What's in a story?

We’re reminded regularly of the importance of stories. They can be attention-getting ... can resonate with readers ... can make, or hammer home a point ... 

But what constitutes a good story? And, how do you tell it? In thinking of how I approach this, there seem to be three distinct steps. 

1) Begin at the end.

What’s your point? What’s the moral of the story … the conclusion you want the listener or reader to reach … the next step you hope they will take?

As a fundraiser, this may seem obvious: the ask. But I’d argue for a much broader perspective, that of donor development. For your ask to succeed, you must first establish a mutual understanding of the need and the urgency to fill that need.

While an organization may want to raise money to refurbish a historically significant artifact – such as a vintage airplane,  for example – the first task may be to establish or reinforce that this item does have significance.

A hunger relief agency might want to reinforce the importance of nutritional balance or the impact of hunger on a child’s ability to learn. A social services agency might need to establish the costs of not taking action. And so on.  

2) Make it real.

Every story has characters & conflict. You create the characters for your reader and describe the conflict they endure as you move (with them) toward the goal you've established. 

There are many forms in which “heroes” and “villains” can interact. Citizen soldiers come together to defend freedom against the forces of fascism. An innocent child is rescued from horrendous disease. A creative and committed researcher makes groundbreaking discovery.

How can you personify this movement in a way that provides both rational and emotional support? 

3) So what?

There’s a difference between significance and relevance … and establishing the former doesn’t guarantee the latter.

Sure, saving this historical artifact can preserve history. But it can also serve as tribute to the values that history represents (the men and women who risked their all). Perhaps it can even help convey the lessons learned and thus carry those values forward (daring and resolve, even in the face of overwhelming odds) . 

Even more importantly, consider with whom you are talking and what role they may play in this story. How do you involved the reader and and make them a part of the hero’s journey? Do they experience a similar dilemma? Can they help resolve the conflict?

While I said at the outset there are three distinct steps, these are not always well-delineated.  In fact, you must weave them together seamlessly for your story to work. This is seldom a linear process and may move forward in fits and starts. 

In many cases, I may open the story with an attention-getting nugget or two, step back to establish context and set direction, and then periodically bring in additional details to help keep the reader moving in the desired direction. 

What story-telling "tricks" seem to work well for you? 

Taking the longer view

The beauty of direct marketing is that it is measurable and accountable. Send out mailing “A” and you can tell exactly what it generates: how many responses, how many donors, how many dollars.

The curse of direct marketing is that it encourages more limited, short-term thinking. If an email appeal generates “X” in revenue, or an advocacy outreach generates “Y” clicks, and a newsletter or other informational appeal generates fewer of each, is it worth the effort?

I’d like to suggest two ways in which a longer view may be of benefit.

Take a longer view forward. 

I think we all agree a donor is worth more than the initial contribution.  Certainly annual giving is worth considering, as is longer term value  (aka lifetime value, a cumulative value over a minimum of three to five years).

Most of us would likely agree there’s also value in non-donor responses as well. An inquiry, request for information or other engagement may well convert to a donation at a later date.  But how do you know what that engagement is worth?

Take a longer view back, as well.

Not every dollar can be tied directly (attributed) to an individual effort. This has been an ongoing challenge to marketers, especially as the number and types of outreach (web, email, social, etc.) have increased. 

Back to the email example noted above. Our hypothesis is that informational messages contribute to engagement and engagement increases the likelihood of donations. There is a value in those messages, even if it’s not direct revenue.

But how can you begin to establish that value?

If you eliminate the informational messages and open rates begin to fall, revenue trends will likely follow. Unfortunately, that won’t be measurable in a single effort. Likely not even in a single year. It may require a longer historical perspective.

The problem is, the longer view is only available if you build it now. And that investment requires a bit of vision in its own right!

Is eNewsletter worth the investment?

Is this eNewsletter worth the investment?” a client asked recently as we reviewed returns at the close of the fiscal year. “Look, the Year End campaign generated more than 10 times the revenue per email sent…

Which means we should just send more appeals, right?

Over the years, we’ve seen what happens when a file simply gets pounded with asks. Opens go down. Unsubscribes go up. Revenues start to fall.

But the evidence of loss can take months, or even years to be seen. The development manager focusing only on immediate return may not notice at all.

This client has heard us talk about the value of engagement many times. A sound hypothesis, sure … but could we prove it?

Now that’s the kind of challenge we like!

To test our hypothesis, we created a “universe” of constituents who had been on file for at least six months of the past fiscal year. We then divided that universe into groups by the number of eNews clicks over the most recent six months and compared each group in terms of the percentage of constituents who gave during the fiscal year (likelihood of giving) and total revenue those gifts represented (value of by level of engagement).

We found the constituents with one or two clicks were 20% more likely to give and delivered about 30% more revenue per constituent (than the group with no eNews clicks). Constituents with three or more eNews clicks were more than 1.5 times as likely to give and revenue per constituent was almost 2.5 times higher.

Out of curiosity, we ran a similar test on another client’s file. It showed similar results.

Is an eNewsletter worth the investment? These clients are convinced! And they're committed to continue using the eNewsletter to provide content relevant and interesting enough to earn those clicks.

Maybe you should look at your own return?