[VIDEO] How Nonprofits Can Write Effective Web Copy

In this webinar, Andrew Buck will show you how the right words can spark emotion, spur action, and start a lifelong relationship.

Full Transcript:

Steven: All right. Andrew, my watch just struck 1 o’clock east, and is it okay if I go ahead and kick us off officially here?
Andrew: Yeah. Let’s do it.
Steven. All right. Cool. Well, good afternoon, everyone if you’re on the East Coast and good morning, I should say if you’re on the West Coast or somewhere in between. Thanks for being here for the first Bloomerang webinar of 2019. We’re going to kick it off with a bang because we’re going to be talking all about How to Write Effective Web Copy. So, thanks for being here. And my name is Steven Shattuck and I’m the Chief Engagement Officer over at Bloomerang and I’ll be moderating today’s discussion as always.
And just a couple of quick housekeeping items for you before we get started officially, just want to let you all know that we are recording this webinar and we’ll be sending out that recording a little later on this afternoon as well as the slides if you didn’t already get those. So, if you have to leave early or maybe you want to be able to review the content later on or share it with a colleague or a friend, have no fear. I’ll get all that good stuff in your hands this afternoon, I promise.
But most importantly, if you are interested in sending questions and comments our way, please feel free to do so. You can chat in right there on your webinar screen. We’re going to try to save a little bit of time at the end for Q and A, so don’t be shy. I’ll be keeping an eye on that throughout the hour or so as well as the Twitter feed. If you’d rather tweet us, do that. I love it. I’ll keep an eye on the Twitter feed as well. You can use the #Bloomerang or just send us a message right @BloomerangTech.
And one last bit of housekeeping, if you have any trouble with the audio through your computer speakers, we find that the audio by phone is usually a little bit better quality. So, if you have any trouble, try dialing in by phone, if that’s comfortable for you. If you don’t mind doing that, give it a try before you totally give up on us. There’s a phone number that you can dial in that’s just for you in the email from ReadyTalk that came out about an hour or so ago. So, try that phone if you have any trouble.
If this is your first Bloomerang webinar, I just want to stay an extra special welcome to you folks. We do these webinars just about every single Thursday. This is the first one of 2019 and I’ve got about 50 other sessions planned. We really don’t miss too many weeks throughout the year. One of my favorite things we do here at Bloomerang, but what we’re best known for is our donor management software. So, if you are interested in that or maybe you want to take a look at our offering, check out our website, you can watch a quick video demo and see the software in action. Don’t even have to talk to a salesperson if you don’t want to.
So, but don’t do that now because you all are in for a real treat. We have Andrew Buck here joining us from Mighty Citizen to talk about web copy. How’s it going, Andrew? You doing okay?
Andrew: I’m doing fantastically, thank you.
Steven: Yeah. I am too because I’m happy you’re here and I’m happy this is our first webinar of the year. I’ve been getting to know Andrew over the past few months and talking to him over the last hour or so. Super great guy and I love Mighty Citizen, by the way. I’m just going to give a commercial for them if you don’t mind. We had another of his colleagues give a great presentation last year. Rachel from Mighty Citizen. If you missed it, you can see it on our blog. But they do great work and I know Andrew is going to give a fantastic presentation here.
And I just want to brag on him real quick. Don’t want to take up too much time away from him, but he is a content strategist over there at Mighty Citizen in Austin, Texas. He’s got over 15 years’ experience helping lots of different organizations craft their marketing plans and brand messaging, storytelling. He’s a fellow English major, so maybe that’s why we get along because I also have a degree in English, but he’s has done a lot of really cool things for nonprofits over his career. He has managed rebranding projects for the Austin Humane Society. He oversaw a public image campaign for United Way in the capital area during a little bit of a PR crisis they had. That’s a really tough task, by the way, if you’ve ever handled any kind of PR crisis. Also has helped up out on the membership side in Central Texas’ largest nonprofit professional organization, helped increase membership and member revenue by over 25%.
So, definitely knows what he’s talking about. He’s really good at what he does and he’s given away all of that knowledge for free here. So, Andrew, I think you’re going to share your screen. So, I’m going to hand things off to you to tell us all about effective web copy. So, take it away, my friend.
Andrew: All right. Thank you. I am sharing my screen. It should load up here in just a second for all of you.
Steven: Yeah. Looks like it’s working.
Andrew: Great. Thank you so much, Steven. I appreciate all the kind words and I want to just jump right in because there’s a lot that we’re going to talk about and I want to make sure that we get it all done in time and then hopefully have some time for some questions at the end if we can do that. So, it is called “How to Write Effective Web Copy.” And I’d like to start with the story about this man, his name is David Ogilvy. Some of you may be familiar with him. He’s sort of the prototypical ad man, maybe the model for Don Draper from Mad Men.
He was a Scot who came over to America and built slowly and surely over a few decades in advertising empire. His ad agency is still a global, major global ad agency, but what I really liked about this guy is he started in copywriting back in what some say was the golden age of copywriting in the ’40s and ’50s just writing ads. And there’s a story about him that I think really illustrates why we’re taking an hour out of our day to talk about writing for the web. And the story goes that it was the very first day of spring in New York City, which looks something like this.
It’s a really special time in New York City because the New Yorkers have been hibernating for the last few miserable winter months and finally, the first sunny warm day and so people are really filling the streets. And so Ogilvy is walking down the street and he notices a man sitting on the sidewalk begging for change. The man appears to be homeless and he also is blind. And he has a sign that says something sort of ordinary like, “I’m hungry. Please help.”
