[VIDEO] 18 Copywriting Tips for Nonprofits

Leah Eustace, ACFRE will cover 18 ways you can make your writing more engaging, more powerful and more authentic. She’ll cover the power of story, neuromarketing, and general persuasion techniques.

Full Transcript:

Steven: Okay, Leah, we’re rolling. So it’s okay if I go ahead and get this party started officially?

Leah: Go for it.

Steven: All right. Awesome. Well, welcome, everyone. Good afternoon. Good morning, if you’re on the West Coast maybe near Vancouver, if you heard us talking about it earlier. Thank you for being here. I hope you’re all doing okay. I hope you’re staying healthy, and I’m just excited to see a full room. So I’m Steven. I’m over here at Bloomerang, and we’re going to be talking about “Copy that Sells.” We’ve got 18 tips. I love that number, 18, that will help you raise more money. Thanks again for being here. I hope you’re doing okay.

I’ve got a couple housekeeping items for you before we get going here officially. I just want to let everyone know that we are recording, and we’ll be sending out the recording slides, handouts. There’s videos. We’ve got all kinds of goodies for you. So just look for an email from me later on today. If you don’t already have some of those things, don’t worry. We’ll get all of that to you. But most importantly, I know a lot of you have already done this. But please feel free to send in your comments and questions along the way. Tell us who you are. Introduce yourself in the chat, if you haven’t already. We’re going to try to save some time at the end for Q&A. So don’t be shy. Don’t sit on those hands. You can send us a tweet. I’ll keep an eye on the Twitter feed, as well. But we’d love to hear from you. And almost nothing is out of bounds. So, you know, fire away.

If this is your first Bloomerang webinar, I just want to say an extra special welcome to all you folks who are new to us. If this is your first webinar, we’re so happy to have you. We love doing these webinars. We do them almost once a . . . a couple times a week now, actually. What we are most known for is our donor management software. So, just for context, that’s what Bloomerang is. If you’re interested in that, check us out later on. Don’t do that right now because we’ve got Leah Eustace joining us from beautiful northeastern Canada or I guess southeastern Canada, northeastern U.S., right? Yeah, I’m trying to figure it out. Yeah.

Leah: Something like that.

Steven: Something like that. How is it going? Are you doing okay, Leah?

Leah: I’m great. I think, you know, a geography brush-up has been working in my favor.

Steven: Yeah. Well, it’s awesome to have you. You’re one of my favorite people ever. You reached out to us. You wanted to do a session for us. You were so gracious with your time and your expertise. If you don’t know Leah, check her out over at Blue Canoe. She does awesome work. She was telling us about some of the stuff she is doing. I can vouch for her personally. Awesome copywriter. She does video scripts, she was saying. Lots of good stuff and is just an awesome person. One of my favorite things about Leah, if she doesn’t mind me saying, is she’s been a real champion for mental health in this sector, really needed, and I’ve always really admired that. I don’t know if I ever said that to you personally, Leah, but I really appreciate that . . .

Leah: Thank you.

Steven: . . . as someone who’s been touched by that in my personal life. So thank you. Thanks for doing this. I don’t want to take up any time away from you, honestly. So I’m going to stop sharing my screen.

Leah: All right.

Steven: And let you go . . .

Leah: And I’ll start?

Steven: Yeah. Let’s do it.

Leah: Okay. Let’s see if we can do this. Okay.

Steven: Nice. It’s all yours, my friend.

Leah: Excellent. Well, thank you, Steven, and thank you, all of you. Look at this, six hundred and . . . I shouldn’t look at the numbers, 630 of you and growing. So, you know, a couple things as I get started. First of all, this is a brand-new presentation. I’ve never done it before. So you folks get to be my guinea pigs, and I will so look forward to the feedback. And naturally, because it’s my first time presenting this in this way, there are actually 19 tips, and so you get a bonus one. And, also, I’ve put a whole bunch of things under one tip because it was like 25 tips. So, anyway, there’s lots of tips.

Note at the bottom here, and this will be like every second or third slide, I have it down at the bottom, there’s a link to a couple of handouts for you. One is a checklist, a copywriting checklist, that covers a lot of what we’re talking about today. So it’s something you can post stuff on your bulletin board. The other thing I’m sharing through that link is my list of interview questions that I’ve been using for years and improving on slowly but surely. So you can receive both those things at that link. I tried to make it a link that’s easy to remember. But don’t worry. I suspect I’ve just lost half of you over to your web browser. But you will see that link showing up here and there as we go along.

So who am I? Well, that was a pretty amazing introduction by Steven. So I won’t talk too much about myself, other than saying when I was little, I had a rich imagination. I lived in a rich fantasy world and loved fiction, loved to read, loved to write. I always dreamed of growing up and being a writer. And then, real life kind of got in the way, and I ended up . . . I’ve been in fundraising more than 25 years, the first half of my career as a practitioner doing a lot of my own copywriting while trying to juggle a million other things, and as a consultant for the last 15 years or so. And in a way, I’ve kind of come full circle. So I now spend most of my days writing and writing about the things that I really care about, which is philanthropy and human kindness.

So it occurred to me not that long ago that, you know, I’ve been doing this forever, and there are certain tips and tricks that I use and put into practice that really can make or break, whether it’s an appeal or a stewardship piece. And I thought it was about time I just put all of that stuff together because it doesn’t do much good when it’s sitting in my head. I want to share it out, the things I’ve learned that can help with your connection to your donors. So it will be a little fast and furious, but here we go.

