Faster Than A Speeding Donor
While time might be on your side if you’re the Rolling Stones, just the opposite is true if you’re attempting to raise funds through direct mail, online or on the Web.
When asking donors to give to your organization or cause, time is your largest obstacle and greatest enemy — assuming, of course, that all the other elements of successful fundraising communications are in place: a compelling reason for giving, a strong offer, a powerful emotional connection, and a persuasive sense of urgency. If any one of these elements is missing, then your time with a donor will be over before it even starts.
Direct mail: You’ve got 20 seconds
Most of us who work on the creative side of fundraising communications are familiar with the landmark scientific research in the field of direct mail that Siegfried Vögele conducted in the ‘80s. His eye-tracking and skin chemistry-measuring studies have provided a wealth of information about how people interact with and respond to various elements of a direct-mail package. For those who may not be familiar with Vögele’s work, I’ll summarize.
The heart of what he calls his “Dialogue Method” essentially states that much like a conversation in person, people also have a face-to-face dialogue with your direct-mail fundraising package, although it tends to be an internal dialogue. When a donor receives your mail, there are a number of questions she has that should be anticipated and answered, all in about 20 seconds time, including:
- Who is this letter from?
- What’s inside?
- How did they get my address?
- What do they know about me?
- Why are they writing me?
- Should I bother reading it?
- Do they really need my help?
- What happens if I do nothing?
The more of these questions you answer, the greater the likelihood of engaging the reader.
So let’s look at how these 20 seconds break down according to Vögele. To begin, your donor will spend about eight seconds looking at the envelope, noticing how it’s addressed, whether you’ve spelled her name correctly, and reading the return address and the headline, if there is one. Many direct-mail packages die right here and get tossed into the trash without ever being opened.
But let’s say she opens yours. Within four seconds, she will form an impression about your organization based solely on the quality of the materials she is unfolding. This is an interesting point to note for designers. If the paper stock you’re using is too cheap and flimsy and not in keeping with your organization’s image, it sends the wrong message. Conversely, if the quality of the stock is too high and again not in keeping with your image, this also sends the wrong message.
Now she begins her first run-through. She looks at pictures, reads headlines, notices short paragraphs and underlined text. Within the eight or so seconds it has taken her to do this, she is getting short answers to some of her questions and begins to engage in a slightly deeper dialogue with you.
If she has remained with you for these 20 seconds, she will now read one full block of text, which, 90% of the time, will be the P.S. This is a very critical piece of information. It means that when you write your fundraising letter, you need to make certain that your P.S. sums up all of the essential elements of your appeal. If this is all your potential donor reads, she will at least know what you want her to do, why and when. The trick is to do this clearly and succinctly.
Now, let’s say this dialogue with your donor is a positive one. She likes what she’s read so much that she wants to give to your organization. You should have done a good job of adding urgency to your appeal so that she feels compelled to write her check right away. If not, time once again becomes your enemy; it acts as a filter and, over time, the emotional connection you initially made with her erodes. The longer she waits to respond, the less likely she will send her gift. Archived appeals rarely get acted upon.
Web and online: You’ve got about one second, tops.
In a previous article I wrote for FundRaising Success, I stated that the attention span for most of us when we are on the Web is that of a caffeinated finch. There are a number of eye-tracking studies that have been conducted on Web readers that bear this out.
The first finding that might seem counterintuitive is that headlines draw the eye before pictures do. Now, before all you graphic designers out there take up your pitchforks and torches and come looking for me, I suggest you first head over to the Polynter Institute, the Estlow Center and Eyetools, because it was they who collaborated on these studies and published the results.
But the point (no pitchfork pun intended) we should walk away with here is that no matter how gorgeous the eye candy on your Web site, splash page or HTML e-mail might be, it will not make up for weak headlines and will not keep people on your Web site or reading your online appeal.
This study also determined that people scan the first couple of words in headlines and copy. This doesn’t mean you should only use short headlines, but it does mean that even if you use long headlines, you should front-end load them with your most important and provocative words if you hope to have people continue reading. This also builds a good case for getting your searchable key words upfront in your headlines and body copy as well, so that search engines can readily categorize and rank you properly.
Speaking of body copy, it should be no surprise by now to know that short paragraphs work better than long ones for Web and online communications. Web and online readers will avoid big blocks of text like vegans avoid steak, no matter how much delicious content they contain.
Forget what your high-school English teacher told you about normal paragraph development. When writing Web and online copy, your paragraph breaks should be short, logical and organized based on the flow of ideas. This means it’s OK to have a one-sentence paragraph. (Sorry, Mr. Sarno.)
According to these eye-tracking results, the bottom line for your Web and online headlines and body copy is that you have about one second to grab your readers’ attention. Forget the meandering setups, forget the “throat-clearing” copy. Get to the point, and get there fast. If you want to catch a caffeinated finch, you have to feed it caffeinated finch food.
So, whether you’re creating direct mail, online or Web fundraising communications, time is not on your side, regardless of what lyrics Mick Jagger sings. But if you bear this in mind, and write and design your appeals accordingly, you just might end up with the very thing you’re looking for — long-term donor relationships that stand the test of time.
Richard DeVeau works hard to feed all of his clients’ caffeinated finches a healthy diet of compelling direct-mail, Web and online fundraising copy as the writer, creative director and owner of Richard DeVeau Creative.