But Ogilvy notices the man, but he really notices there’s nobody else is noticing this man. They’re walking past him, his cup is empty. And Ogilvy who at this point is a really powerful, rich guy, is sort of struck by inspiration and he asked the man to borrow his sign. He takes it, he flips it over to the back, pulls out his Mont Blanc pen and writes a new message and hands the sign back to the man.
And the story goes that later that same day, Ogilvy is walking back down that same street and wouldn’t you know it at this point, the guy’s cup is filled with dollar bills. People are stopping and talking to him and offering them help. And, so of course, the question is what did Ogilvy write that was so compelling and this is what he wrote. “It is spring and I am blind.”
Now, I love this for a lot of reasons. This message works I think in a number of ways. First of all, it’s short, right? We like short. It is symmetrical, it’s almost poetic. There’s like a rhythm to it, but maybe even more than all of that is that it creates instant human recognition. Here I am enjoying this beautiful spring day and in an instant, I’m reminded that I’m very lucky to be able to do that and that other people might not be as fortunate.
So, I think this illustrates why words matter. If Ogilvy came up in the golden age of copywriting, I would argue that we are maybe reentering a new golden age of copywriting where it’s becoming actually increasingly important as we consume more content. Back then Ogilvy only had magazine ads and billboards to write. These days we have obviously emails and social media and countless other ways to communicate our message.
So, with that in mind, we’re just going to jump in. I’ll let it real quick. Again, my name is Andrew Buck. I really wanted to put this slide up so that you have my email address, which I’ll share again at the end. Feel free to email me at abuck@mightycitizen.com anytime with any questions related to content or writing. I love talking about this stuff and helping folks tackle some copying challenges. So, feel free to get in touch any time.
So, here’s what I want to cover by the end of this webinar. You should be able to at the end identify the most common challenges that we professional communicators face online, write for how users actually read online. Number three: Increase the readability of your web copy and finally, make your online copies sticky. Now, I was telling Steven before we began, it’s this presentation, we deliver to our clients and it’s usually about a 90-minute talk. So, we pared it down to fit inside this hour. So, that’s why we’re going to move at a pretty good clip. But, of course, you’ll get a recording and the slides and you can reach out to me at any time.
Steven: Cool.
Andrew: Cool. So, let’s go ahead and start by talking about what we’re up against. I like to start with just the really bummer news. All right. It’s great to start any webinar by talking about all the problems we face, but I think if we understand the problems more clearly, we can fix them more efficiently. So, the first thing is attention span. Back in 2000, they did a global study that suggested that the average human attention span came in at about 12 seconds. That is, you have 12 seconds to see someone’s attention and try to convert it into interest before they move on to the next distraction.
Goldfish, meanwhile, famously come in at just over nine seconds. So, we had a goldfish dominated back in 2000. But then they did the study again in 2013 and we have plummeted to eight seconds. Now, you can probably guess what happened between 2000 and 2013 that contributed to this. Of course, it was the advent of digital technology, right? Smartphones, social, just content in every imaginable form coming at us 24 hours a day. So, the human attention span is very, very short these days, we can’t even beat the goldfish. And that means that you as a marketer or communicator have precious few moments to really grab that attention, right? So, we’re going to keep that in mind.
Number two is just what we’re up against in terms of the content glut. So, every 60 seconds you can see there, all of this content makes its way onto the internet. 204 emails, 4 million searches on Google, two and a half million content shares on Facebook, 571 websites come online. And my favorite is that last number there, 217 new people begin using the mobile web every single minute. So, it’s not that you’re just competing with other nonprofits, especially those that may be aligned with your mission. You’re competing with the world, right? We’ve already got short attention span and every minute of every day there’s countless more reasons for our prospective audience to ignore us in favor of some other piece of content.
Then there’s the question of how people actually read on screen. So, if I were to ask how people read on screen, you might have a variety of answers, but my answer to this question is they don’t read. People don’t read on screens the way they read on paper, they skim, they searched, and they scan.
Now, this is good news for us in a way because it means that we can make things more skimmable, searchable and scannable, so that they actually get our message, but it also means that we have to stop thinking about writing for the web the way we think about writing, for example, an annual report or certainly something like a novel or a short story, right? People just don’t read that way on screens. So, that’s that.
Then there’s the question of literacy levels. So, I’ll give you all a second to think of what your answer might be to the question of what grade level does the average American adult read? I have asked this of clients and heard everything from 1st to 12th grade depending on how cynical or optimistic you are about the American reader, but the average comes in at 8th grade. And what that translates to, is that about half of American adults cannot comprehend a book written above an 8th grade level. And look at that, I found a typo in my own webinar, but that is daunting I think for some writers and communicators and marketers. I think it’s something we don’t tend to pay attention to, but we absolutely should.
Now, there’s a lot of implications of this and I don’t want to dive into all of them right now, but suffice to say that if your copy, whatever it may be, a webpage, an email, a donation, a solicitation letter. If you’re above an 8th grade reading level, you can count on some people not being able to read it, and even the people who can read it have a very low comprehension. As you go further over the 8th grade level if we were to graph it, we would see the comprehension plummet. Right? So, we want to get under 8th grade level. We’ll talk about more about that here in a little while.
Okay. We’re still talking about what we’re up against and I want to tell a story about Nora Ephron. If you don’t know Nora Ephron, she was a certified genius in my book, she was a writer, primarily a screenwriter. She wrote when “Harry met Sally” and “Sleepless in Seattle” and “Julie and Julia.” She was very smart, very funny, and there’s a story about her that she was a high school senior. She was in journalism class at our high school in Beverly Hills. And the journalism teacher came in one of the first days of class and said, “All right. We’re going to practice writing a lead for the school newspaper.”
