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[ASK AN EXPERT] What’s A Better Hook: Suspense Or Emotion?

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Our Ask An Expert series features real questions answered by Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, our very own Fundraising Coach, also known as Charity Clairity.

Today’s question come from a nonprofit employee who want advice on whether suspense or emotion is a better hook in a fundraising appeal: 

Dear Charity Clairity,

We are a small township trying to raise $300,000 to build pickleball courts. I feel we could do a suspenseful introduction, or an emotional hook. Here is a kind of suspenseful one we’ve written, but there are some real emotional ones: people recovering from auto accidents who never thought they could do a sport again; loneliness filled by new on-court friendships; physical and emotional healing, and more. Here’s what we have now:

“We’ve all heard about it, we’ve seen it on Good Morning America, the Today Show and on the Ellen DeGeneres Show. It’s been played on the floor of the Dow Jones Stock Exchange and on the hallowed courts at the Billy Jean King Tennis Center. Michigan’s own Jeff Daniels has even written a play to be performed at The Purple Rose Theatre about it. Pickleball is the fastest growing sport in America. Yet, in [name of town], there are no outdoor public courts to play on.”

So thought I would ask you simply which makes sense as the better hook for the introduction. Any quick thoughts would be greatly appreciated.

— Emotionally Suspenseful

Dear Emotionally Suspenseful,

It’s great you’re thinking this way, as there are multiple ways to trigger human feelings and actions.

As with many things in life, there is no one right way to capture folks’ attention. Nor is there one right way to get them to act.

So, think carefully about your audience. Ask this critical question: Why might they care about having pickleball courts in your township? You’ll likely come up with more than one answer, for example:

  • They personally want to try a new sport.
  • They want their loved ones to have this option.
  • They think it’s good for the town to have public athletic facilities.
  • They don’t want the town to miss out on this new phenomenon; want to be on the cutting edge.
  • They want to support people with disabilities… people recovering from injuries… isolated adults… seniors…
  • They want to help people connect to nature through outdoor recreation.
  • They want to help people improve fitness and heart health.

Pick the objectives you think are most resonant for your constituents. It can be challenging when you don’t really know your audiences well, so you might consider a survey before crafting your messaging.

Now, think carefully about how you’ll reach these target markets

  • The message you call “suspenseful” might appeal to a larger, less defined market. So, it might be good for advertising or mass media. It would make a great lead for a press release, for example. 
  • The message you call emotional might be your best bet for a more targeted mailing that speaks to those who share the values the successful campaign will allow to come to fruition.

When you don’t have close constituents, and don’t know much about them, you need to begin by building awareness. Your current message does just this, leveraging the persuasive power of social proof. For those unaware of the pickleball craze, this lets them know it’s real, it’s big and powerful, and authoritative people are all about it. It also channels fear of missing out (FOMO). And research from Robert Cialdini, Paul Slovic, and Daniel Kahneman, among others, shows fear of loss weighs heavier than hope of gain. So, it’s a good use of several principles of persuasion and influence.

If you already have donors, you may know more about what floats their particular boats. For those who’ve supported other projects with similar philanthropic objectives, what you describe as “emotional” messaging may do a more effective job at triggering your desired action response (i.e., giving). You might even try a series of email appeals or mailings, each targeting a different social benefit. For these communications, stories are your best bet. Especially when combined with illustrative photos. The human mind is wired to want to enter into a story, and people will process visuals much, much faster than text. You want both these things, because people today have limited attention spans. 

Consider how you can make town members feel they can be principal players – heroes even – in bringing pickleball courts to town and accomplishing something wonderful. Just be sure to carefully consider what that “wonderful outcome” will mean to those with whom you’re communicating. If the persuasive outcomes will be different for different audiences, segment your communications accordingly.

The best campaigns are built around a planned, multi-channel series of communications and fundraising strategies. There’s absolutely no reason not to combine both suspense and emotion into your campaign!

— Charity Clairity

Have a question for our Fundraising Coach?
Please submit your question here. Remember, there are no stupid questions! If you need an answer, it’s likely someone else does too. So help your colleagues by asking away. Please use a pseudonym, like “Emotionally Suspenseful” did, if you prefer to be anonymous.

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