So, basically, what we want to do is look at a way to stand out from all the noise. And by noise, I mean, that huge amount of marketing clutter that’s out there. Back in the 1970s, they estimated that a human being, a person, you, would see about [inaudible 00:06:20] a day. And the last time that was measured, it was like 5,000 or 10,000. So we’re just being bombarded, and we want to always be looking for ways to stand out, to be a little bit different, to be a little more memorable, to be a little more impactful.

So let’s get going. Number one tip. Always remember that we give from our hearts, not our heads. We give when our heart’s engaged. Think back, if I were to ask you what your favorite charity is, the one that you care about the most, not including your own, or maybe it is yours, you likely have some kind of emotional connection to that cause. It’s probably not a fully logical decision-making process that you’ve gone through to pick that particular charity. And one of the ways that we engage people’s emotions is by focusing on the why and the who of our work, rather than the how or the what. The why and the who are the ways to pull in our hearts and make us feel things. The how and the what make us start to think up in our brains. Our brain kicks in, the more logical side, and that’s not where giving decisions come from. They come from the heart. They come from that place where we’ve been touched.

So, you know, how do we do this really practically? Well, we need to focus on inspiring our donors, the readers of our communications, telling them about our hopes and dreams, the hopes and dreams of the people who serve, and also, demonstrate to them what’s been accomplished thanks to them with them at the center of every story.

I really like this quote of Simon Sinek’s. He has got this wonderful book, “Finding Your Why.” He’s got a . . . All his books are wonderful, but it’s a recommended read for you, for sure. And he says, “By why I mean: What’s your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief? Why does your organization exist?” That one line I should highlight. “Why do you get out of bed in the morning? And why should anyone care?” This is what you want to be focusing on in your copywriting.

Tip number two is knowing your audience. This took me a long time to figure out. And I continue to dig deeper and deeper into this. So what I mean by this is getting a real true understanding of who it is you’re communicating with. What kind of a person are they? They’re likely not a reflection of you yourself. They’re very likely maybe a little older. They are, in fact, you know, all sorts of studies show that the average direct mail audience is well into their 70s. And we have to remember that as we’re doing our writing that we’re not writing for ourselves. We’re writing for our audience.

Another great quote, John Steinbeck’s. So, “If a story’s not about the hearer, he or she will not listen . . . A great and lasting story is about everyone or it will not last. The strange and foreign is not interesting — only the deeply personal and familiar.” And without knowing your audience, how on Earth do you create an audience that includes them, that’s about them? That is about how they can make a change in the world.

So one of the things I would start with, as I am working on some kind of new project, is doing a really good, hard think about who that audience is really specifically. And often, I will come up with a primary audience and then second and third and fourth. And I focus in on that primary audience. It’s never the general public. You know, it may be a certain audience that you are sending a prospect appeal to. It might be a very different audience who you’re sending legacy materials to. So build those profiles, think through what it is they like. You can figure that out a bit by their past giving history. What keeps them up at night? What are their worries and fears and their pain points? And what lights them up? What gets them exited? And what do they identify with?

So I’m currently just finishing up, in fact, my final paper’s due next week, the certificate in philanthropic psychology, which is being presented by Jen Shang, Dr. Jen Shang, and a fantastic program. And I’ve learned so much through this about the concept of identities. So determining what identities are the strongest for someone. So, for someone like me, and probably most Canadians, we’re fiercely proud, kind of this quiet pride, about being Canadian. It’s definitely part of our identity.

But also, a big part of my identity is nature. I’m happiest out in the woods. My company is named after my actual blue canoe. So knowing those things about me would help you speak to me really directly. And I’m going to give you a specific example of this. So this is an appeal I wrote. This isn’t the final copy, but, you know, as I was drafting this up. This is according to, you know philanthropic psychology and really touching on those identities that people hold dear. We want them to read something and say, “Hey, that’s me. Yep, this is speaking directly to me.”

So you can see that in many ways here. “Because you’re such a kind and caring supporter,” those two words, kind and caring, I try to include in everything I write because Jen Shang’s research shows that those two words, just those two words, can produce response. Then I go on. “Like me, you’ve probably felt you’re on a roller coaster.” Yeah, I have felt that. Wow. It sounds like you know me. “Faced with something we’ve never had to face before, we’re going through anger, sadness, anxiety and fears.” Yeah, me too.

“But you understand that everyone on Earth is in this together. And as someone who deeply cares about others.” Yeah, that’s me, or at least that’s who I want to be. “You’re wondering how you can help, and I mean really help.” This is really grabby to the reader because it sounds just like them. It absolutely sounds like me. I feel myself getting a little revved up as I read this. Yeah, this is me. I am the good person. What can I do to help?

Now, here’s another one. I don’t know if John Lepp’s on the line, but he and I have been working on this together for Agents of Good. It’s at the publication stage. So I’m not telling you who this organization is. But I just thought another really good example of speaking to people’s identities. So, “You’re part of a special group of people. When you see someone in pain, broken, and suffering, you do something about it. And your caring and compassionate support . . . ” I’m using those key words there, “have saved so many lives. Entire families are gaining skills and knowledge thanks to you.” Very focused on the donor. Simple language. Lots of use of the word “you.”

