The Case for Cliffhangers

Fundraising appeals rely on story to pull readers in, create emotional connections and inspire donors to make a difference through giving. Knowing how essential stories are to success, the Frontier team is constantly trying to improve our techniques, so we can maximize results for our clients. Today we’d like to share the findings from one of our recent copy tests. 

How many fundraising stories are told 

Most appeals follow a similar pattern, introducing donors to someone whose life has been changed through accessing a charity’s services. Donors are immersed in the struggles someone has endured. Then the donor is told how their donation helped to turn a life around, and the story ends with the person housed or fed or reunited with family, all thanks to the donor’s support. The call to action is to give again to help the countless others still in need. 

Telling finished stories has an unfortunate consequence: it diminishes the need in the mind of the donor.
— Jeff Brooks

The idea behind this strategy is to show donors exactly where their last donation went, express gratitude, and create an emotional connection. The goal is for donors to see the real impact they’ve made. Such stories can inspire donors and they certainly have their place, but…

Is there a better way? 

According to some experts, sending appeals with “finished” stories that end with happy people who have already been helped may make donors feel good about their last donation. BUT this type of appeal may also decrease the motivation to give again because everything’s looking so rosy. 

As Jeff Brooks explains in his blog post titled Why (and how) you should not finish fundraising stories, he reminds us that actions have consequences! “Telling finished stories has an unfortunate consequence,” he says. “It diminishes the need in the mind of the donor. All donors hear about are people who have been helped, so they never emotionally feel the need your organization exists to serve, so they become less likely to give.”

On the other hand, by leaving stories unfinished - aka by writing “cliffhanger” stories, you create an URGENT call to action. You create space for the donor to step in and become the story’s hero. Without them, the story will not have a happy ending.

Sounds pretty good. But of course, the Frontier team can’t simply accept fundraising literature at face value. We need to test it!

The Test

An A/B test was conducted with Bissell Centre’s 2018 Easter appeal. The donor list was split in half randomly and two different versions of copy were written. 

Donor group A received an appeal that shared the story of a single mother of two who, with the support of donors, had escaped homelessness and was now housed, happily accessing Bissell Centre services and working hard to create a prosperous life for her children.

Donor group B received a story about that same single mother, except that in this version she had only recently connected with Bissell Centre and needed continued support to access services like free diapers, child care, parenting classes, housing services and support groups. 

Our hypothesis was that the unfinished version would bring in more revenue than the finished version. 

The Results

Although 14 fewer people from the “unfinished” story group gave, their average gift was $95 compared to $73 in the “finished” story group - that’s 30% higher and resulted in 15% more revenue! 

While these results are exciting, a single test conducted with 5,000 donors can’t prove that unfinished stories are the way to go, across the board. That’s why we retested with the Bissell Centre 2019 Summer Child Care appeal. We also sent Welcome Hall Mission’s entire list of 30,000 an unfinished story in their first Easter appeal, with the conclusion revealed in the follow-up, in order to make a year over year comparison. 

While we eagerly await the results of these appeals, we’re keeping story endings top of mind while we write, and planning even more tests for 2019.


It's All in the Ask: How Personalizing Amounts Can Increase Gifts

THE BACKGROUND

Welcome Hall Mission opened its doors in 1892 to Montrealers looking for care, guidance, and support. Today, they provide a wealth of services ranging from food banks and housing to dental care and employment training. They achieved these amazing feats only through the loyal support of their partners and donors.

As Welcome Hall Mission seeks to meet the needs of a growing community, the consistent call for growth inspires us here at Frontier, as their direct mail fundraising team. We are always looking to push the limits of what we can achieve for our clients. What makes Frontier so uniquely effective is our crew of experts that specialize in multiple areas of fundraising.

Charitable organizations generally record their donor base in some way, but not every charity can analyze what makes those donors give. That’s why we have an in-house data specialist who is passionate about crunching numbers and making improvements wherever possible.

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THE QUESTION

Thousands of donors give generously to Welcome Hall Mission every year, but why do they give the amounts they do, and would they be giving more if we asked for more? When we set ask amounts, how do we know if we’ll “over ask” and scare off potential donors or “under ask” and miss an opportunity?

It’s questions like these that lead us to hypothesize about new potential ask strategies.   

Previously, we sorted donors into segments using the recency, frequency, monetary-value algorithm (RFM). Once segments were determined, another algorithm set the ask amounts for each grouping. Our data specialist then manually adjusted those results to take into account the psychological factors that the algorithm may have overlooked.

Setting an ask amount is not an exact science. These amounts can be determined by multiple variables. We consider the following metrics:

  • the average contribution

  • the median contribution

  • the most common contribution

  • the highest previous contribution

  • the most recent contribution

  • the minimum contribution

Tweaking ask amounts often causes a seesaw effect between response rate and average donation. Asking for too much can mean fewer donations overall, but asking for too little can mean smaller gifts. Segmentation helps determine the appropriate ask for groupings of people but creates a one-size-fits-all approach per group.

