be extremely focused on the ad recipient to get the click.
We start delighted (“You’ve Got Mail!”), then go to satisfied (“You’ve Got Mail.”) to apathetic (“I’ve Got Mail?”). Sometimes, sentiment takes an additional step — from apathetic to hostile. This is especially true when the medium seems to be abused: impersonal, irrelevant and without consent.
This hostility can be codified. (Here, I’m referring to legal code, although the use of ad-blocking software is another form of codification of norms against interruption marketing.) In the U.S., 2003’s Do-Not-Call Implementation Act and CAN-SPAM curtailed the ways marketers could legally reach out with unsolicited phone calls and emails, respectively. Every year, state legislatures grapple with similar legislation for mail, failing largely because a non-governmental solution to opt-out of unwanted mail pieces already exists at DMAChoice.org. The trend is not our friend, however, with California leading the way to restrict both data and voice.
The reaction from Europe has been even stronger. One aspect of the much-discussed GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) from the European Union is consent withdrawal. Once you have consent to communicate with someone through a channel or a pre-existing relationship with them, you need to be able to remove that consent swiftly. The consequences for non-compliance are up to 4% of your annual revenue or $22 million, whichever is greater, which would be a death knell for a great many organizations.
People don’t want to be interrupted by marketing and especially not by marketing that they didn’t sign up for or isn’t specific to them. That’s the downside.
The upside is that the reverse is also true. Asking for channel preferences increases the likelihood of getting a donor. In two studies of what causes people to opt in, DonorVoice found donor communications control is the single biggest factor in whether someone will want to learn more from you. The more you let a person control, the more likely they are to become a constituent.
But wait (as the infomercial implores): There’s more! In a joint study by DonorVoice and the DMA Nonprofit Federation, allowing donors control of their communications made them happier to donate.
Donors who give you their communications preferences are also worth more. In case after case, people using mail codes are more likely to donate and to give at a greater amount. The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare coded people who requested less mail and sent them half as many appeals as those who stated no preference. Those donors who requested — and received — half as many contacts gave more than the group that didn’t express a preference. Catholic Relief Services (CRS) found that donors who requested a specific mail preference gave six to eight times more per year.
Granted, this may not be causal. That is, CRS didn’t increase the value of their donor six to eight times more by getting them to state a preference. Rather, it may be higher value donors who naturally give you their communications preferences. After all, they are the most engaged with you.
Think of the time and treasure you spend on figuring out who are your most valuable donors. By asking for preferences and honoring them, you not only identify those quality donors — you make them more likely to stay by listening and acting to serve them. Despite this being a benefit to both the donor and the organization, only 10 of the top 100 nonprofit organizations (revenue-wise) ask for channel preferences upon email sign-up as of 2018.
Nick Ellinger joined the Moore, where he works to increase the automation and customization of fundraising as chief brand officer, in January 2020. Before that, he was DonorVoice’s vice president of marketing strategy, working with organizations like Catholic Relief Services, Share our Strength | No Kid Hungry, and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Foundation to look at their fundraising with a different lens. He developed his direct fundraising muscle running Mothers Against Drunk Driving’s direct marketing program for a decade. He’s also the author of "The New Nonprofit" to challenge fundraising norms.