Looking for something to debate over lunch today?

Check out Nick Ellinger’s post over at the DonorVoice Blog, where he tackles the age-old debate over the power of storytelling versus data when it comes to fundraising success.

Challenging a common thesis that that Democrats lost the 2016 presidential election because they focused on data-driven marketing, rather than traditional storytelling and narrative.

What do you think?

Before you send your egg salad sandwich sailing across the lunchroom toward a disagreeing colleague, here’s the Spoiler Alert: According to Nick, storytelling vs. data is “a false choice faced often by marketers. We don’t need data over stories or stories over data – we need the two of them working together.”

Drawing on behavioral science, Nick notes when you look at science, narratives are an important part of why we believe things and why we give. “Specifically, when people empathize with a story, they have 47% higher oxytocin levels and oxytocin leads to greater giving. In fact, when we see vivid imagery in a narrative, our brain processes it as if it is a visual and motor experience – almost as though it happened to you.”

Ergo: storytelling is important, even to cold-hearted numbers folks like Nick.

BUT … Storytelling alone is not enough. We also need data to know what story to tell.

For example, according to Nick, “when you sign up for the ASPCA newsletter, they ask you to fill out a survey. One of the questions on that survey is whether you are a cat or dog person. They then use that information to customize the pictures they show you and the stories they tell. This simple differentiator is the first line of customization and segmentation for ASPCA and it allows them to tell stories that their donors and prospective donors will care about.”

Of course, every nonprofit has these differences. But how many organizations really put the power of these differences to work?

Not many, according to Nick. “Of the nonprofits we secret shopped, fewer than a quarter asked about any topic preferences and only 6% asked for any attributes about the donor or the donor’s connections to the cause. That means that for most people for most organizations a new subscriber is nothing more than a name and contact info,” says an incensed Nick.

Nick advises that preference and donor identity data not only helps the nonprofit determine which story goes to which donor, it also informs you what stories are worth telling. “By analyzing what causes people to commit to organization XXX, you can use just the ones that you know will work for your audience.”

“Each person we serve as a nonprofit is a story waiting to happen,” says Nick.

Don’t fall into the “Either/Or Trap” warns Nick. “Data without storytelling gives you insight, but no way to practice it; storytelling without data ends up telling a great yarn to people who don’t care.”

Are you among minority of fundraisers who seek your donors’ preferences and attributes and use them to inform the stories you tell?


P.S. DonorVoice will be releasing their full Secret Shopping study shortly. If you’d like to be among the first to receive it just sign up here.


This article was posted in: Communications, Copywriting / creative, Fundraising analytics / data, Integrated fundraising and marketing, Research.
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