THE TEST

With groupings of donors, it’s unavoidable that some recipients receive ask amounts outside of their comfort zone. There is always an open ask included, where donors can fill out an amount themselves; however, research has shown that ask amounts can either influence gift size or discourage gift giving altogether. This means that ask amounts wield the power of suggestion, which can be very useful to an NPO’s bottom line. So, is there a way to avoid playing the odds and tailor our asks to each individual donor? Enter, the test.

We concentrated on 3,000 donors from Welcome Hall Mission’s 2018 Easter appeal as a sample size. The control group, along with each of the 2 test groups contained volumes of 1,000 people.

  • The 1st test group retained the segmentation but based the ask amounts on the median contribution for each donor segment.

  • The 2nd test group removed segments entirely and provided each recipient with a set of personalized ask (or Bespoke Ask) ask amounts based on their most recent contribution.

THE RESULTS

When the results came in, we noticed a few things. Firstly, our test proved previous theories to be true: the group of median-based donors performed better on the response rate, but worse on the average gift than our control group. Secondly, we found that most grassroots donors gave more when their ask amounts were personalized to their specific donation history.

One detail stood out among the rest. Not only did the Bespoke Ask amounts achieve the highest average gift, but they also maintained a higher response rate than the control group! Our data specialist attributes a large part of this breakthrough to the psychology of suggestion, which cannot be utilized as effectively when working with fixed ask amounts or generalized segmentation across a broad donor base.

What do all these numbers mean for Welcome Hall Mission? This new strategy of customizing amounts to individual donors produced an increase of approximately 15% in revenue for the Mission! And as you know, a few dollars more from thousands of potential donors adds up to make a significant impact on the Montrealers being served.

NEXT STEPS

A hypothesis is only as good as its method. To confirm that it’s worth the time and effort to personalize each donor’s ask amounts, we need to continue our research. We’ve adjusted our approach based on other factors in each donor’s specific giving history, focusing on the most recent contribution, median contribution and minimum contribution. By tweaking the data and retesting, we are hoping to repeat and improve our results compared to last year.

Welcome Hall Mission’s 2019 Easter appeals are in the mail, testing further personalized Bespoke Asks. We are also sending out a Mother’s Day appeal with Kelowna’s Gospel Mission to test the same Bespoke Asks. We look forward to seeing how donors respond and can’t wait to report back to you with our plans for refining the strategy and implementing this method for more NPOs. Stay tuned!


Behind the Design: A Case Study

Background

Here at Frontier, we strive to develop fundraising research that always pushes the industry to improve, which in turn helps charities have a greater impact in the world. This means that our marketing decisions are grounded in research and testing in order to produce the best results for our clients and continue shaping industry best practices. 

To understand how we could improve our direct mail appeals for our clients, we commissioned Predictive Eye Tracking to report on one of our mailer designs.

Predictive Eye Tracking is a software model based on decades of neuroscientific research that predicts where on the page readers’ eyes are drawn in the first 3-5 seconds of reading. This enables designers to place key information in spots where it will have the most impact. These tests produce a heat map image of the results, along with statistics relating to page complexity and noticeability.

  • The page complexity score measures how much visual clutter is present on the image.

  • The noticeability metric produces a list of the top elements on the page that will be noticed within the first 3-5 seconds.

  • Finally, the heat map indicates areas of highest focus with red spots.

Until recently, the technology to produce these reports was only available for digital mediums, so the newfound ability to test our print campaigns is very exciting.

The Opportunity

During our first interaction with predictive eye tracking reports for our print campaigns, we learned that user engagement was low on the back page of our direct mail appeal. After analysing the report, we hypothesized that the large volume of uninterrupted body copy on the back page may be the main culprit that was losing donors’ attention. This provided us with an opportunity to optimize this space to emphasize the client’s message. But how?

The Fix

This discovery was a call to immediate action for our team! We got creative with the next direct mail appeal we sent out. This currently under-utilized space had the potential to leave a large impact on current and prospective donors; our challenge was to utilize it in such a way that it added value for the client. So, our team developed the idea of creating impact statistic graphics to insert on the back page.

Not only would this give the eye a place to land by breaking up the text, but it would also provide a space to further emphasize important points to the donor.  Most importantly, it would allow a donor to visualize how they can be the hero in the story, all within the first 3-5 seconds of flipping over the appeal letter. Impact statistics offer tangible and visual metrics that are quick to digest, all while emphasizing the impact donors can have on real lives. 

However, at Frontier we are not satisfied with assuming we’ve solved the problem; we test to ensure it’s solved. So we ordered another predictive report, this time on our new design. The results came back overwhelmingly positive: the back page received a focus rate score of 93.7%, which indicates highly focused attention. Additionally, the new impact statistic graphic was the top focus item on the heat map. Essentially, the new infographic stole the show, dramatically  increasing overall donor engagement with the page.