Now, a lead, as you probably know, is the very first sentence of a newspaper or a news story. This is very, very important, right? So, he said, “I’m going to give you some facts and I want you all to write the lead if you were going to tell that story in the student newspaper.” And so here are the facts that he gave his students, “Kenneth L. Peters, principal of Beverly Hills High School, announced today that the entire school faculty will travel to Sacramento next Thursday for colloquium in new teaching methods. Among the speakers will be anthropologist Margaret Mead, college president Dr. Robert Maynard Hutchins, California governor Pat Brown.”
Okay. So, he gives them all these facts, everyone puts their heads down, starts scribbling their lead and Nora Ephron even at that young age being not just a genius, but really understanding how people, what people like and what really persuades and compels and engages people. This was her lead. “There will be no school next Thursday.” Boom. Rim shot, right? So great.
Now, why do I tell the story? Because it’s a great reminder of how critical it is that we as communicators keep our audience in mind all the time. Now, this might sound like marketing 101, right? Hey, you’ve got to think about your audience. But I’ve been working in nonprofit and consulting communications for 15-ish years now and I can tell you that I still lose sight of the audience sometimes. I’m thinking more about my organization and what our goals are and not enough about what our audience wants.
So, I already have precious few seconds, I’ve got tons of content competition I’m up against, I’ve got some literacy challenges and now on top of that, I’ve got to remember what people care about. Nora Ephron understood that the audience she was going after, that is her fellow students, don’t care about teaching conferences, they care about getting a day off of school. So, that’s where she led. And after that, she could have told the rest of the story.
So, I just encourage us, maybe we put a sticky note on our computer monitor that says, “Think about the audience or think about the donors.” Just as a constant reminder. Okay. So, that’s what we’re up against, but the good news is there are plenty of solutions. And the first one I want to talk about is this is really the low hanging fruit. These are things we can do today to improve the number of people who read our content and the number of people who comprehend it and frankly, the number of people who like it and engage with it. And that really has to do with readability. So, we want to talk about how to make our web copy more readable.
The first thing I want to say is write everything. And what I mean by that is get it out of your head. The very first step to creating any piece of written content, again, whether it’s public facing or internal facing, it’s just to write with abandon.
I hesitate to use the phrase stream of consciousness because I think for some people that has some bad connotations from your high school creative writing class, but that’s what it is. The idea is you’ve got the knowledge locked up inside of your head. You don’t even know how much knowledge you have about a particular subject. And the finest way to get there is just to write everything done. Don’t worry for a second about whether it’s any good. We’re not worrying about good copy now, we’re just worrying about getting it out of our heads onto the paper.
The writer, Flannery O’Connor has one of my all-time favorite quotes. She said that the way I . . . let’s see, I know what I think . . . oh, no. I write in order to know what I think. That’s what it is. “I write in order to know what I think.” So, writing becomes a way of thinking through things. So, just spit it all out, get it out on the paper because then we’ll worry about making a good.
Now, there’s a few implications for this. We have to get the ideas out of our head, but we have to accept that the first draft of anything we write is probably going to be pretty terrible. It might have plenty of typos and usage errors, it might be inaccurate, it might be incomplete, it might be too complete, it might be overblown. There’s lots that can go wrong in a first draft, but the good news is nobody that you’re going after is ever going to read your first draft. Maybe your colleagues and your coworkers will if they help you, but that’s it. So, we just have to just accept and internalize that reality.
And really you have to smother your inner editor. Listen, I’m very guilty of this. I will sit down to write something. I’ll write a sentence, the first sentence, and then I will stop and obsess over that sentence if I’m not careful. So, this is something I have to remind myself. I’ll just get it out. Okay.
Then our jobs secondly become to cut. Cut, cut, cut, cut, cut. I would encourage you to try to cut 50% of the words from your first draft of something to your second or final draft. I had a college professor who told me when we had to . . . we had to edit each other’s essays every week and he said, “You should cut two out of every three words,” which I think he knew was a little insane, but if we aim for two out of three, maybe we land around 50%. So, if you aim for cutting 50% of words, maybe you land around 30 or 40%.
We’re going to talk in a minute about how important it is to have short copy, but suffice to say I think this might be . . . this is probably the top two or three lessons that I would share with you today that I really think we need to cut and when you get things shorter. And that’s because shorter copy is easier to scan and it naturally has more energy.
The main reason we’re cutting for web copy is to make things more likely to be read and understood, but the side effect of that is short copy tends to have more energy and personality, which is something that we all need but I can tell you that nonprofits especially, could do a really good job after they have so much to say. It’s just how they say it. I’ll give you an example of what I mean.
Here’s the sentence that you might read in an instruction manual online or something. So, it says, “Please note that although Chrome is supported for both Mac and Windows operating systems, it’s recommended to all users of the site switch to the most up-to-date version of the Firefox Web browser for the best possible results.”
Okay. Pretty standard sentence. It’s not a terrible sentence. We more or less understand what it’s saying. This sentence has 41 words. So, we’ve got a 41-word sentence, but we can edit it and cut it and get it to this, “For best results, use the latest version of Firefox. Chrome for Mac and Windows is also supported.”
Now, this version has 17 words, which means we cut 59% of the words. For web copy, this is a good job. And notice that we didn’t lose any of the meaning, right? We didn’t lose any important details. The gist was conveyed, in fact, in this instance, pretty much everything was conveyed, but we were able to get it shorter, it’s clearer, it’s easier to understand, and it’s easier to scan. And that is what we’re after when we’re writing for anything that’s going to be read on a screen.
