Creative Masterclass

May 2, 2014       Herschell Gordon Lewis      

What’s wrong with this next sentence? “Membership costs you just $26.99 per month.” Do you agree that in this single little sentence three apparently harmless pieces are worthy of repair?

Undoubtedly you jumped on that word “costs.” What else do you see? The email that used the word “costs” added two other negatives: “$26.99 per month.” Not only does $26.99 commercialize the appeal, leaning on arithmetic that has no place in stimulating an immediate and spontaneous response, but “per month” is the way your accountant would word it. For career communicators, it’s “a month.” So, you’d dump the decimals, which inject a phony discount store overtone and actually emphasize cost. You’d replace the number as well as the word “costs.” You easily yank emphasis on cost out of the mix: “Membership is yours for just $27 a month.”

Fundraising mailings and (especially) emails repeatedly use clinical terminology. Clinical terminology is apt for texts and analyses. Clinical terminology is sub-par for requests asking for participation. The very phrase “Membership costs you…” emphasizes the wrong element. “Membership is yours for…” assumes and emphasizes acquisition.

 

Synonyms aren’t synonymous

A major clue to increasing response: Synonyms aren’t synonymous. Who said that? Was it Gilbert K. Chesterton or was it you?

One simple example is the too-common line in a fundraising message that makes a semi-promise of an award for participation — “You’ll have a chance to….” “Chance” has as big a load of negative connotations as it has of positive connotations. Replacing “chance” with “opportunity” clarifies the positive emphasis.

Because of a reason that might originate in classrooms rather than eleemosynary experiences, the word “learn” is popping up all over the nonprofit universe. “You’ll learn…” is teacher-to-student, and that isn’t a relationship a potential contributor welcomes. Even if you disagree with that conclusion, do you disagree that “You’ll discover…” — which deposits detection of whatever the benefit might be in the hands (and ego) of the target-individual — is safer?

Drop one letter from “learn” and you have the equally negative word “earn.” The same impairment “learn” smears onto what’s supposed to be a generator of enthusiasm applies to “earn.” From whom does one earn anything? Right, it’s from someone in a superior position. That isn’t as empowering as simpler terms, such as “get” or “acquire” or “find” or whatever might position control in the hands of the prospect.

Some words can bite the sender instead of the recipient. One such word is “offer.” Now, “offer” is a perfectly sound Anglo-Saxon word that in most circumstances has a positive connotation. Note that it’s most circumstances, not all. Do you want to be the prime mover? If so, “I’m making you (extending) this offer.” If you’re suggesting as a partner, “This opportunity is yours.”

And, what follows? Is it “if” or “when?” Here are two more words we sometimes use interchangeably and mindlessly, ignoring the reality that they aren’t synonyms. Timeliness is a major factor. Don’t make it easy for them to delay, wait, or table the deal. Be careful, though. Your contributors are volunteers, not employees. Imposition of “You’d better look out” works if it emphasizes the cosmic problems that will remain unsolved if the donor doesn’t participate right now. It can be a major turnoff if it suggests the potential donor has been derelict.

 

Heroes are made, not born

A theme so classic its origin is troglodytic is: “We need your help.” The ancient cry isn’t as motivational as one that doesn’t suggest deficiency on the part of the sender. How about “A rare opportunity to be a hero” or “You know why I’m contacting you” or a cousin of those?

Note the difference between first person plural and first person singular. The warts fall off the pitch when “We need your help” becomes “I need your help.” Once again, though, every word can be a weapon of singular destruction. “May I please ask a favor” is thin and weasel-like. “Do me a favor” has guts well beyond the thrust of “I need a favor” or “May I please ask a favor.”

How about that word “please?” In this usage it’s a downshift from overdrive into neutral gear. “Please” has a value when it doesn’t cavil. Let’s clarify that point.

Here’s an invitation — an invitation — to attend a fundraising luncheon aboard a parked ocean liner. Uh-oh. On the reverse side of the gatefold is “Reservations must be received by [date] including information listed on reservation card.” And, “No boarding after 11:15 a.m.” And, “Bring current photo ID.” Demand. Demand. Demand. The halo of the invitation dissolves.

Who are these intruders to tell us “must be received?” Courtship loses its patina when combined with dictatorial demand. Here’s one place where “Please” could help.

That differential exemplifies the difference between invitation and demand. “Take a look at this” is an invitation. “You must read this” is a demand. In an era in which the best prospects are flooded with competing requests, which is more likely to generate a response?

Does a bulk appeal work? A mailing from one of the best-known organizations has this heading: “Millions of the world’s children are going hungry. Please help by sending your gift today!” Huh? They want a gift for millions of the world’s children? Of course that isn’t the intent, but the very wording makes the notion of one gift less consequential. Less consequential means fewer gifts.

 

Just one more bit for this issue

A marketing question: To the casual or sometime donor, which generates more rapport – You still have time or Donation Deadline Extended? I vote for the first option, because imposition of a deadline establishes (or reinforces) a gulf separating the dedicated contributor from the organization asking for money. But the major nonprofit sending the email with that heading opted for Donation Deadline Extended. I wonder whether it would have pulled more response by replacing that icy headline, chilled even colder by the capitalization.

Warning: We’re just getting started.  NPT

Herschell Gordon Lewis is a professional writer who lives in Pompano Beach, Fla., consulting with and writing direct response copy for clients worldwide. He is the author of “Hot Appeals or Burnt Offerings,” an analysis of fundraising techniques. His website is herschellgordonlewis.com