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Applied Results

Not only did the Predictive Eye Tracking test results prove that this was a worthwhile change, but the real life results we have seen from our clients also verify this.

The success of this design means that now we have another strategy for effectively communicating clients’ messages to potential donors. Since confirming our theory with the predictive eye tracking test and seeing our clients’ real-life fundraising results, we have gone on to integrate this design into many of the mailers we create for our clients.

But we haven’t just inserted basic impact statistic graphics into all our mailers. We have taken the principles of these solutions and tailored them to each of our client’s individual needs, based on who they are as an organization and even when in the year the campaign launches. This design has contributed to the success of numerous mailers, and is particularly applicable for campaigns with tangible asks.

By sharing this type of research publicly, Frontier continues developing our industry’s understanding of effective fundraising practices. For example, our general manager, Mariam Ghani, presented these findings at the 2017 Pursuit conference in Edmonton, AB so that other fundraisers could gain from our research.

“It was a privilege presenting to other non-profits to share that direct mail fundraising continues to be an effective tool, and even more so now when we have the technology to optimize it further.” - Mariam Ghani, General Manager, Frontier

Through research like these tests, our goal is to help shape industry best practices so that organizations like our clients and can raise support more effectively than ever before.

Calgary Dream Centre Case Study: One Year with Frontier

History

As the Calgary Dream Centre faced the end of 2014, they had high hopes for the upcoming year—the year signifying their 10th anniversary of influencing transformations in their community. They were working tirelessly. With their efforts focused on helping those most vulnerable in the city, their fundraising had taken the shape of an event-based fundraising program with only rare mailings to donors.

As soon as we began to study their fundraising practices, we saw numerous ways that we could help. So we set about to make their 10th anniversary a critical juncture—a year of unprecedented and sustainable growth.

Introducing Frontier

In the autumn of 2014, the Calgary Dream Centre was seeking to partner with a fundraising agency to help them grow beyond their current fundraising standard and double if not triple their revenue over the course of several years. After deliberating with peers in the mission world, they chose Frontier.

In establishing a partnership, we focused on building trust and relationship—getting to know the members of the Dream Centre personally. Because they view us as an extension of their fundraising team—not simply an external service provider—we are able to soak in the knowledge and culture of the Dream Centre as an organization and develop a deeper understanding of their needs.

We immediately started building a new website and hustled to launch it in December 2014. We also created an annual print and email calendar, and began acquisition campaigns right away.

Because of our personal approach, and getting to know the Calgary Dream Centre even before our official contract, we were able to get to work within weeks of our initial contact, seeking new strategies and improvement right away.

Game Plan

The first improvement we made to the Calgary Dream Centre’s fundraising strategy was a total overhaul of their website. We redesigned every attribute to clarify the focus, creating the entire website around a single call to action: Donate. We also streamlined the online donation experience using our best practices, as explained on our blog. By de-emphasizing third party events, we highlighted the importance of one-time gifts. Instead of being overwhelmed by options, donors were simply being asked to do one thing, so many of them did it!

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Over the next 12 months, we grew the Dream Centre’s direct mail campaign to include 7 appeals, 5 acquisition campaigns and 4 newsletters. This increased communication resulted in the addition of 194 new donors since October 2014, which is 150% growth over the previous year.  

The Newsletter itself—which we named “Transformations”—was our own creation. Through the release of quarterly issues, a signature piece has emerged with a focus on sharing information and cultivating relationships with the donors. It provides organizational accountability to these supporters—showing them where their dollars are going—and keeps them informed and engaged. Did you know that donors are known to give up to three times more to charities that show the problem being solved and where their dollars will go?  

Lastly, we gave some time to brand unification. By equipping the Dream Centre with important tools such as a professional, unique and recognizable brand that maintains consistency across all of their “products,” we enabled them to compete in the big leagues and grow their donor base.

Results

Site redesign alone grew online revenue by 66%. We helped them rustle up $161,891 through their website, which is currently 13% of their gross revenue total. Further, the introduction of Transformations and its emphasis on donor care and communications provoked a 17.4% reduction of donor attrition. In fact, 322 donors have returned after not giving for more than two years. That’s roughly equal to their total acquisition of the last three years combined!

Since December 2014, we’ve seen ongoing, visible growth. In fact, the Dream Centre has seen the largest gross donation revenue increase in their history: $1,220,137, an increase of $344,000. In total, they received gifts from 1605 donors, which is a 105% increase.

The Calgary Dream Centre is a charity whose heart for the community eclipsed their capacity to focus on strategic fundraising. Now, with enhanced donor care tools, they’ve been able to build a stronger foundation of trust and loyalty with their donors and raise more revenue. And there’s more in store!

We look forward to a continued partnership with the Calgary Dream Centre in 2016. We plan to establish a branded monthly donor program to further steward existing donors, as well as develop an Easter Direct Mail and Acquisition campaign. On the digital frontier, we’ll be exploring third party event fundraising together. We fully expect good to become better—than best—as we apply more of our fundraising best practices, moving forward!