All right. Four quick ways to simplify your copy. So, when you’re doing that cutting process and editing process, try to really make things . . . we’re trying to get to that Ogilvy paradigm that we saw in the opening story. We want to be writing things that are that moving and compelling and undeniable.
Now, for the next 60 seconds, it’s going to be like a flashback to your language arts class in high school. Forgive me, but these are things that are really easy ways to cut. So, the first is to eliminate prepositions when possible. Prepositions are obviously really important parts of speech, we couldn’t really do much without them, but they’re often overused, especially in any first draft of anything we write.
The way that I remember what a preposition is it’s something I learned all the way back in third grade when my teacher, Ms. Lomax taught us that a preposition is any word that can connect a squirrel and a tree. So, for example, the squirrel is in the tree. And it’s a preposition, “The squirrel is on the tree, the squirrel is under the tree, the squirrel is around the tree.” So, that’s to this day how I identify prepositions, but they can often come out of our writing.
Number two. This is a classic for most people’s English classes. Cut those “to be” verbs. So, sentences like, “The program is designed to serve single moms,” becomes, “The program serves single moms.” And we cut what, three words and just that one little change. And notice the second version just has more momentum, right? Has more dynamism if you asked me. So, cut those “to be” verbs.
Number three. Another classic, use the active voice, not the passive. So, just as a reminder, active means the subject of the sentence is performing the action. A passive sentence means that subject of the sentence is having an action performed upon it. So, instead of a passive sentence like, “Jim was hit by the whiffle ball,” we just flip it and say, “The whiffle ball hit Jim.”
Now, this is not a . . . it’s not to say you should never have a passive sentence. In fact, there are some sentences that if you made them active would sound really weird, but we often overuse the passive voice. Passive sentences tend to be longer and they tend to be a little more difficult for the average reader to comprehend. So, let’s get more active with our language.
And then finally, my favorite is cut filler phrases. We see them everywhere. Often, they start out sentences like,”One can easily see,” or “It’s important to realize,” or “It goes without saying,” but really these filler phrases can appear in the middle or at the end of a sentence.
And they don’t . . . when I say filler, I mean we write them because we’re, again, we’re thinking. Writing is a thinking activity and so as we’re thinking, we’re typing these things to try to get to our ideas and give us some time. So, when you’re editing things and you’re trying to make them sing, this is a really easy way, just cut them. Just cut them, cut them, cut them. You don’t need them. And they usually don’t serve you any good except delaying your point. Okay. So, again, it is all about increasing readability.
Some of you may be familiar with something called the F-Pattern. So, what you’re looking at here is a webpage. This is from the magazine, “Science.” It’s on their website. It’s an article about antibiotic-resistant bacteria, pretty standard looking webpage. And the way that people read on screens follows generally an F-Pattern that looks something like this. Meaning, they read the top of the page and as they move down the page, they tend to look less and less to the right.
Remember, people don’t read on screens the way they do on paper generally, and as you move further and further down the page, their eyes are just jumping occasionally to the right looking for words of either interest or the words that trigger what they came to that page to look for. So, the implications of this . . . this is stuff you can do literally today to improve your website.
First of all, just understand that people won’t read everything you write. And it pains me to say that because I like you love laboring over really great email or blog post or something, but as you get to a certain length, people just will not read every word, they won’t. So, we have to just accept that and move on, but it also means that the most important information has to go at the top of the page. It also probably means for some folks that they need more pages on their site.
A lot of clients that we work with, so we’re a design and marketing and digital transformation agency here at Mighty Citizen. And so we do a lot of design stuff and what we often see is on a nonprofit side especially, they tend to cram information onto one page and we recommend against that. Have one page before one idea, because if you cram a bunch of information on a page that’s important, some of it’s going to have to be pushed down and people will miss it. They simply will miss it.
You probably had the experience of someone saying, “I couldn’t find such and such on your site.” And you go, “Well, no. It’s there.” It’s just not prominent enough. And by prominent I mean, let’s bring stuff to the top of page.
And then the other thing I’ll add is that information carrying words go along the left side of the page because people tend to look it on the left side occasionally looking to the right. So, we want to begin our paragraphs, especially with words most relevant to whatever we’re talking about when possible. That also is a good reason to again, cut those filler phrases. Just get to it. If you’re talking about antibiotic-resistant bacteria, make sure words related to that are starting off your sentences and especially your paragraphs.
Okay. Moving on. I’m going to show you two blocks of texts. That’s the exact same text in each block and you’re going to decide for you which of these is easier to read. This might be the easiest quiz of all time. Okay. There we go. If you’re like . . . I’m going to say 7% of Americans, if you’re going to say the one on the right is easier to read, especially on a screen.
Now, why is that? There’s a lot of reasons why. First, the one on the right has more white space. That’s probably the biggest reason that a teacher to read. There’s more paragraph breaks. It’s got a picture which is nice. Most importantly, the picture is relevant and it has to do with the story of Little Red Riding Hood. A few other things. One on the right has what we call a sans-serif font. A font that doesn’t have the little hooks at the ends and edges of the letters.
The one on the left might be easier to read if it was printed out, but again, because we’re on screens, the one on the right still works. And I just noticed another typo. Goodness, gracious. I’m so embarrassed.
And there’s other things that we could do to the one on the right to make it even more readable. When I say readable about screens, you can just substitute in your head the word skimmable or scannable because that’s really how people take in information. And so we’re going to use structure on our pages, on our emails, even to some extent with direct mail.
Even though people do read differently on paper because of the nature of direct mail appeals, it’s important for people to be able to scan the ideas because again, you have very few seconds to convince them not to toss that letter into the trash. So, add more white space, more paragraph breaks than normal.