Speaking of you, my tip number three. It’s not actually about you. So what I’m saying here is that we tend to forget that donors are giving through us, not to us. And by us, I mean our organization or our institution. You’re just like the conduit. You’re like the red it looks like a Beetle here that’s going to get them to the place they actually want to be. So you’re kind of the custodian, temporary custodian, of their philanthropic dreams. And we have to remember that. I see so much fundraising and nonprofit writing where it’s completely focused on the institution. It’s about bricks and mortar, putting up a new building, or expanding the emergency department, that kind of thing, when, in actual fact, what the donor cares about is the impact of that. So, if you expand the emergency room, what does that mean for me the next time I come in those front doors? We need to skip that middle part, skip the institutional speak and the institution-focused and jump straight to the cause.

We want donors to understand that they’re really making a difference in the thing they care about, not putting bricks together in a building because, after all, good fundraising is really never about or never just about the money. I put this up on LinkedIn, and people edited it for me. I thought it as actually quite good. It’s not just about the money. It’s all about the desire to improve our communities or the world or those things we care about for the better.

Another example is how you can put together the words that really indicate your understanding that people are giving through you, not to you. So you can see here I actually wrote it straight-out. “We recognize you’re not giving to us. You’re giving through us to make a difference in the lives of vulnerable people. We’re committed to being accountable and good stewards of your money. You can trust us. We’re simply the temporary custodians of the change you want to see in the world, a change from hopelessness to hope and from despair to joy.” Pretty powerful stuff, and very different from what you might typically see in, you know, whether it’s financial statements or what have you. This is like a donor commitment that you can trust, and that this organization understands that they are just the conduit.

Okay, this is the one where I put like 10 tips into 1. So bear with me because I can talk about telling stories for an entire week. So my challenge will be to keep it short and snappy. So the organizations that are best at fundraising are the ones who tell the best stories. Stories are absolutely our superpowers. They are unique ours. Nobody shares your exact stories. You know, I know we’ve all heard this so many times, the power of stories, but I still continue to see a lot of nonprofit communications that are not story focused. So I’m going to run through a few of my story-specific tips that will help you really improve your writing.

First, you need to understand that stories are integral to who we are. They help us understand the world, make sense of our lives, plan our futures. We remember stories and share stories. We don’t do the same with facts and stats. They hold our attention. Just think of . . . Well, if you’re like me and you probably . . . some of you and some of you aren’t. If I get into a really good novel, I will have my nose in it, look up, and it’s 4:00 a.m. It completely transports me. It holds my attention like with a big strong grip.

And stories bring our causes to life. They lead to powerful fundraising, but they also work. And there’s certain ways that they work. And really, at the end of the day, a story is really powerful in fundraising because it is touching your heart. A story speaks to your heart, not your head. And we want people to feel emotionally, to feel something. That’s what’s going to compel them to make that decision to give. They may justify it logically later, but that story is what’s going to be the hook for them.

Focus on the story of one. I was so glad I actually got, now, I think it’s Amber. Sorry, I don’t have it in front of me, Amber, think it was you, who actually sent me a question in advance. And it was so exactly what I was going to talk about, that I was pretty thrilled. So storytelling. Great. Yeah, tell more stories, but we need to tell our stories well. You know, you’re not going to knock your fundraising goal out of the park if you’re sending out a poorly-told story.

So one of my big tips is to focus on the story of one person or one thing. I like the one thing because I’ve spent many years as the director of development for environmental groups. So the story of one might be the story of a tree, or a river, but it’s still focused in on one story.

I’ll take you back, just to illustrate this, I’ve got a few examples. Take you back in time. So way back in 2011, so that’s almost 10 years ago now, is when the conflict in Syria really, really started to elevate. Severe human rights violations, massacres. There was a major refugee crisis. People were being displaced all over. But back in 2011, it was barely in the news. At the time, I was doing some work with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. And we were sending out appeals focused on Syria, and they bombed. Sorry, that’s a terrible use of a word, but they did not do well. The response rates were not that great, which, yeah, why so many people are being impacted by this, just hundreds of thousands. Why did people not care? Why was it not in the news? Well, it needed a story.

So this is four years after the conflict began. You all know these series of photos well. Suddenly, the crisis became relatable because of this poor little boy. Everything you need to know about storytelling happened over that five-year period. Big numbers, a big problem somewhere far away just . . . It causes what we call . . . We call is psychic numbing. We just turn off. We disengage whereas suddenly, this story of this one little guy, I know, certainly, up here in Canada, there was a huge response. The money started flowing into the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Everybody wanted to help. Families started sponsoring Syrian families to come and join us here in Canada. We had a huge number of families come over, and they continue to. And it was really, all of this happened because of that one story.

I think we can also relate this to the current pandemic. So think about when COVID-19 first came onto your radar screen. I’m going to guess somewhere towards the end of January, maybe the early part of February is when we were sort of aware that it was going on far away, really far away to people we didn’t know. And it really wasn’t until we started to know people who were catching this or, you know, the friend of the friend. Suddenly, it became relatable to us. It became something we could possibly get. And that’s when really we started doing something about it here in North America, isn’t it? And I think it really took it becoming more relatable to our context really and our experience.

So there’s been so much research done on this. Paul Slovic is someone to look up who has done a lot of work in this area. Debra [Small 00:23:23], and quite a few others, have looked at why is it when there’s a huge problem to solve like the crisis in Syria, like world hunger, why can’t we capture people’s attention and get people to do something about it? So they’ve done a whole bunch of studies, and I’ll try to summarize them pretty quickly.

