Want to stir up a group of professionals? Want to see them sweat and wave their arms and cuss?
There’s one issue that will do it every time. I’m not talking about “poverty porn,” and it’s not the overhead controversy.
The big deal that really stirs people up is the odd truth that in fundraising, long messages almost always work better than short ones.
It’s not true 100% of the time, but it’s one of the most dependable truths in direct marketing — fundraising and otherwise. Want better results? Increase the length of the message.
Whenever I say this in public, a forest of hands goes up. How could that possibly be true? It must be an isolated incident! No way!
But don’t believe just me. Ask anyone with experience — especially testing experience — and they’ll confirm it. Long messages do better than short ones. Most of the time, as in about 80% of tests.
In The Fundraisingology Lab (an awesome private group just for members), a member recently posted this:
Director of PR just emailed me about my next letter draft (not even two full pages), she suggested it should never be longer than a page/one side. She suggested editing it down before sending it to the President.
It’s a distressingly common situation: Someone with no experience in fundraising just takes it as a given that a short message is absolutely a better bet than a long one. Why? Because their gut reaction is more trustworthy than decades of training and experience by hundreds of people our in profession?
But a longer message is a better bet almost every time. There is zero controversy about this among knowledgeable fundraisers.
There are exceptions, where a short message does better:
- A short but well-executed message will usually do better than a long but sloppily prepared message with no clear call to action. (Though most of the really amateurish fundraising out there is also short, in addition to its other problems.)
- A short message about a major disaster or another news event that everyone is being exposed to frequently does very well, and I’ve seen the short version do better than a long version in this situation.
- An organization with a very strong brand can sometimes do well with a very short message. (See example below.)
- Now and then a short message does better, and we just can’t see why. This is extremely rare, but it does happen!
Part of the problem is that we don’t know why it’s this way. In fact, it would be almost impossible to discover why a longer message works better. All we know is how people respond, not what was going on in their conscious or subconscious minds. You can’t just ask them; they don’t know the answer. (Most people, when asked, will tell you they’re confident they’d be more likely to respond to a shorter message!)
But here are some theories that might explain the longer-is-better phenomenon:
- It’s nearly impossible to cram everything that needs to be said into a very short message. Most short messages are simply omitting critical contents.
- Most readers will read about 10% of whatever you put in front of them. When the message is long, they get what they need.
- Whether they read the whole message or not, the very fact that it is long, helps persuade some readers that it’s important.
- Most donors are older people; older people are readers; they reward you for giving them something to read.
- Most people read so inattentively that they simply miss the point of a short message because it appears only once!
But all of these are just theories. They may all be true or partially true. Or they could all be complete balderdash.
But this we know: You will almost certainly raise more money with a longer message than with a shorter one!
Here is an exception to the longer-is-better rule. I don’t have any inside knowledge about this pack, but I’m pretty sure it’s a champion in new donor acquisition. Because I keep getting it!
(This is just the message/reply coupon. But there isn’t really more. It comes in a small envelope. And the only other piece is the very small return envelope.)
Note that the sender, The Salvation Army, is a super-brand. An organization with top-5 recognition in the US — that is top five among all brands, not just nonprofit brands. That might explain why the short message works. It also breaks a handful of other fundraising principles that would likely sink most fundraising packs.
But unless you are with The Salvation Army … a short message is risky and less likely to accomplish your fundraising goals!
Want to learn more about what really works in direct mail? Uncover all of the amazing best practices of direct mail fundraising by taking our 7 Steps To Creating Record-Smashing Direct Mail online course. It’s available for members of The Fundraisingology Lab.