If you go, for example, to the Mighty Citizen’s website and you go to our blog, which is called Insights, you’ll notice that we have . . . it’s not uncommon for our blog articles to have just one or two sentences per paragraph. It might feel a little unnatural at first, but remember, we’re trying to increase the white space, increase the scanability, allow people to hunt and peck as they see fit.
Next, you want to break up text with images, but only relevant images. Please stop using cheap stock photography because not only do people not like it, they don’t actually see it. There’s a study that came out, I think it’s from Norman Nielsen. I could be wrong about that a couple of years ago that said, “People these days are so savvy they don’t even see bad or irrelevant stock photography.”
Number three. Add scanability. So, that thing is like a headline. Oh, here’s a big one, sub Headlines. Add sub-headlines, write down the page, break it up into section and title the sections. Lists are great, bulleted lists, numbered lists, stuff like that. And then, of course, you can get creative, you can use pull quotes or some stylish button design, video, of course, is increasingly used.
But really we want to think about, it’s not just about what we write, it’s how we present it. That’s just . . . frankly, it’s probably even more important in the long run to how many people read and comprehend your content, that is it’s easy to read.
By the way, side note, if you’re sending out solicitation emails, most people are going to see those probably on their phones and I’m subscribed to a ton of nonprofit email lists. And the ones that I pay attention to are the ones that are nice and big and easy for me to read on my phone. I get emails all the time from nonprofits that have probably really great content, but it requires me to pinch and zoom and scroll and it’s really unlikely I’m going to do that depending on what the message is or who it is. But please make things really big, clear and scannable and you will increase your readership guaranteed.
Okay. This is the last section. It is 12:33 here in Austin. I want to get this, do this in 20 minutes, so I’m going to move at a good clip. Forgive me in advance. Okay. So, what do I mean about sticky? Well, I want to start by introducing you to an idea called the curse of knowledge. And the curse of knowledge basically says that once you know something, it’s impossible to imagine what it was like not to know that thing.
Now, it’s not saying it’s hard, it’s saying it’s impossible. The human brain doesn’t quite work that way. We can’t unknow. We can forget something, of course, but once we know something, we can’t imagine what it’s like to be in the state of not knowing it. And in a nutshell, I think this describes what marketers do for a living and development folks as well because our job every day, why we spend 40 plus hours a week thinking about our organization. Who are we? What do we have to offer? Who’s our . . . how are we going to get new donors? How are we going to get new volunteers?
We think about it constantly. The people we’re trying to reach don’t think about us at all, or maybe they think about us very rarely or just briefly and maybe only when they happened to see something from us.
All right. That’s a big gap and our job as marketers is to try to almost metaphysically understand what it was like not to know something so that we can then figure out how do we get people to know that thing, what’s the most effective way? And despite the fact that all of us suffer from the curse of knowledge to one degree or another, there are tools we can use that improve the chances that the things we put out into the world will stick. And by stick, I mean lodge in someone’s brain and come up again when there’s some association or some need arises.
Like Ms. Lomax taught me about how to learn prepositions with the squirrel in the tree, that was whatever. Let’s see, that was almost 30 years ago that that happened and I’m still remembering it because it’s stuck.
So, sticky content. And you might recognize this if you’ve read the book “Made to Stick.” We’re going to use some examples from that fantastic book. There it is. It’s by two brothers who are sociologist modern cultural anthropologists, Chip and Dan Heath. It’s a great read for anyone who communicates for living. I cannot recommend it highly enough, and frankly, you’ll read it in probably a weekend.
It’s a nice, easy, breezy book, but they introduce some concepts and you notice that the elements of sticky content almost spelled the word success, almost. Simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional stories. So, I want to take a minute to talk about each of these so that we can begin to think about how they relate to our marketing efforts and our marketing content. Okay. So, we’re going to move through this now.
We’re going to start with simple, of course. Actually, just before the call, Steven was telling me he likes to fly Southwest Airlines and there’s a great example that really embodies how important simplicity is and what we mean by simple in this context.
The CEO, the founder of Southwest Airlines is a man named Herb Kelleher. In fact, he recently passed away and he was a real visionary and Southwest Airlines is the largest airline in America. And when he founded it, he said that, “We will be the low-cost airline.” That was his simple idea. That was it. “We will be the low-cost airline.”
And there was a story that one of his underlings or something came to him one day and said, “You know Herb, we did a survey and our passengers said that, gosh, they would really love a Chicken Caesar salad on the flight.” And Herb said, “That’s great. I love Chicken Caesar salad. Let me just ask you a question, would that cost any more money?” And they said, “Well, we’d only add 50 cents to each ticket.” And he said, “We’re not going to do it. We’re not going to give them that chicken Caesar Salad because it will increase ticket prices. We’re not doing it because it violates our rule. Our simple guiding principle of being the low-cost airline. If there’s something . . . ” In other words, he was willing to ignore his passengers’ desires and requests if it meant keeping ticket prices as low as possible.
So, how do I . . . let me say this. I don’t want you to confuse simplicity as a guiding principle with that everything you write has to be simple. We’re not asking you to write Dick and Jane level books. We don’t want that simple of language all the time. What we do want is to have a clear, simple, compact. And so simple in this sense means . . . that doesn’t mean short means compact. It means that it’s just a singular idea that we’re trying to communicate.
I think something that happens for a lot of marketers and a lot of industries is that they think so much about what they do that they feel like they have to constantly change and expand their message. But remember, we’re talking to people by and large who don’t know us yet or who barely know us, who don’t really care too much about what we have to say until we convince them otherwise. And if we shove a bunch of ideas at them at once, they won’t remember them.
