Grandma Craver frequently warned, “Enough is enough. Too much will make a dog sick.” Her way of indicating the downside of overdoing things.
That’s exactly the point of Kevin’s post, Give Donors a Chance to Listen to the Silence noting the decrease in response rates as the number of mailings a prospect receives increase. Kevin concludes: when the number reaches 5 or more, it’s best to “let them rest.”
What’s the best way, whether you’re a political, advocacy or charitable organization to meet what Kevin calls “the desperate call for silence” and give your donors a rest.
We’ve written extensively about the need to pay attention to the frequency of your appeals and communications. ( see Agitator Archive) In brief, the negative result of the conventional practice of filling up the calendar with 12 appeals because there are 12 months, and 24 emails because someone told you 2 times a month is best practice, always creates two major problems:
- Lots of cannibalization; the robbing of future dollars rather than creating new ones;
- Donor irritation leading to increased attrition
[ BTW: Organizations, generally small to mid-size who are abusing their donors by sending too few communications, needn’t concern themselves with above. But they should mend their ways by considering more frequent communication.]
Back to the declining response rates noted in Kevin’s post.
Why does the response curve turn downward as frequency/exposure goes up?
It turns out, donor fatigue is not some strawman raised by the “ask more, make more” crowd to be shot down with their circular “donors don’t get fatigued by good asks, only by crappy asks” retort.
As DonorVoice’s behavioral scientists and other researchers have noted, donor fatigue is a neurological, biological phenomenon. Repeated and extended exposure reduces the neuron firings as our brain says, “I know this object, no need to put mental energy against it.” Consequently, as our brain pays less attention to the familiar, we have a lower likelihood of responding.
Q: So, what’s an alternative to constant, high frequency blasting of your message that invariably turns a positive, upward curve (i.e., ask more, get more) to a diminishing and then downward curve (i.e., ask more, get lest less)?
Most fundraising marketing is continuous. There’s continuous pushing of “stuff” every month and in as many weeks as possible. There’s no break.
The downside of this approach isn’t just the unavoidable diminishing returns on donations that goes hand in hand with all advertising. As noted, it’s also the negative effects of higher levels of irritation. Charities send communications to donors in an effort to build their goodwill and raise donations. However, as contacts increase, these communications create irritation, while hard won donor goodwill erodes.
A much more efficient strategy is pulsing. We’ve written about pulsing here and here as a tactic to take full advantage of the positive upslope and then go dark at the time the curve downward would occur.
That’s right. Heavy periods of communications are alternated with off periods where nothing goes out. Yes, nothing. Marketing efforts and your supporters literally take a break.
As terrifying as a blank month– or for the more adventurous a blank quarter– sounds, this strategy is more efficient because it mimics the supporters’ response cycle which definitely isn’t continuous. Pulsing strategies also generate greater total brand awareness and mitigate any irritation build-up. All this in combination leads to more net income, higher donor retention.
All advertising, marketing and promotion has massive diminishing returns on contributions. In short, there is a finite amount to be raised from Donor A and all the comms in the world won’t change this. If this were the only downside then continuous advertising would merely be inefficient but not counterproductive.
Alas, this isn’t the case. The bigger, more insidious problem is the irritation effect that comes from continuous communication. It affects not only today’s donor but also tomorrow’s donor. It causes attrition. This is as well documented and agreed upon and proven in academia. However, given the burn and churn volume practices of damn near all the large nonprofits around the globe is seems to be either unknown or unaccepted.
The large charities are singled out here to distinguish them from the smaller groups that likely do have some “white space” on their fundraising/marketing/comms calendar, though that decision was probably driven by internal preference, budgets or opinion and is still sub-optimum in the execution.
While The Agitator won’t claim to have looked at every large charity’s marketing/fundraising/comms calendar we’d wager that none of them takes an entire month off, much less two or three.
Contrast this with the commercial sector where much of the advertising is not continuous but instead operates on what is referred to as a “pulsing schedule”.
“Pulsing” is just what it sounds like.
On and off. Repeat. Heavy “on” period of communications to get sales/donations and build brand/stay in their consciousness followed by an off-period to avoid the negatives of irritation and annoyance.
This is not just theory. It is empirically proven, over and over and over. And not just in the commercial advertising sector.
Some time ago we reported on a large study done looking at 5 Dutch charities over 22 consecutive fiscal quarters or just over five years. In the study researchers knew how much money was spent on fundraising/marketing/comms and the resulting number, amount and timing of donations.
The researchers did modeling to look at the distribution of response (and by extension, probability of response) over the 22 quarters. This is the squiggly red line in the chart below that shows a very distinct up and down pattern – peaks are high likelihood of giving and the troughs are low likelihood. Because all of these charities were continuously spending across every month that activity is (loosely) reflected with the dotted purple line.
What is obvious is that response does not follow the spend. What should be equally obvious is that each charity could get a far greater return by matching spend to outcome by shifting to a pulsing approach.
So, what is optimum?
From this study it was quarterly pulsing – one quarter on, one quarter off, then repeat.
As noted when we first reported this study, we could almost physically feel the response by many who read that last sentence.
- A quarter with zero pushing out of stuff? Are you insane?
- We only raise money when we ask.
- Our donors love our content, there are very few who get irritated and for those who call to complain, we will adjust their volume.
- We did a test once where we sent fewer asks to a test group, and we raised less money.
- If we do this and other charities don’t, they’ll get all the money in our off period.
- This was a Dutch study, surely it doesn’t match my situation in my country.
We could address each of these in turn and perhaps will though folks that build up this immediate line of defense are most likely to only double-down on their viewpoint in the face of counterfactuals (another oddity of human behavior).
This is for those folks who are looking for different answers to the same questions and open to the notion that 12 months full of stuff is random and perhaps influenced by our desire to complete whatever ‘set’ we create.
Of course, this post is all just about frequency; what about the content part? The notion of going to pulsing and declaring victory is winning the battle but losing the war. That’s because content is king. And as our posts about Identity and Personality make clear, unless you’re sending different messages to different people to match their motivation and needs you’ll fall short of the best results no matter the cadence of your messages.
Any Agitator readers care to share your experience with pulsing?