Show Don’t Tell, Less is More, and Other Most Important Rules

Photo credit: The Mark Twain House & Museum

Photo credit: The Mark Twain House & Museum

“If you see an adverb, kill it!” – Mark Twain.

A former boss, (a wise direct marketing guru, NOT Mark Twain) once imparted to me the Most Important Rule in direct response fundraising: “Sell” only one thing per campaign (in nonprofit terms, present only one problem to be attacked per package).

This dictum sat along the Other Most Important Rule: It’s easier to raise money against Evil than to raise money for Good.

And, depending on the day, it sat alongside Even More Most Important Rules:

  • State the problem in ways individuals can feel they make a difference.
  • Make a donor take any kind of action and you increase the chance they will also contribute.
  • Never impede the donation process.
  • The older the donor, the larger the font.

It all really gets down to one rule: keep it simple.

This has nothing to do with America’s great dumbing-down or any generational propensity to read. It has everything to do with the pace and clutter of today’s complicated world. American donors, regardless of age, wealth indicator, or channel preference, are besieged with marketing and media stimuli, nearly every waking moment, every day. Continue reading

Dylan, Young & Springsteen: Great Fundraising Copywriters?

14-01-17What makes a good protest song?

Tell a story, ask a leading question, then bring it all home with a call to action.

Perhaps it’s the focus on 60’s folk music that Inside Llewen Davis has brought to the public conversation, but the notion of certain protest songs as exemplars of fundraising messaging is intriguing.

Think about it:

Good protests songs often open with a story about a condition:

“Men walkin’ ‘long the railroad tracks, Goin’ someplace there’s no goin’ back…
(Ghost of Tom Joad, Bruce Springsteen)

Continue reading

“Channel-Agnostic Messaging” in Fundraising

14-01-13_GRAPHICYes, the headline is in quotes. It’s the sort of passive-voice-pseudo-hyphenated-verb-ized-noun jargon that permeates American business and represents all that is hideously wrong with our zeal to understand how or if the new dynamics of our donor markets — all realities  — change basic human response.

I am as guilty of its usage and spread as any, so don’t even bother to point out my own failures in this regard. I’m sure I won’t even get out of this blog post without falling prey.

Still, claims of long form direct mail’s imminent demise and judgments on America’s distracted reading habits notwithstanding, the art of asking for support is and always will be underpinned by a subtle and controlled discipline. The media in which we persuade will inevitably change, as will, of course, the demographics of the audience (has it ever not been thus?)

But at the heart of it all is the very personal decision to donate time or money to a worthwhile cause. Therefore, every fundraising message — be it long form letter or short form email blast— needs to accomplish 4 basic tasks: Continue reading

Stoking the Star-Maker Machinery

14-01-09_graphicWe’ve all been guilty, myself included, of losing track of a core truth when creating fundraising appeals.

With the clamor of analytics, behavioral and attitudinal data, revenue and retention goals, and strategic positioning briefs ringing in our ears, it is easy to forget that the true heroes of every appeal, regardless of channel or media, are the individuals to whom we appeal, not the organizations for whom we write.

It is the donors who star in the fundraising passion play. And stars need to enjoy the primary spotlight.

Forget “story” or program accomplishments or heartbroken-now-saved constituents. Forget the nobility of mission and power of the nonprofit brand. Those elements all play important supporting roles. For one thing, they demonstrate and validate the wisdom the donor shows in giving to This Particular Cause.

But if the appeal does not resonate with the donor, it will fall back into a competitive landscape that is teeming with similar voices pleading for similar worthy causes.

Here’s the rub: “resonate” may not mean, “bring a donor to tears” (although it may). It may not mean, “instill a sense of outrage” (although it may). It may not mean, “inspire a sense of hope” (although it may). Continue reading

Big Tent or Three-Legged Stool?

14-01-06_graphicSo much trade journalism in direct marketing fundraising today, including the blogosphere, deals with the collection, organization, and analysis of “big” donor data, specifically, behavioral data.

It seems everywhere we look, data frames the conversation, and understandably so. Some have called data the tent-pole of our industry, the single support upon which all successful donor acquisition, retention, and fundraising rely.

Sadly, there is comparatively little coverage on how to use that information, passionate odes to “storytelling” notwithstanding. Translating that data into messages (and yes, stories) that resonate with donors, and compel them to act, is a subject about which is hard to find articulation.

But without that articulation, hoping that data alone solves the problems is a little like selling someone on a new HD TV by describing only how the plasma display technology works, yet never showing him the picture quality it produces. Continue reading