I think Bill Clinton once famously said, “If you say three things, you say nothing.” So, of the elements of making copies sticky, this is the one that probably is the most high-level strategic guiding idea as opposed to something more detailed and tactical, but I want to encourage you to simplify individual pieces of content around a single idea. I think it’ll go a lot further.
Okay. Now, this is the tricky part. I’m going to try to show . . . I’m going to back out of my . . . I’m going to show you two quick 30-second videos and we ran this before to test it and audio was not great. I have to admit that. I’ve got it up to my phone, I’m going to play this video. If you can’t understand it, don’t worry. We will talk about it as soon as we’ve watched these two videos. Here we go.
Ad:”In an effort to get people to remember our name, outpost.com, we contacted the local high school marching band and asked them to help us out. And to help make this memorable we decided to release a pack of ravenous wolves. That’s good stuff.”
Andrew:Okay. So, that was the first commercial. Again, apologies that the audio was a little wonky. I’m going to show you a second one here. These are both older commercials.
Ad:”Introducing the all-new Enclave. It’s a minivan to the max with features like remote-control sliding rear doors, 150 cable channels, a full sky-view roof, temperature controlled cup holders, and the 6 point navigation system. It’s the minivan for families on the go.”
Andrew:Okay. All right. So, by the way, again, in the slide deck that you’re going to get after this, there are links to these videos if the audio was bad. In short, we saw two commercials. One with about them releasing wolves to gather attention, right? You’re going to attack this band with these wolves and that’ll get us national attention. And then the second one it seemed like it was a car commercial, but then there was an accident and it turned into a PSA about buckling up. Okay.
So, why those two commercials? Because they both illustrate the second idea of sticky copy, which is being unexpected. I think increasingly we think that the way to cut through the content glut is to try to get weirder and more provocative and that’s not necessarily untrue. The problem is that a lot of folks just stop there. They try to be provocative without connecting it to their core message.
So, if you want to be unexpected when you’re communicating to your audiences, you have to make sure that it relates back to your core message or goal. So, in those two commercials, the first one I would argue with the wolves and the marching band was ineffective because the marching band and the wolves, while kind of funny, has nothing to do with who it was advertising for. In this case, it was a company called Outpost that sold computer stuff. They don’t exist anymore. So, that was ineffective, I would argue because there was no connection between Outpost and the unexpected content.
The second commercial where we think we’re watching a normal car commercial and then suddenly there’s an accident, that is more effective because the message of you need to buckle up, makes a lot more sense in that content. Or excuse me, in that context. So, here’s the message. Unexpected content can stick in your reader’s mind if it’s both surprising and interesting. So, you’ve got to seize their attention, you got to do something a little unusual to seize their attention, but then you have to convert it into interest.
And there’s not a formula for that, but you know who’s really good at that? Local news. You’ve seen these local news commercials that are like, “Is your toothbrush killing you? Tune in at 10. There’s an escalator that is . . . there’s a magical escalator, learn more tonight at 11.” The way you can really create unexpected engagement with your users is to create a mystery for them and then later solve or complete that mystery.
Humans hate not having a resolution. We’ve got to know how something ends. That’s why people hated the end of The Sopranos because the screen went black and we didn’t know what happened. We love that resolution. So, that’s one way you can create something unexpected. Think of creating a mystery for your users and then solving it.
Okay. Number three. So, we’ve done simple unexpected. Now, I want to talk about this guy, Charlie Strong. He used to be the head football coach at my alma mater, the University of Texas here in Austin. He wasn’t super successful as our head coach, but when he came on campus, he introduced what he called his core values. And these are the core values he introduced, no drugs, no guns, no stealing, no earrings, attend class, and treat women with respect. Now, a lot of people who made fun of him because they said, “Well, those aren’t even values, those are just rules.” And besides, head football coaches, they’re supposed to say things like, we’re all about brotherhood and discipline and hard work and sacrifice and focus. But Charlie Strong said, “I can stand in front of a room of 50 football players, say that our main value is discipline.” And now I have 50 different interpretations of that word. So, that’s what we’re talking about here. Concrete language, simple, unexpected.
Now, we’re on concrete. And this is probably my favorite of the six because it’s so often ignored. Charlie Strong said, “Listen, my idea of what it means to work hard is different than the person next to me, but if I say no drugs, that’s concrete.” That has real physical presence in the world, there’s no gray area there. I would encourage all of you to look for opportunities to use more concrete language.
Here’s another example. If I image search the word helpful on Google, I’m going to get all these random collections of diverse images that aren’t really connected because the word helpful is not concrete, but if I search a concrete term like V8 engine that’s what I see, a bunch of V8 engines. So, concrete messages are immune to user-confusion and that’s why nonprofits tell so many stories about their constituents and their clients because there is no mistaking concrete objects in the real world. Okay. Simple, unexpected, concrete.
Now, we’re on the second C which is about credibility. Credibility is important for nonprofits because you’re trying to get people to give you money in exchange for basically nothing tangible. So, external credibility wins every time. Testimonials, awards, reviews, your GuideStar rating, stuff like that.
External credibility is what you want the most of. You want other people talking about how great you are as an organization, but there are some ways to develop internal credibility. The first is to provide details. I’m not going to spend much time on that except to say that if somebody has a lot of details, we tend to trust that they know what they’re talking about. And that’s not to say you should cram details on every page, but when it’s important for you to come off as, especially credible, details are one way to get there.
