Monthly Archives: April 2014

Should you scrap the Millennium Falcon?

Docking Bay 94, Mos Eisley Spaceport. Millennium Falcon is parked.
Luke: What a heap of junk!
Han: She’ll make point five past light-speed. She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts, kid. I’ve made a lot of special modifications myself.

A doozie of a Twitter debate last night!
About political email fundraising. Yes, I know, steer clear of politics, right? But this was more about fundraising techniques, and the fraught question of whether, even if a technique works better than anything else, you should use it or not.

Chris Tuttle (@christuttle) posted this tweet about a Democratic Party Congressional Committee fundraising email he’d received:

And yes, horrible design isn’t it? As one tweeter put it, it’s so back to the ’90s that throwing in a couple of flying toasters might improve it! So you might reasonably assume that someone with no knowledge at all about how to design HTML had put together this fundraising email to Chris.

But that would be where you’re wrong. Read this Businessweek article, tweeted and retweeted many times since with high praise for the Obama 2012 campaign’s email fundraising achievements. Pay particular attention to paragraphs 4 and 5 (italics mine):

“We were so bad at predicting what would win that it only reinforced the need to constantly keep testing,” says Showalter.  “Every time something really ugly won, it would shock me: giant-size fonts for links, plain-text links vs. pretty ‘Donate’ buttons. Eventually we got to thinking, ‘How could we make things even less attractive?’ That’s how we arrived at the ugly yellow highlighting on the sections we wanted to draw people’s eye to.”

So this email that looks really awful – as Chris basically described it, a spammy-looking piece of junk – is actually the result of one of the most sophisticated digital fundraising campaigns ever run.
This is what we’ve all been praising when we have lauded the Obama campaign’s success.

In fact, going by the passage I’ve quoted above, it’s probably the epitome of the process – the Democrats’ ‘banker’, or ‘control’ email. The one all the other emails have been tested against, and failed.

It’s a classic example of the dilemma many charities face with their ‘banker’ mail acquisition packs. They’re embarrassing. They’re corny. Many of them are ugly (although I have to say this is as dramatic a case of the ‘ugly banker’ that I’ve ever seen). But they work. And Jeff Brooks sums this up perfectly in his post here.

Banker packs are like the Millennium Falcon. They may not look like much, but they’ve got it where it counts.

And there are more uncomfortable truths from the Obama campaign as well. See this blog post from Alchemyworx which explains how the Obama team ramped up their send volume as the campaign went on.

Chris’ email was one of 8 he had received in 4 days, and you can see why the Democrats would be using this proven tactic.

They don’t work for Chris. And I’m sure they don’t work for many others. We debated long about the rights and wrongs. As I’m sure many of us do within the charities we work for. Surely we can’t send out something looking like that? Surely we can’t send another email/mailing?

But fundraising from large numbers of people, although we should definitely do our best to speak to each one of them individually, is also definitely a numbers game. By and large, the more we communicate, and the less obviously designed that communication looks, the more successful we are.

So when faced with something so ugly, so flagrantly in breach of our brand guidelines that we couldn’t possibly send it – maybe, just maybe, we should think again. And test.

Because we could be scrapping the Millennium Falcon. Or being like the Imperial soldiers in Mos Eisley Spaceport, shouting, “Stop that ship!”

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