What the $@#&?
Editor’s Note: This article contains some words and passages that some readers might find offensive or unsettling. We chose to leave them in so that the author could make his point, as well as to illustrate the powerful effect they can have on a reader. We apologize in advance for any offense.
Think back to when you were a kid … how many times did you get your mouth washed out with soap because of something you said? I know it happened to me a couple of times.
As a fundraiser, how many times have you had to tell your executive director or board that one of your fundraising letters or e-mail campaigns bombed because of something you said? Again, I’ve been there.
Both experiences can leave a bad taste in your mouth and leave you asking yourself, “How can I keep this from ever happening again?”
Recently, our creative team was developing a fundraising package for a children’s home. The story line in the letter was about a young girl who made the choice not to follow in her mother’s footsteps and use drugs. One of the members of our team suggested the envelope teaser have wording along the lines of “Tiffany had a choice.” We were beginning to develop that thought when someone asked if our readers would relate the word “choice” to abortion. Would a large percentage of the donors and prospects never open the envelope because of the word “choice”? We decided not to use the word and tested a different phrase.
Was it the right decision? I don’t know for sure since we took a presumably safer route and never tested teaser copy with that word. Are there other words that you avoid because of a bad experience in the past or in anticipation of a problem?
The words we use in politics, sports, media and religion all are becoming harder and more offensive. But at the same time, the reading public seemingly is becoming more sensitive. A lot of us aren’t sure what to say anymore for fear of offending one group or another — liberal or conservative, black or white, male or female, gay or straight, Christian or Jew or Muslim.
Last year, some nonprofits had a problem with their Christmas — no, I’m sorry — their holiday mailings. Because the subject of “Christmas” vs. “holiday” was so prevalent in the news, nonprofit organizations received calls and letters from donors and prospects alike complaining.
The problem is that the complaints were coming from both sides of the issue. One organization I work with asked its donors to write patients a note of encouragement on an enclosed holiday card and return it with a gift. Many of those donors were upset that “holiday” cards were used instead of “Christmas” cards.
I experienced a similar problem with the opposite twist. Each year I wish everyone who receives my e-newsletter, Direct Marketing Tips, a “Merry Christmas.” One reader chastised me by asking how I knew whether or not she was a Christian. She said she wasn’t and that I needed to stop making assumptions about people. She insisted I should wish everyone “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”
Some other land mines
“Nigger” is a word most of us find highly offensive; I don’t even like using it in this article. Yet one well-established organization has used it prominently in its fundraising letters. Why would any organization do that? Isn’t everyone going to trash that letter and question the sender’s sanity?
Not so fast. The organization, which asked that we not include its name in this article, is well known for its campaign against hate and intolerance in our society, and for its ongoing war on racism. It understands what a powerful response that word generates in most people. After opening the envelope and reading the letter, readers are going to get mad and want to do something to help fight hate. Aren’t passion and outrage the reactions all nonprofits hope to achieve? You want your readers to become so emotionally moved — sad, angry, excited — by your letter that they take action. You want donors to send a gift, sign a petition, volunteer, etc.
You can’t possibly have too much of that emotion in a direct-mail package, can you? Maybe, according to Lisa Selner of Ashburne, Va.-based Lisa Selner Creative. She recently developed a five-step direct-mail renewal series for a health-care client, with each letter building on the urgency of the preceding one. After all, if the donor hasn’t renewed after the first three notices, you need to turn up the heat.
Just not too high. In the fourth installment, the letter was signed by a nurse who shared how she had cared for a seriously ill patient: “Her husband was becoming jaundiced. He was becoming less lucid. His abdomen was beginning to swell, a sign that medicines were not being excreted from his body. He became very quiet. His pain level dropped. As difficult as it is to see those symptoms, I was quietly thankful that this gentleman was at home with his loved ones and with me as his nurse.”
It was very powerful stuff on a human level. But based on the results, it might have been too powerful. The fourth letter turned out to be the weakest in the entire series — weaker even than the final installment. Selner is retooling the letter with a softer approach.
Why it happened
Two trends might be at work here. One is that people will follow their emotions, but they also will bail when the feelings simply are too raw or hit too close to home. Some humane societies see results fall when their outer envelopes use graphic copy and photos of puppies and kittens that have been abused. Relief organizations are seeing it in lower response rates to packages with upsetting photos of ill or malnourished children.
[Editor’s Note: In an interview for our April cover story, ASPCA Senior Vice President of Development and Communications Jo Sullivan related that while images of suffering animals “work well” in television campaigns, “in the mail, we’ve tested out of that. People don’t want to see it.”]
The bigger trend might be that people are just plain tired of bad news. And that’s important information for direct-mail fundraisers.
“In our post 9/11, post-tsunami, post-Katrina world, donors’ anxiety levels are already dangerously high. You don’t want to be the bearer of even more bad news,” Selner says, adding that she doesn’t eschew the proven formula of using drama to get attention early in a direct-mail letter.
“But I don’t dwell on doom and gloom either,” she explains. “I try to show them early and often that, yes, things are not right here, but there are real reasons to be hopeful that you can help turn it around.”
For example, Selner recently developed an acquisition test for a conservation/recreation group. But rather than opening with the typical bad news about threats to the environment and the lack of open spaces for public use, she went in an unexpected, more upbeat direction.
She compared the group’s conservation mission with the satisfaction of taking home a special treasure from a yard sale or antique shop. The first page was filled with copy such as, “I think you’re the kind of person who hates to see something useful go to waste” and, “If you’ve ever spent less than $20 on a flea market find, then you already know the feeling.” Her test package, by the way, is now a very strong control.
What to do?
Everyone has gotten more sensitive these days. So what’s a nonprofit to do? How do you continue writing to your donors and acquiring new ones, and at the same time not upset the world around you? My suggestion: Don’t worry about it. No matter how politically correct you try to be, someone is going to get their feelings hurt.
I don’t have a magic list of words that get every envelope opened or that get every letter thrown away. I even asked my friends at some of the most successful nonprofit organizations in the country for their lists. They didn’t have one either — at least not one they would share.
Instead, you have to learn everything you can about your donors, especially what moves them. Using that valuable information, write with all the passion you have. And test, test, test. Over time you’ll know the words that move your donors and prospects and those that turn them off. It’s not the same for everyone.
If you’re providing services for children in wheelchairs, what word do you use to describe those you serve? Is it “handicapped,” “disabled” or “ability challenged”? Again, it’s all about knowing your audience. The politically correct phrase might be “ability challenged.” But if you’re writing to my mom, who’s 70, she has no idea what “ability challenged” means. She will, however, gladly write a check to help a handicapped child.
Scott Swedenburg is a partner in Birmingham, Ala.-based printer
and mailing-services provider Mail Enterprises.