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Exquisite Tailoring

By Herschell Gordon Lewis - July 1, 2013

We whose fortunes depend on our ability to siphon off a trivial portion of others’ fortunes face problems and decisions that seem trivial but aren’t trivial.

For example, do you puzzle over a response device asking for contributions ranging from $25 to $500? Which is better – listing the lowest amount first or listing the highest amount first?

The answer is … yes.

Here’s an invitation to a luncheon and fashion show, from the local chapter of a support group for a disease. Three choices, in the sequence listed on the response device: “La Bella Marchesa, $250.00 per person”; “La Bella Contessa, “$150.00 per person”; “La Bella Donna, $85.00 per person.” Of course the amenities are geared to the status.

Would reversing the order increase the overall appeal?

Consider the clear-cut demographic of the target-group. Even primitive psychology says it wouldn’t … and might, in fact, result in lower response to the emotionally-lessened higher categories. (Your pro or con opinion of “$250.00” rather than “$250” in this usage?)

Here’s an appeal from a charitable organization, a “We need help” entreaty. (Comment on “We need help” later in this column.) Amounts suggested: $5.00; $10.00; $25.00; $50.00; $100.00; Other.

Would reversing the order, except for “other,” increase the overall appeal?

Consider the polyglot demographic of the target-group. Even primitive psychology says it wouldn’t … and might, in fact, result in lower overall response by denigrating the lower levels. (Your pro or con opinion of “$5.00” rather than “$5” in this usage?)

Note, though, the ultimate disclaimer: Even the most knowledgeable opinion is just that, an opinion, in the absence of head-to-head testing.


Aggressive questions

The second decade of the 21st century isn’t a quieter, gentler time. The explosion of one-to-one media makes third-person appeals a weak choice, with weakness increasing exponentially as a parallel motivational assistant, capability of a response, increases.

Suppose a community foundation sent you an email that begins, “My friend, I am willing to bet that you are unaware that without a forceful strategy, you may be unconvinced regardless of the logic of this message.”


Aside from contemporary usage, which indicates “I’m” instead of “I am” and eliminates at least one “that,” this opening has a zero rapport-quotient. An ancient saw says if you want a mule to give you attention, whack him on the head with a two-by-four. Do this enough times and a mule might cower in fear or kick angrily, neither of which is an ideal way to get cooperation. Do it even once and a potential donor clicks: Delete.

The telling factor when deciding whether aggressive wording is worth the experiment is the assumed or actual relationship between sender and recipient. What typifies the reaction when out goes a message that squawks, “Do you have the guts to…”?

“Do you have the guts to…”? Aimed at a multidonor? Then the sender has too many guts. Aimed at a logical prospect list? Test against an approach less likely to generate resentment. Aimed at a one-time donor who hasn’t renewed, despite ongoing goads? Worth a shot.

Simple psychology applies here, just as it does to any aggressive sales approach. Use it where shake-up may slash through apathy. Don’t use it where it can churn the target’s guts into an uproar.


Problem versus solution

“We need help” has an impact fractional to what it had a generation ago. It doesn’t establish the recipient of the message as the hero, because emphasis is corporately internal rather than individually external.

Even a change to “She needs help” (provided the appeal doesn’t use that cliché-wording) should generate more response. But what if, instead of depicting a problem, text and graphics depicted the happy future, with the problem solved because of the target-donor’s benevolence?

Results to which this writer has been privy prove strongly otherwise: playing up success isn’t as powerful when the reason for generosity is the severity of a problem. But, as is true of every nonprofit appeal, testing can supply immediate (if temporary) answers no amount of speculation can match.


That brings us to…

The standard and unsurprising conclusion: Ours is a universe so fluid that even a single day’s news can skew results. The combination of intelligent testing and intelligent and ongoing analyses of the tests is the unbeaten champion in the battle to increase response.

That reality alone should keep nonprofits alert, attentive, and yes, humble.  NPT

Herschell Gordon Lewis is a professional writer who lives in Pompano Beach, Fla. He is the author of “Hot Appeals or Burnt Offerings,” an analysis of fund raising techniques. His most recent book is his 32nd — “Internet Marketing Tips, Tricks, and Tactics.” Among his other books are “On the Art of Writing Copy,” (fourth edition), “Creative Rules for the 21st Century,” and “How to Write Powerful Fund Raising Letters.” His web site is


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