But they divided people into three different groups or study subjects. And one group heard about . . . These were people standing in place of donors. So one group heard about hunger and malnutrition in Africa. So a big problem, tens of millions of people affected. Please give now. The second group heard about that same context. You know, here are the stats, and then here’s one little girl, a seven-year-old girl who is malnourished and hungry. So it was that individual story, but kind of with context around it. And then the third group just heard the story of the little girl, nothing else to it, no stats, no facts, just the story of that one little girl. And the people in the group with just that singular story gave twice as much as the other two groups.

Another example from the same . . . kind of a group of researchers who look at kind of the science of giving, so divided into two groups. One group was told they could contribute to a $300,000 fund for medical treatments that would save the life of one child. The other group, exactly the same, $300,000 fund for medical treatments, but it would actually save eight children, which I can’t do on my hands. So save one child or save eight with the same amount of money? People gave twice as much to save one kid than they did to eight. So this is a big, big tip. It’s hard to do, especially when we’re inside our organizations, and we’re just surrounded by the facts and figures. It’s really hard to do, and it’s hard to convince others at your organization. But telling the story of one person without much context, unless you can do it in narrative form, will almost always do better than when you try to present everything but the kitchen sink.

This is another of my favorite tips. We’re more sensitive to loss than to gain. So, in other words, people will give more money to someone or a family who’s lost their house in a fire than to someone who’s been hungry all their life. Do you see what I mean? So this family’s gone from living in their lovely house, a fire, suddenly they’re homeless whereas someone who’s been hungry all their life, they have not gone through a change of state. They have not lost something really tangible and in the recent past. So, think about, as you’re pulling together the stories you’re going to tell, think of ways you could present it as a loss, a change in state, as opposed to a gain, so adding something on. I hope that makes sense, and I’m happy to provide other examples of how you might do that once we get to the questions at the end.

This is me. I know, right? You know, I have to be comfortable in my own skin to share a picture of me in my brown corduroy, wide-leg pants, a brown sweater. It was I wore everything brown for a while there. In this photo, I’m 13 years old roller skating on the street. I won’t even tell you how long ago that is, but I have mostly white hair now. Write at a grade seven level is my tip number seven, you know somewhere between grade six and eight. So studies have actually shown that writing at that grade level increases response. And why is that? Again, it’s something hard to do, and you get a lot of push-back. But we want to be writing in such a way that the reader feels the story rather than has to think it through logically.

So I call those speed bumps. When they come across a complicated word or some jargon or an acronym that they don’t understand or a super long sentence, those create speed bumps that force their brain to enter into the equation, and we don’t want that. We want them to feel and react emotionally. There’s lots of ways you can figure out your grade level. One of my favorite online apps is the Hemmingway app, hemmingwayapp.com, I think, where you can paste in your text, paste in your copy, and it will tell you the grade level. It will show you ways that you can simplify your copy. It’s a great free resource.

So we’re still on the lines of writing. What does, you know, writing at a grade seven look like? It means short sentences, short paragraphs, and you’re writing like you speak. You are probably going to ignore the rules of grammar. So I am all the time starting sentences with and or but. And it’s because I’m writing as though I was having a conversation. Lots of white space. you want it to be really easy to read, whatever format it is in, whether it’s a tweet or a six-page letter.

My other tip is so often out there, I see organizations where every single piece of communication is signed by the executive director. And so I encourage you to mix it up. Donors like to be surprised and delighted. And so hearing different points of view over the course of a year is really going to get you some good results and deep engagement. So think about other stories you can tell. The story of how you were founded, a story from a donor, a story from the point of view of a beneficiary, a story about impact, your vision for the future. Often, that’s like a board chair or something.

Inanimate object stories. So I’ve written letters that were signed by tables. There’s all sorts of examples out there of . . . And the table one I’ll share with you shortly. There’s all sorts of examples out there of telling amazing stories from unusual sources. You can tell a story from the perspective of a tree, if you’re an environmental group. The idea is to get creative.

And part of how you’re going to get this is I will never write any copy unless I have a chance to get the person on the phone who is the signatory for it or whose voice it’s coming from. I can read background documents until I’m blue in the face, but I am not going to get the emotional kind of heart-wrenching, deep content, unless I absolutely speak to the person. Lots of, I think, you know, interviewing techniques and story-gathering tips for your interviews is probably a whole other session. But in that little link I provided, you can download the questions, my standard list of questions I tend to ask when I’m interviewing people in order to write their story or write a letter from their perspective or, you know, a video, or whatever the case may be.

Social proof. So those of you who have heard me speak before, I talk about this all the time, and I almost always use this visual because it just is so powerful. So social proof. We look to the actions of others to guide our own actions. So we’re not even aware we do this. It’s completely within our subconscious. So this graphic is just such a great example. This is with heat mapping, so tracking where people’s eyes go and stay. So the more red, the longer their attention is pointed at that object, the longer their eyes are focused on that. So, if you look on the left, you see this little baby is looking out at us. And so we look back at the baby, and we don’t spend much time on anything else on that page. But look what happens if that baby’s just turned a bit and looking at the text. Believe it or not, we’re allowing our action and what we read to be guided by a tiny baby who probably doesn’t even speak a word. But that baby is guiding us up to where we want to actually focus the attention because at the end of the day, we need to sell diapers.

In legacy giving, this can be particularly powerful. So this is a study. This was done quite a number of years ago now. It’s through an organization in the UK that helps write wills for folks. And their baseline was that 4.9% of all the wills they helped write had bequests intentioned within them. But they then did the study where they changed up the language a little bit. So first was the plain ask. Would you like to leave any money to charity in your will? So that baseline is unprompted, 4.9. Simply asking the question doubles the number of people who are leaving a bequest in their will. But look what happens when we start to use a bit of social proof there on the right. Many of our customers like to leave money to charity in their will. Are there any causes you’re passionate about? Look what happened, 15.4%. And this is not a logical thought process. But if we’re told someone else has done something, we’re more likely to do the same.