But I do want to talk just for a second about data and statistics because I think there’s a great opportunity for not-for-profit organizations to do more with data. Sometimes you’ll see like, “Hey, we put up an infographic,” and you go look and if the infographic is really just a bunch of different font sizes and colors. No, an infographic is supposed to use images to really illustrate data. So, how do you do this well? Here is one of my all-time favorite pieces of content.
So, a few years ago here in Texas, there was a bunch of rain in the month of May. We had so . . . just May, was just rain from beginning to end. And the newspaper and the National Weather Bureau put this together and they could have said 35 trillion gallons of rain fell on Texas in the month of May, but that is meaningless. Just sharing data with your users usually depending on what it is, there’s some exceptions, but most of the time I think it falls flat because there’s no context to it. They don’t know. I don’t know if 35 trillion is a lot or little. It’s such a big number and it’s removed from my day-to-day world that I don’t understand it.
So, what they did is they said, “Well, just to put that in context, that’s like we could cover the entire state with eight inches of water or we could . . . ” The one on the bottom there is on the left it’s like that’s enough to cover Manhattan four times the height of the Empire State building. But the best one is the lower right, that’s enough to give every human being on earth eight glasses of water every day for 25 years. Wow. Now, suddenly, that number comes to life for me.
So, I want to encourage you to look for ways to establish credibility by . . . I know that you’ll have data. Nonprofits are drowning in data a lot of times. Share that data by connecting it to something that your users already know or understand or at least connected to something that is contextual. Simply plopping down 44% of our clients graduated high school early. Well, is that good? I don’t know. But if you can connect that into some other context that it’s more engaging and interesting, suddenly people will start to understand or at least engage with that data.
Okay. We’re almost near the end here. I’ve got two more things I want to talk about. The first one is emotions. So, I would argue that there is no proactive action that we take as human that doesn’t have an emotional component. And by the way, the emotions are mad, sad, glad, and afrad. Those are the four basic emotions and every other emotion is basically like a combination or a shade of those.
But you, okay. Listen, I understand that we as marketers are sometimes worried about using emotional appeals because we don’t want to seem manipulative or exploitive or craven, but I would argue that it is irresponsible of us to not use emotions because they are such compelling drivers of human behavior from the smallest to the biggest action and especially an action like donating your hard-earned money to a charitable organization, that is an emotional decision on some level, even if we’re not fully aware of it.
I’ll give you my all-time favorite example of this. You may know The Truth Initiative. They try to get teens to stop smoking by using very emotional appeals that play on fear and anger, maybe even sadness, in some cases. Here’s an example of one of their ads. They’ve been around 20 odd years doing really good emotional, provocative communication.
Now, the same time that The Truth Initiative came out, another anti-teen smoking campaign called “Think Don’t Smoke” came out, they ran commercials for years. So, you have these two competing campaigns and this one was more traditional. It was about the . . . it’s what you would expect when you think of a don’t smoke commercial. And this was actually run by the company’s Phillip Morris. They were forced to run anti-teen smoking campaigns in the ’90s.
Well, when they studied this back in 2013, they found that teens exposed to the emotional campaign we’re 66% less likely to smoke while teens exposed to the more rational, logical, the one that had the word think in its title, we’re actually 36% more likely to smoke. Imagine that.
So, the point here, of course, being that we don’t want our users thinking, we want them feeling, and as long as we’re not lying or stretching the truth, as long as we’re being honest and authentic, then we should also admit that there’s an emotional component to our work. We all have seen Sarah McLachlan singing on the SPCA commercials. That campaign was wildly. Still is wildly successful. Okay?
Last thing. I’m going to move through this here. Go to the last one. Yeah, stories. So, how you share your message tells people how to respond. We’ve talked about stories and storytelling all the time in the nonprofit marketing circles, right? We hear it, we’re probably sick of that word, but the truth is the stories are wildly powerful. That’s how humans have communicated since the beginning, it’s how we still teach children things is through storytelling quite often.
But what’s great about stories is that how you share your message tells people how to respond to it. So, if you make a claim and you’re asking your users to argue with you over the facts, but if you tell a story, you’re asking folks to see things from our or your point of view. And that’s the difference. That is a key difference. We talked about the word engagement. You know what engagement really is? It’s getting people to see things from your point-of-view, and the way to do that is to tell a story because here’s why.
Quick little exercise, we’re going to take two minutes to do this and then we’ll wrap up. I want you sitting there at your desk right now to imagine the following things. Imagine a flashing light. Imagine someone tapping on your skin. Now, imagine any word that begins with the letter B, and finally, imagine the Eiffel Tower. Okay.
Now, you’ve imagined those four things. If we could have hooked you up to a brain scan during that little exercise, we would have seen that the visual area of your brain activated when you imagined a flashing light. And when you imagine someone tapping on your skin, the tactile area, the part of your brain that processes touch would have lit up. If we had a camera on you, we would have seen that when you pick thought of a letter that begins with the letter B, your lips would have moved. Maybe you’ve been just barely. And then finally, when you imagine the Eiffel Tower, our camera would have noticed that you looked up briefly and slightly.
It happened and why? Why does this matter? Because the human brain is the world’s most powerful simulation machine. It’s why we learn how to fly a plane by using a flight simulator instead of flashcards, because as far as the human brain is concerned, thinking or imagining doing something is the next best thing to actually doing that thing. And from a brain scan’s point of view, there’s almost no measurable difference between the two.
So, that’s why storytelling is so powerful because the moment you start telling a story, people begin to simulate it in their head. They can’t help it. They’re painting the picture as they read it and now you’ve engaged them, right? That’s why nonprofits are so keen on telling stories. And please, keep it up. Now, how you tell your stories, what stories you tell, those are other questions, of course, but the stories always . . . I shouldn’t say always. Most of the time I would argue storytelling will beat out claim-making any day.
