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!”



Filed under Direct mail fundraising, Email fundraising, Fundraising, Online fundraising

18 responses to “Should you scrap the Millennium Falcon?

  1. I bet these ugly emails work for Chris Tuttle too — when he’s not publicly posing as a sophisticate.

  2. Jeff, no, actually they don’t work for me… or I wouldn’t have pointed out how ugly I thought they were.

    As I said in our conversation last night, they don’t work for me. “For me” being the operative words. As a long time constituent of this organization, I have a personal history — engaging with communications, donating to, raising money for, and working with them. They know me… or at least, they should.

    I’ve never disagreed that testing has proved some methods, no matter how much I may personally despise them, actually work.

    All I have argued, albeit unsuccessfully, is that understanding our audiences, meaningfully engaging with them, and segmenting mass communications so as to best appeal to them, would ultimately be more successful.

    Maybe they’re doing that and I was part of that test… to see if the multi-giving, now lapsed, has told you numerous times over the phone why I don’t give any more, donor might, just this once, respond to spam tactics.

    And if they are, terrific. Now they know my opinion about it. Meanwhile I’m stilling waiting for meaningful engagement.

    • Hi Chris – yes, I took you at your word when you said that. And I wrote another post called ‘Flipping the coin’ which I think covers your feeling about this. What the DCCC haven’t done for you is acknowledge your relationship. So maybe, to carry on the metaphor, they should have switched from the Falcon to an X-wing – more manoeuvrable, and built for one! I would be interested to know if they do reach out to you following your tweet…and thank you for the food for thought.

      • Gotcha. No, I don’t think their designers are really that stupid as to be designing their emails in WordPerfect and Paint. I’ve actually seen their websites and nicely designed emails, I’ve even replied to some.

        And yes, I was taking a cheap shot at the design when the real issue is how they are engaging their audiences, at least from what I can see. I think I alluded to this in our lengthy conversation and also mentioned that I didn’t think Twitter was the time or place to have in-depth conversation on the topic.

        Thanks for sharing all the resources. They were very insightful… now I’m going to get back to testing segmented and targeted communications for clients.

      • Hi Chris – yes, hence post today which I hope is a better way of engaging – it feels like that to me. Good luck with the work, hope it’s all successful!

  3. Love this, Adrian. (And the back and forth – hi Chris!). Great points here – the importance of testing, the reason we shouldn’t base decisions on our personal taste, and Chris’ main point – the value of engaging with donors based on their existing relationship with you… Great stuff!

    • Thanks Mary! Yes, what we don’t know is how well the DCCC have been testing the effect of their emails on different donor/non-donor constituencies – or indeed if long-term donor retention really matters to them in the context of short-burst political fundraising….

      • Well, there’s that, too. One HUGE difference – at least in the past – with political fundraising. It’s been grab and go – because they never know if they’ll be around the next election.

        I wonder if all these PACS now will change that?

      • Ah, well there you’ll probably know a lot more than me! We don’t have PACs in the UK!

      • Good thing for you. There are now these “nonprofit” organizations that allow unlimited fundraising for politicians – and hiding the donors. Nasty stuff. A total warp of the law’s intent. If politics was dirty before, we’re at a whole new level.

  4. The other important thing is that what we’re seeing there is the result of iterative testing – it didn’t just pop out as ugly as that, it got progressively uglier over time!

  5. Pingback: Let’s Hear It For Ugly | The Agitator - Fundraising, Direct Marketing and Advocacy Strategies for Nonprofits

  6. I would love to see some statistics on the long-term success of these. Are these one-time donations that do not work again the second time around? Is the shock value what’s causing the donations? With political campaigns the 1-time shock value usually is what you want, but long-term nonprofit fundraising I wonder if that’s a wise decision?

    • Wouldn’t we all Taylor! Sadly there’s very little that looks at creative approaches in the NFP sector, as far as I’m aware. But I’d be hasty about jumping to conclusions that this ‘wouldn’t work’ in long term non-profit fundraising – I’ve had anecdotal reports from fellow fundraisers that plain text emails with just a couple of graphics, for example, consistently out-perform more ‘designed’ all-HTML versions in their organisations. And it’s well-known in mail fundraising that a more ‘homespun’ look out-performs slick over and over again. So why not in digital, too? The only real answer is to test for yourself….

      • That testing approach seems a little too logical, Adrian. 😉 Thanks for the great post though. Sometimes it’s easy to live inside the design world bubble and think that what works for you as someone in the design biz works for everyone.

      • 😀 You’re welcome Taylor, thanks for commenting!

  7. Danny Hatch says: “I can’t judge judge good advertising, it judges me”. If the ad, direct mail piece, email brings in an order or donation or membership, it’s good. If it doesn’t, it’s bad.

    The trouble is, if you don’t test elements like subject lines, plain text vs. various bells-and-whistles HTML, etc., you’re not doing it right.

    • Yes, and the important thing is to remember that the ‘ugliness’ arrived at didn’t spring out fully formed – it just evolved by that progressive iterative process of pushing what worked a bit further, and then a bit further again…eventually each organisation will find their own elastic limit 🙂

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