Think of, you know, if you’re standing at a street corner and suddenly someone starts looking up at the sky, we all look at the sky. That’s social proof in action or if you’re looking up a recipe online . . . I did this yesterday. I made sour dough, finally successfully. And I looked for top reviews of the recipe, and then quantity of reviews. Now, it’s all about the social proof. Hey, if all these people like it, I’m probably going to like it too. This is a piece that I worked on. It was actually a whole campaign with various materials for ACLU that I worked in partnership with Blakely up here in Canada on. They do lots of great work.

And I had the honor and privilege of doing this bit of writing for the ACLU. And here, we’ve brought in the idea of social proof by taking a rather ordinary legacy donor, someone just like you or I, who believes in the same things we do as an ACLU supporter, and she becomes the hero of the story. I particularly loved how Blakely worked. So this was a document that kind of folded together. And when it folded together, you got this dual face. So the Statue of Liberty on one side, and Judi there on the other. So using testimonials, having stories told by your donors all can contribute to social proof or even simply saying, “Every day, donors just like you do X.” Even if it’s as simple as that, try to incorporate it into your messaging.

Anchoring, another of my favorite topics because it’s so powerful. And this is something the for-profit sector for sure figured out way ahead of us. So what does it mean to set an anchor? Essentially, this is our tendency to have our actions guided by the first thing we see or hear or read. So whether it’s the first number, whether it’s a photo, whether it’s a sentence, whatever comes into us first will stick with us and actually impact on our subsequent decision-making. This is a really powerful kind of overview of how this works.

So, if you have people think about the last two digits of their Social Security number, their social insurance number, whatever the number is, in your case in the country you are in, so, you know, this green person on the left, the last two digits are 11. The blue person on the right, the last two digits are 99. They’ve both been asked, “Now, how much would you pay for this wine, if you were to bid for it?” And look what happens. So the green person has anchored the number 11 in their head, and so is willing to pay $30 for a bottle of wine. The blue person has anchored $99, and so is willing to pay a whole lot more because $80 seems less expensive. The $99 has been their anchor.

So, as you’re putting your communications together, think about all of the anchors you’re putting into place. So what photo is setting the mood? What line of text, what words? Certainly, for numbers, on reply forms and so on, setting that financial anchor, that number can really be pretty influential. So think about all the times that the recipient of your copy, so whether it’s a mailing or an email, think of all the times that they’re picking up something that’s becoming anchored, and be very thoughtful about what it is that you put there.

I’ve done this in . . . back when we used to actually meet people in real life. I’ve done this experiment with groups of funders just in a room. And what I do is I’ve got this made-up foundation that I’m raising money for. And I will pass out this little coupon with three different gift matrices you can see down at the bottom. So the one you see in the picture is $25, $40, $75. Some people will get one that just says dollar figure with a line. Others will get $250, $500, $1,000.

And then, I gather them all up at the end and find out the average gift. And look what happens. And this is almost always true, even in the studies that are more controlled, so I’m not lying. An open ask will fall somewhere in the middle of the average gift, which we know of a lower ask and a higher ask. Now, of course, you also want to tie this to their history of giving. So, by setting out a coupon that asks for $5,000, your response rate’s going to be very low. Your average gift will be high like this, but your response rate will be low. So it’s finding that balance. But that shows you how influential the numbers are, that anchor can be in the subsequent decision-making.

So, in thinking about your anchor, you know, look at some of the heat maps that have been done. And probably, you folks have good examples of this, as well. We tend to read web copying in an F shape, the last time I checked. And so I’m always very careful to ensure that the anchors that are in those red spots are pretty solid. There’s the F shape for you a little more. And then, I would love it if someone would find a more recent example than this. But this is the one that all the copywriters kind of go with in terms of what people read and how they read a direct a mail piece.

And they look first at the upper right. They’ll then go down to number two is, you know, did they spell my name right? They then go down to see if you signed the letter and read the P.S. And if, by some remote chance, you still have their attention, they’ll go in and read the letter. So think about the anchors you put in place here and the messaging you put in place here. That spot number one is often an empty little spot in your letter, or it has a date. Think about putting a photo or what they call a Johnson box, so some text that you’re pulling out, something powerful there that will keep the reader reading, keep them from throwing it in the recycle bin.

So using a voice of authority for 11. Using a voice of authority can be pretty powerful, as well. We subconsciously feel a sense of duty or obligation to people in positions of authority. Going back to the audience, the tip about knowing your audience, this depends a bit on audience. So I think about, you know, a typical direct mail donor who’s in their late 70s or 80s will have a stronger tie to authority or a sense of respect for authority than someone in their 20s or 30s. It’s just a generational change we’re seeing. So including that voice of authority here and there can be pretty effective, especially if you’re doing something a little more whimsical.

Now, I should have warned her I was going to do this, but . . . Oh, I put this in the wrong spot. This was meant to go with the anchoring. That’s all right. Carol is a good friend of mine, and some of you on this call will know this story, I think. She said this to me once, and I thought it was pretty powerful. “When I was 13 years old, I asked my mother if I was pretty. She answered, ‘Don’t be ridiculous . . . of course, you are.’ For a very long time, I only remembered the first part.” Talk about the power of an anchor and how words that we flippantly send out can have such an impact.