I’m going to move through this in here quickly because we’re running out of time. Here’s my sum up slide. Our job is to make it as easy as possible for people to understand our message. The writing is in the rewriting. Get the ideas out and then edit them. Cut your text and use page structure. Those are things you can do right now today and it will increase visitorship and readership.
And remember the elements of sticky copies, the things to fight that curse of knowledge. Try something simple, try something unexpected, be more concrete, help further establish your internal credibility, use human emotions to persuade people to do good things, and finally, tell more stories and tell them more often.
We have put together a page on our site, mightycitizen.com/bloomerang. We’ve got a number of free resources that you can download, there’s a fundraising campaign worksheet there. I believe there is a website evaluation kit. And, of course, on our side, we’ve got a number of other free resources that you can download at any time. I’m looking at my clock, it looks like there’s three minutes left in our hour and I want to thank you all for paying attention. I know it’s hard to do that at your computer for a whole hour, so I really appreciate those of you who stuck around and I’m going to shut up now and see what Steven has.
Steven: Well, thanks, Andrew. That was awesome. No need to shut up, I can listen to this all day, but I know we’re getting close to the hour. So, thanks for hanging out with us. We did have a couple of questions. We probably got time for maybe one or two, but definitely, I would encourage you all to reach out to Andrew, obviously wealth of knowledge and check out the Mighty Citizen website because I can vouch for the free resources there. Lots of good stuff for sure.
Here’s one from Angie, Andrew, she asked this when you were talking about making cuts within your story, how can you determine when that will work because people may be talking to different audiences at different times. Are there certain things you should take, keep in mind when dealing with different audiences or should you treat them all the same? I mean, the audiences are really that different in terms of the kinds of things you recommended today?
Andrew: Yeah. That’s a great question. It’s a little difficult to answer without knowing the particular context or the details of Angie’s situation. In my experience, a story well-crafted and told whether it’s written, pictorial, video transcends most audience types. I also feel like although what motivates certain audiences might be a little different. I think we’re all a lot more similar. I think sometimes we think we overthink segmentation in our communication. So, I’m sorry, I don’t have a more detailed answer for Angie except to say email me about it and we can certainly talk it out more, but I generally think that you don’t have to rework your client stories for different audiences too much, but, of course, there’ll be some exceptions to that.
Steven: Makes sense. Here’s one from Melissa here. Andrew, wondering if you have a favorite plot structure that you like to use when you’re writing for nonprofits specifically, anything that you personally maybe like to use for your clients, any secret sauce you wouldn’t mind giving away.
Andrew: Yeah. I’ll just vomit a few things that come to mind. So, I’m a big fan of the classic Hero’s Journey. I think the one about or most famously outlined by Joseph Campbell. The reason that one is so famous is because it’s worked since humans were able to communicate. So, you can never go wrong with that. And there, of course, different elements.
There’s another great book called . . . what is it? It’s called . . . I think it’s called “Tell Your Story Brand.” That it’s a simplified version of the Hero’s Journey that I’ve played around with some of our clients, it seems to have some success. The other thing I’ll add is I generally think that we need to raise the stakes more right off the bat in a story, meaning we need to establish the problem or what’s bad about the beginning of this person’s story so that there are stakes. There’s nothing worse than a story where there’s nothing on the line where whether the hero fails or succeeds doesn’t matter too much one way or the other.
So, between following a hero’s journey introducing us to people, and by the way, that’s the other thing, a story has to have a hero and the hero is your clients and the people you serve. It is not your organization. That’s one of the things we skipped through quickly there at the end. So, make sure you’re focusing on the people you’re serving and your storytelling, raise the stakes right off the bat, and then solve . . . resolve, I should say the story at the end. I hope that’s a little helpful, but again, happy to talk about this more with anyone in more detail later.
Steven: I love it. Man, this was awesome. It’s a little after 2:00, so I want to be respectful of everyone’s time. I think we’ll call it a day there. Definitely reach out to Andrew because he obviously knows his stuff. So, thanks for hanging out with us, Andrew. It’s a lot of fun.
Andrew: And thank you, everybody, for sticking around. Thank you, Steven, and go Bloomerang.
Steven: Yeah. Go Mighty Citizen, I appreciate it.
Andrew: Yeah.
Steven: And Andrew . . .
Andrew: All right.
Steven: I’ll see you in a couple months and hopefully, I will see the rest of you next week since we’ve got our 2019 webinar schedule up and running now. We’re back same time, same place one week from today with Marcy Heim, one of my favorites. She’s going to be talking about that first face-to-face meeting with a big donor prospect, normally a nerve-wracking experience, but she’s going to break it down and give you some helpful tips to make sure that that meeting and successfully. So, check that one out. We’d love to see you again next Thursday.
If you’re unavailable or maybe you’re not quite interested in that topic, although I don’t know why you wouldn’t be but that’s okay. There’s lots of other webinars on our schedule that you can register for, lots of fun topics we’ve got planned for 2019. We’d love to have you back for another session.
So, look for an email from me with the recording and the slides. I’ll get that to you this afternoon and hopefully, we’ll see you again next week. So, have a good rest of your Thursday, have a safe weekend. Stay warm out there and we’ll talk to you again soon.

Kristen Hay

Kristen Hay

Marketing Manager at Bloomerang
Kristen Hay is the Marketing Manager at Bloomerang. She also serves as the Director of Communications for PRSA’s Hoosier chapter.
Kristen Hay
By |2019-01-15T15:48:23-04:00January 16th, 2019|Webinars|

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