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The Art of Not Being Clever in Your Fundraising

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One of the reasons I like the Web: It’s helping kill off the Clever Headline.

Google and the other search engines don’t understand puns. They don’t appreciate wordplay. They don’t admire a Joycean multilingual, triple-entendre, back-flip ironic headline. These things just throw them off from the search for actual content. They rely on literalness and clarity.

Now let me tell you a secret: Nearly all of your donors are like Google: Wordplay confuses them. Puns don’t impress them. What you may see as clever, they see as muddy. Being literal tells them what they want to know.

A lot of writers really hate this. They’re word people. And they’d rather display their cleverness than be clear. But the search engines penalize you for that. The New York Times mourned this a few years back at This Boring Headline Is Written for Google (ooh — irony!)

The search-engine “bots” that crawl the Web are increasingly influential, delivering 30 percent or more of the traffic on some newspaper, magazine or television news Web sites. And traffic means readers and advertisers, at a time when the mainstream media is desperately trying to make a living on the Web.

So news organizations large and small have begun experimenting with tweaking their Web sites for better search engine results. But software bots are not your ordinary readers: They are blazingly fast yet numbingly literal-minded. There are no algorithms for wit, irony, humor or stylish writing.

Your heart just goes out to them, doesn’t it? They can no longer practice obtuse stylish writing at the expense of their readers.

The writerly need to display wit isn’t just confined to newspapers: You see it in nonprofit communications too. Writers will be writers. But if you care about making connections with donors — and if you want the search engines to be able to find you — you’ll choose clear over clever.

I know it hurts. But writers need to deploy their brilliance on making their work more clear, more motivating, more vivid, more emotional, and more powerful. Not more flashy.

And here’s the thing: copy that is straightforward, literal — yet still emotional and persuasive — takes even more skill than the glib clever stuff.  If you have pride in your craft, put it toward that!

Put yourself in your donors’ shoes. Make everything you write clear and easy. That’s how you’ll reach them. I promise you, they’ll be more impressed when you actually get them to read you and understand that they would have been by your verbal fireworks.

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