Okay. Back to where we were. Sorry about that. I can fix that in the slide deck that goes out. Back to that voice of authority. So this is an organization up here in Canada that I do some writing for, House of Friendship. And they have so many amazing stories to tell. And they do so much good work in the community. And they’re also . . . They’re dealing with a really vulnerable population, you know, homelessness, addictions. There’s a lot of stories they have that are hard to tell or require some privacy, that sort of thing.

So what we had put out there was, this is actually a letter signed by one of their tables in one of the community centers. And by telling the story from the table’s perspective, we can pull in all sorts of different aspects of their work because the table could say, “You know, in my typical day, the kids are sitting around with me in the morning getting their breakfast before they head to school. Then, at lunchtime, someone who is experiencing homelessness comes in and shares a bowl of soup with me.”

So we touch on a lot of different things but it was also pretty whimsical and unusual for this organization, in particular. They’ve never done anything like this before. So we also included a note from the executive director who’s very well-known to the community, is an amazing man. And by having a little note from him, it builds trust and kind of balances on that whimsy. So, you know, he’s explaining about why we’re writing to you at this time of year. They’ve never done it before and gives it a bit of that voice of authority. And, you know, it worked very well, that the appeal worked very well.

Here’s another one. Limit the scope of the problem. So this is tip number 12. People don’t scale up their efforts in proportion to a problem’s true size. We have a tendency . . . This goes back a bit to the story of one, I guess. Maybe I could have wrapped them together. But we have a tendency to neglect the huge scope of a problem when we’re dealing with social issues. So we don’t scale up our efforts or give more in proportion to the problem’s true size at all. So a donor might be willing to give a hundred dollars to help one person. But if they’re helping a hundred people, they might only give $150 or $200. You see, the proportion doesn’t match. So think about that in your communications. Limit the scope of the problem. It goes back to the story of one and how powerful that is. Once you put stats and figures and talk about how huge of an issue this is, people are not going to scale up their gift in response to that. It’s that individual story that’s really going to make the difference.

So here’s an example. This is an organization up here in Canada, Cuso International, that I do a lot of writing for, again, in partnership with Blakely up here. Blakely’s a great agency. And here, you can see, I mean, women dying in childbirth is a big, big issue. Newborns dying during childbirth, a big, big issue. So, if you look at this, this is how I’ve scaled the problem to feel manageable. I could talk about the 20,000, 30,000, 50,000 women who need your help, but I don’t. I’m talking about Hélène, the midwife, needing your help. How many women are going into a risky labor this year? It doesn’t really matter because one died while we took the time to read this email. And guess what? You, dear reader, are the hero of this story. You can help Hélène and prevent that one death that happened while you were reading this letter. So I’ve taken a huge problem and kind of create a bite-sized chunk out of it.

Also, related to this, tip number 13, avoid asking for a drop in the bucket. So people are reluctant to help when they feel their impact’s not going to be significant. Focusing on the size of the problem, again, it’s ineffective. People prefer to give to causes where they can save the highest proportion of people or things. So, you know, rather than save a hundred out of a thousand people who have malaria, people would rather use the same resources to save one life, honestly. It’s not logical, but it’s how our brains work.

Scarcity works too in your copy. Tip number 14, we place a higher value on an object that’s scarce and a lower value on those that are abundant. So an interesting study done here is around a help wanted ad. So a help wanted ad went out, and in one case it talked about this unlimited jobs available. The other one was a limited number of jobs. And people reading those ads put much higher trust in the help wanted ad where there were a limited number of positions. They had the sense they would pay more, that it was a better-run organization, all sorts of things that don’t make logical sense. So think about how you can use that in your copywriting, as well. So, you know, if you’re communicating with a potential sponsor, talking about a limited number of sponsorships available, that sort of thing. Be creative with it, and think of ways you can make this seem like a limited time opportunity.

And reciprocity works, tip number 15. If we’re given something, we’re likely to give back. The really obvious way this works is when we send out stuff like address labels and stuff in our direct mail packages, and we get a higher response. We’re guilty people. And, you know, subconsciously, they’re like, “Well, I’m getting a gift. I should give back.” But there’s other ways you can use this. And we’ll see how this goes.

I want to show you a video. It’s about two and a half minutes long. And it’s one where I did the script writing for but was produced by Mission Fundraising here in Canada, who are amazing. And what I want you to observe is, first of all, how few words it takes to tell a story. And, also, think about this concept of reciprocity. So, when we are given something, are we more likely to give back? Okay. And I also have to unplug for a second while I do this, we discovered. So, Steven, you jump in if it’s . . .

Steven: [inaudible 00:50:11].


I wish I could swim like dolphins like dolphins can swim.
Though nothing will keep us together
We can beat them forever and ever.
Oh, we can be heroes just for one day.
Oh, we can be heroes just for one day.
Though nothing will drive us away.
We can be heroes
Oh, we can be heroes just for one day.
I, I can remember standing, standing by the wall.
[inaudible 00:52:34]

Man: These are heroes are putting their lives at risk every day to take care of you, your loved ones, and your neighbors. Despite the risk, they’re delivering life, treating cancer patients, and carrying on with the essential health needs of our community, all while dealing with the pandemic. Please, join us in honoring these very-day heroes. Your gift today will help us help them. Thank you for being a hero for our heroes.

