The Social Proof in Our Email Pudding
At Turnkey, we explore other fields of study to improve fundraising success. The field we draw the most from is social science. Not only do I use it from my chair as CEO, but our bright young minds in production use it as well. Julian May, our senior content editor and ace account manager, let me in on his social science-bolstered copywriting method:
Recently we’ve been reading a lot of great stuff about the value of social proof in fundraiser-facing content. That includes a recent article right here on NonProfit PRO, which I recommend highly. Social proof is when you see a group of people engaging in an action and think to yourself, 'Why aren’t I doing that too? I think I want to do that too.' In simplest terms, it’s the fear of missing out.
Social proof can be an incredibly powerful motivator, but how do we use it without upsetting the other psychological tactics being used?
If you’re tuned in to our way of thinking, you know that we are all about fundraiser recognition, not reward. For those of you just joining us, here is the idea in brief—fundraisers feel a stronger tie to your organization and are more likely to fundraise for you again if you recognize their efforts individually (with verbal 'thank yous' and items that are of insignificant value) in social exchange for the behavior you are requesting. If that sounds crazy, read this. It will help.
In our messaging content, we are looking to create a one-on-one conversation with the fundraiser. We never use plural pronouns or address event participants as a unified group. Addressing them singularly creates a stronger relationship between the reader and the organization from whose standpoint we are writing. The nonprofit is speaking directly to them, recognizing the person’s fundraising progress and giving them that 'thank you.' So how do we effectively employ information about the actions of others while maintaining singular attention and using recognition principles? Here’s how:
When we use social proof in our messaging, we still maintain our singular fundraiser-focused language while divulging to the email receiver what everyone else is up to. We don’t scorn our fundraisers for failing to be part of the herd, which is easy to do when you are effectively drawing a comparison in behavior. Rather, we recognize and praise their unique efforts before sharing with them how their peers are behaving, all in a one-to-one voice. Let’s use a fictional fundraiser named Bill as our example.
Bill is registered for an organization’s walk event, but has only raised $20 over the last couple of weeks. When we reach out to Bill, we give him that verbal pat on the back and thank him for the effort he has shown so far with his fundraising. And, (we ask Bill) guess what other fundraisers have been doing? When Bill learns that others are charging ahead to the highest fundraising levels and earning exclusive organization recognition, we are using social proof. He sees social proof that those higher levels are attainable, because they are currently being attained by the rest of his fellow fundraisers. Unconsciously, Bill doesn’t want to get left out of the popular action. Newly motivated by the one-to-one recognition he just received via email, social proof in force, he’s likely to be fired up, and joins in to reach higher fundraising levels like his peers.
Psychologists use a phrase that helps one visually understand what happens in the head. It’s called "crowding out." Crowding out acknowledges that there are multiple psychological influences at work. When concocting new content recipes using a variety of psychological strategies, it’s important to pick your emphasis. Here, we used recognition as the primary strategy, added a one-to-one voice and seasoned it all with social proof.
And remember, a little bit can go a long way. That’s why we only use a dash of social proof in our email pudding.
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising,” and the 2023 book, "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape," and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” She and Otis are also co-authors of the books, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising" and "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape." When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.