The engine under the hood of this direct mail acquisition champ: Reciprocity

Here’s the opening for a “grateful patient” acquisition appeal written for Sharp HealthCare in San Diego:

Dear [Salutation],
You came to Sharp Chula Vista as a patient, in need of help.

Thank you for that profound act of trust.

Now I come to you, humbly, to ask for your help in turn.

The cause for excellent health care, here in our community, needs you.

Will you consider becoming its champion… by making a gift to Sharp HealthCare Foundation?

As a patient, you’ve experienced firsthand Sharp Chula Vista’s award-winning health care. I sincerely hope you were satisfied with your outcome.

What patients perhaps don’t realize is just how much these good outcomes depend on the generosity of people like you and other residents in our community.

Philanthropy makes a huge contribution here at Sharp Chula Vista.

Your gift makes a serious difference…

The truth is this: name any top hospital in America and you’ll discover that behind its continued success stand thousands of self-sacrificing benefactors. They are our champions.

The appeal continues onto a second page, 408 words in total; the P.S. alone is almost 100 words long. Grade level of the entire letter? 8th, with a reading ease score of 62 out of 100. Grade level of the first four paragraphs? 3rd, with a reading ease score of 92 out of 100. The intention: to reduce mental labor at the start to almost nothing, so people begin reading immediately. They just fall into the letter, beckoned on by five “you’s” scattered across four skinny little paragraphs.
In a 2016 New York Times article, Sharp joyfully gave this particular two-page appeal credit for attracting more than 30,000 donations during the letter’s eight years of service.
So it worked. But why?
The letter hangs its hopes mostly on “reciprocity.”
Best-selling author, psychologist Dr. Robert Cialdini, lists reciprocity as one of his six key principles of persuasion. It’s the tit-for-tat principle. It’s an easily triggered, built-in psychological response. It’s also a social norm we’re taught from childhood.
What is reciprocity? Basically, if I give you something, you’ll feel an obligation to give me something back, even if it’s only thanks.
The letter reminds the discharged patient that she was once ill. And the hospital helped her. (I.e., we gave you your health back.)
Now the hospital, in turn, is asking for her help.
And making a donation, the appeal points out, is the best way for a truly grateful patient to discharge her “reciprocation obligation” … because all great nonprofit hospitals depend heavily on donations and supporters and true believers … like you.
The letter is not much about the hospital. The letter is about the importance of donors to the “cause for excellent health care.”
The five most compelling words on page one are probably: “Your gift makes a serious difference….” Typographically, visually, that statement — centered, in boldface, framed by gobs of white space, leading with a come-hither “your” — SHOUTS. Hence, it cannot be ignored, as Dr. Siegfried Vögele discovered in his famous eye-motion studies. It’s an eye magnet. On the entire page, it is the only thing emphasized … and it contains a core message that Sharp repeats at every opportunity in its appeals: your philanthropy matters.

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