Leah: Again, I absolutely love how that turned out. It gives me shivers every time. And it’s such a perfect example of how reciprocity works. We are all desperate to give back to our frontline workers, our first responders. They’re doing so much for us that it’s hard to know how to help. Some of us are making masks. We’re making donations. But that is such a great example of reciprocity, what’s happening with the frontline workers right now who are putting their lives at risk for us. Of course, we want to give back.

Okay. Now, I’m all choked up. I will stop. It happens. All right. So tip number 16, I’ll go through the last pretty quickly here. This was a bit of an aha moment for me coming from Jen Shang and her work in philanthropic psychology, that newer donors don’t see themselves as donors. They see themselves as having made a donation whereas loyal donors see themselves as your donor.

So what does that mean exactly? Think about thank you letter copy. Newer donors, you should be thanking them for their donation and talking about the difference their donation made. Loyal donors, you should be thanking them for being a donor and talking about them as the hero of your story. Do you see that subtle difference there? It’s actually pretty important when it comes to stewardship. This comes up three times a week for me. Longer letters work better than shorter letters. I’ll just say it right now. But really, you want to write as long as it takes. It’s very hard to tell a really compelling story in direct mail in two paragraphs. It’s impossible, in fact. Longer tends to work better.

But you write to the length of the story rather than this, you know, notion of things that need to be short and snappy or whatever. And we have to remember, again, our audience is not ourselves. So we might really dislike long letters. But our donors love them. And I would say, I don’t know, Steven might have some research on this, but I would say that longer letters might be working particularly well right now because people actually have the time to read through their mail and they’re at home and you’re in their mailbox. It’s different when it comes to email copy. And so long where short and snappy tends to work better. But really, write as long as it takes to tell you story.

And I’m skipping . . . This is actually tip number 18. See, a new presentation. I’m already finding ways to improve it. Think about how the story will be used, and think of all the different ways it can used. So I’ll often be speaking with an organization, and they’ll say, “Well, you know, we can’t do that because we told that story three years ago in our direct mail.” And I say, “Great. All the more reason to use it again.” Repetition will actually cause us to pay more attention. So, if the story starts to become a little bit familiar, your donor’s not going to remember where they heard it before. So repeat your stories, and use them in many different ways and formats. If you have a really good story, just use it. You’ll be so tired of that story just as your donors are waking up and starting to hear it. How did I do? Oh, we have three minutes, three minutes for questions.

Steven: Wow. Well, there was a bonus tip. There were 19. That was awesome.

Leah: It was actually 18. I misnumbered them.

Steven: Oh, gall dang it. I wasn’t paying close enough attention. I feel bad.

Leah: Exactly. It was a test. It was a test where . . .

Steven: You got me, for sure.

Leah: . . . I’m practicing in perfection.

Steven: That was awesome. That ACLU ad, Leah, there was a moment where you advanced the slide, and there was like one or two seconds before you started talking. And that thing just sucked me in. I had never seen that, but that was awesome. I didn’t know you and Blakely did that one. That was . . .

Leah: Yeah. Well, and, you know, I should get back to Blakely. They probably have a better rendering of it because, you know, the format was really powerful, and it was multiple components. But they do presentations about that campaign.

Steven: I loved it. I’ll have to reach out to [Maven 00:57:32] on that. That’s awesome.

Leah: It was a huge honor to work on that. You know, many of us Canadians look highly upon the ACLU and all the good work they do. And we even give across the border.

Steven: Wow.

Leah: So that was a very special thing to work on. Yeah.

Steven: Yeah. You all do great work. This was awesome, Leah. I know there was a lot of good stuff in here. Are you cool to answer just a couple questions before, you know, the three o’clock hour?

Leah: Yeah, I’ve got something else, but not for 15 minutes.

Steven: I won’t keep you too much longer because you’ve got the contact info there.

Leah: Okay, that’s the good [part 00:58:04]. I’ve got a good question about the Oxford comma. That’s a good question.

Steven: Yeah, I was curious. Are you pro or anti-Oxford comma?

Leah: I am pro-Oxford comma, but I always write . . . Because I’m a contract writer, I write to the preference of the organizations. That’s why you’re going to see a bit of everything.

Steven: That’s good.

Leah: And I also, despite being a copywriter, when you’re a copywriter, you often miss your own mistakes. So I make good use of a professional proofreader with most of my stuff because they will catch the things like that where I get inconsistent.

Steven: That’s good. Everyone needs a little help. I mean, that’s okay. Our buddy, Laura, was wondering if for . . . It was during the grade level thing where you mentioned the seventh-grade level as the sweet spot.

Leah: Oh, yeah.

Steven: She is working with an education organization it sounded like. How do you kind of balance that if maybe your organization is very perhaps very literary or maybe higher-ed and they don’t want to necessarily not dumb down the language because that doesn’t always equate to a lower grade level or does it? I mean, I’m not sure, but is there a way to kind of balance the brand voice when you do want to hit that sweet spot?

Leah: Oh, yeah. That’s another session for another day. I always go with what will bring in the best response and the best engagement with a donor. And I lead with that sometimes the organization gets in the way of itself. And so, yes, I hear it all the time. “Yeah, but our donors are different. They’re more sophisticated. They’re better educated.” And it has nothing to do with that. It’s about comprehension and getting your messages to stick. So, if you can go back, and I’ll use Obama as an example, who wrote . . . All of his speeches were at about a grade eight level. And I can still remember little snippets of it. And you can think about the great speakers who speak at that grade level, and you remember what they said because you didn’t have to think about it. You can get stuck and hit a speed bump. So it’s more about that than education level.

