Which Message Goes To Whom?

August 4, 2015       The NonProfit Times      

A local busload of students, on their way home from a high school game, was “t-boned” by a truck. Most of the injured were members of families with bottom-end incomes. So the appeal for funds to help cover medical costs centered on humanization of help.

Executives had been discussing experimentation in fundraising media, in which bulk 21st century competition for attention blurs generalized appeals. The concept-lookouts had been waiting for an episode that matched the eleemosynary sending group, its relationship with the community, and its capabilities.

“Production” beyond a straightforward one-to-one communication would be a mismatch, because the “Be a hero, right now” positioning was out of key with full-color printing and too obviously “produced” professional email.

Unlike many fundraising projects, this type has two implicit advantages … if the word “advantage” has significance beyond a cold-blooded comparison. Timeliness thrusts the appeal into the immediate foreground of the recipient’s attention, well beyond traditional appeals based on traditional economic or health problems; and too-careful attention to production can damage quick response more than it might help quick response. So the choice of this occurrence was logical and in sync with the organization’s prospects and means.

Another element dwarfs others: List choices. This road-accident had a community flavor, so the per-name cost of lists (and the possibility of donated lists and technical participation) might be favorable.

A one-page mailed letter and a straightforward email, split with no recognizable favoritism to either, were presented as media of choice. Because one element affecting the decision of whom to contact was implicit, the appeals within both of these media had to be parallel. Suppression of overlapping names was mandatory.

Unsurprisingly, the email message was structured to thrust immediately into projection of imminence. One side of a split emphasized geographical logic with three versions of a subject line that shouted into consciousness — “Was one of these your child?” (Considered but rejected was “What if one of these was your child?,” on the questionable but absolute ground that as a subject line planted in immediacy, a “What if…” approach was automatically weaker than a dynamic question).

The test pitted that wording against “Are you ready for this?” and “Wouldn’t you want others to help?”

The letter clearly outlined the circumstance. The test element for direct mail was itself worthy of study — the letter itself being unchanged for two approaches, envelope copy being the only changed factor. Envelope copy was presented as a rubber stamp and as boldface handwriting — “This just happened.”

A one-shot fundraising mini-campaign that pays for itself is worthy of congratulations. But, what conclusions are possible?

Unquestionably the test was murky, because envelope copy for the direct mail side of this appeal drew no direct comparison against the email subject line. The choice of names on quickly-assembled lists was primitive — age and ZIP code were the only factors. And the very notion of choosing a single, unexpected element as the apparent rationale was loaded with circum­stances that abso­lute­ly rule out such an approach for a more or­derly appeal.

Yet, it’s possible to draw a generalized, if thin, conclusion: Might it be that having guns in place, ready for a quick load-and-fire, is weaponry that at worst forces an organization to be on the alert?

Many fundraisers never will face a problem such as this one, because the decision to march onto a specifically-chosen battleground would be purely optional. A professional can see, though, an opportunity to see how finely honed his or her response-capabilities might be.

That alone is exhilarating … isn’t it?


Herschell Gordon Lewis is president of Lewis Enterprises, a Florida-based creative and consulting service. He is the author of 32 books, including “On the Art of Writing Copy” (now in its fourth edition) and “Hot Appeals or Burnt Offerings.” He has been elected to the Direct Marketing Association’s Hall of Fame. His email is hglewis1@aol.com