Six Key Attributes of Sticky Messages
Fundraisers spend time and resources creating messages for cases, proposals and campaigns. But how many of them actually stick?
In his session "Sticky Ideas: How to Make Your Fundraising Messages Powerful and Persuasive" at the 2009 Bridge Conference held last week near Washington, D.C., consultant Bernard Ross defined what makes ideas stick, why sticky ideas work and why they're essential to fundraising, and how they can be applied by fundraisers in their work with donors, board members and others.
Ross, director of U.K.-based consultancy The Management Centre, analyzed the following six key attributes of successful messages:
1. They’re simple
There are four key categories for fundraising propositions, Ross said: opportunity (something positive can be gained in the right now from funds raised), vision (something positive can be gained in the future), crisis (something negative will happen immediately if funds aren't raised) and risk (something negative will occur in the future if funds aren't raised).
Every proposition an organization has fits into one of these categories, and each has a psychological orientation to different groups of donors that can be as simple as a difference in the semantics of the way people think about change. For example, Ross said, some people want to move toward equality, while some want to move away from inequality.
Most nonprofits want "vision" to be what motivates people to give to their causes, but every pragmatic fundraiser knows that a crisis is a better motivator, he said.
2. They’re unexpected
People tune out of messages because they think, "I know this story. I'm going to hear about 'this' now." Because of that, Ross stressed fundraisers make their messages unexpected.
Creating mystery is key, he said, using the example of The Prince's Trust, an organization founded in the '70s by Prince Charles to improve the lives of disadvantaged young people in the U.K. A few years after the organization's founding, when Prince Charles met with senior business people to ask for money, he showed statistics on the organization's success rate its first and second years.
He asked the business leaders for a 25 percent increase in their giving for year threes, saying if they could all commit to that, the organization would be able to achieve a lower success rate. The business leaders looked around confused about what the prince had said, and then he explained that he wanted the organization to work with more challenging children and really live up to its mission. Because the organization would be tackling children with greater issues, its success rate wouldn't be as high as it had been, but it would be helping the neediest children.
The prince’s message caught the leaders off guard, and earned him a standing ovation and their support.
3. They’re concrete
Give people things that they can touch, feel and understand. Is there something you can carry around in your pocket that is tangible that communicates your case for support?
4. They’re credible
What's your organization's guarantee? Ross used the example of a bug exterminator that promised 100 percent satisfaction and money back — plus a host of other over-the-top guarantees — if all of your bugs aren't removed. “And bugs are hard to catch,” Ross noted, asking “What are you promising?”
Ross advised organizations do what he called the "New York, New York test." Most everyone knows the tune of "New York, New York," can sing along to the words, and might even start swaying and doing leg kicks as they sing it. Yet most of these same people don't know their credit card numbers or passport IDs by heart. Does your organization’s messaging stand out from other organizations in this way?
5. They’re emotional
Why don't organizations become more emotional about their messages, Ross asked. Rather than saying 20 percent of children die from "X" disease, make it more emotional by saying "one in five."
Or, better yet, adopt an emotional fundraising pitch. Ross told the story of the founder of an organization that works to deliver books to children to increase literacy. According to the story, an illiterate child once picked up a book and asked the founder what kind of brick it was, and the founder of course explained that it was a book, not a brick. Later, he rolled that experience into his in-person fundraising pitch, in which he used an actual book and brick to demonstrate the seriousness of the issue and asked prospects to support the cause if they thought books are more valuable than bricks.
6. They tell stories
Stories are a powerful way to convey your mission, and don't require many words to make an impact. As an example of this, Ross noted Ernest Hemingway's six-word story: "For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn." Can you convey your message in such a powerful way, in as few words?