Steven: Got it. A couple of folks in here were wondering if any of this applies to grant writing, if there’s a translation there. And I know grant writing isn’t a big focus for either of us, but it seems like a lot of it would translate or am I wrong?

Leah: Well, I think we want to remember that there are human beings at the other end of our grant proposal. So as much as we can do to incorporate some of this, the better. At the same time, you’ve got to fill in the boxes and checks and balances and so on. You probably know Diane Leonard . . .

Steven: Yeah.

Leah: . . . who is a grant writer.

Steven: She’s awesome.

Leah: And she does a lot of speaking on storytelling for grant writing. So she’d be a good one to look up. And she’s very generous with her time and expertise and knows grant writing inside out.

Steven: Yeah. Yeah, we’ve had her on the webinar series. If you Google Diane Leonard and Bloomerang, you’ll see some of those recordings. She’s really fabulous. A couple of people, Leah, asked about the interviews. You mentioned that you like to interview folks before you sort of start to write maybe from their perspective or for the organization. Can you talk a little bit about the questions and the conversations that you would have? Is there kind of a sample, you know, stock questions you like to ask? Do you like to keep it pretty organic or fluid or somewhere in between maybe?

Leah: I do a combination. So, if you check out my bit.ly link down at the bottom there with the checklist, you’ll get a copy of my standard list of questions. So, in fact, I’m doing an interview. That’s what I have at 3:15. And so the way I prepare for that is, first of all, even though I’ve done thousands of these, I always have my questions written down. I’ve always read all the background. And I explain to the person who I’m interviewing, I said, “I want to bring you into the story. If I’m writing from your point of view, I want to bring in your personality into it. And I want to hear how you talk about these things.” So I’ll get them to share, for example, and this applies to even the person that I’m interviewing the head fundraiser at an organization. But one of the things that I’ll ask her is, “Tell me about your connection to this institution. And, more importantly, tell me about that pivotal moment when you suddenly went all in. Your heart was engaged with this work.”

Steven: Wow.

Leah: And I’ll end up with amazing stuff. And it’s open-ended questions. I mean, there’s a technique to it. Open-ended questions, and I’m hardly talking at all. There’s lots of pauses where I let them fill in the gap. And yeah, I mean, that would actually be an interesting webinar just taking about how do you pull that amazing stuff out.

You also have to be comfortable with kind of stepping into the uncomfortable or leaning into the uncomfortable. And I set that up by right at the beginning saying, “If I ask any questions that are uncomfortable and you’d rather not answer, just tell me.” And that gives me permission to ask those questions. I don’t think I’ve ever had someone say, “Stop. I don’t want to talk about that.” I’ve often had them share something, and then say, “Wow. I’ve never told anyone that before.”

Steven: I believe it. Well, I know you’ve got to run to your next call in about 10 minutes. And you’ve already been so gracious with your time. And I know we didn’t get to all the questions. But are you cool maybe taking emails later on?

Leah: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. So my email address is there, for sure, or tweet me.

Steven: Yeah, a good Twitter follow too.

Leah: Yeah. Yeah. And I’d be happy, and maybe, I don’t know, Steven. If you’re able to save the text chat and send me the questions, I’m happy to get back to . . .

Steven: Yes.

Leah: . . . people one-on-one, as well.

Steven: I will do that. And definitely, get that checklist. And we’ll send that link out. We’ll send all the stuff with slides, recording. We’ll send that video. There’s a couple handouts Leah gave to me to send to all of you guys. We’ll send that out, for sure. But this is awesome, Leah.

Leah: That’s good.

Steven: This is a nice way to almost end my week. It’s Thursday afternoon. But this is a highlight, for sure.

Leah: Good. And I do encourage everyone to please fill in an evaluation and give me some feedback because, you know, there’s always room for improvement, like get my numbering straight.

Steven: That’s okay. We’ll let it pass this time, Leah. But I’ll keep it under consideration when we have you back . . .

Leah: Thank you.

Steven: . . . that there was one small error and, you know, awesome slides. No worries at all.

Leah: Great. Okay.

Steven: This is great.

Leah: I loved sharing mine, so thanks.

Steven: Well, I hope all of you enjoyed this. I know I did. Thanks for being here. We had it looks like almost 900 people I think at the height.

Leah: Wow.

Steven: It’s awesome to see so many folks. We’ve got a webinar coming up on Tuesday. I think the presenter was here with us. Our buddy, Ligia, is going to be talking about legacy fundraising. She’s one of my go-to’s for all things legacy. Check that one out, Tuesday afternoon, 1:00 p.m. Eastern. She’s awesome. She did a webinar for us a couple of weeks ago, and this one is kind of a follow-up to it. It’s going to be good. Even if legacy is new to you, I think you’ll still get a lot of good stuff out of it. So, if you can join us next Tuesday, please do. We’d love to see you again. If not, check out our webinar page. We’ve got lots of great sessions coming up. And we always love seeing a full room.

So we’ll call it a day there. Look for an email from me with all the goodies, and hopefully, we’ll see you again next week. So, have a good rest of your Thursday. Have a good weekend. Have a good Memorial Day weekend, if you are in the States. Stay healthy, stay warm, and we’ll talk again soon. See you.

Author information

Kristen Hay

Kristen Hay

Marketing Manager at Bloomerang

Kristen Hay is the Marketing Manager at Bloomerang. She also serves as the Director of Communications for PRSA’s Hoosier chapter.

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