For the love of OFFERS

Offers win new donors. Offers help you keep the donors you have. How high is your “offer IQ”?

Recently, one of my all-time favorite clients (open to new ideas, fun to work with, relaxed, smart, talented) sent me a sketch of an ad cooked up by senior fundraisers at her hospital.

This proposed ad URGES readers of the hospital’s magazine to put a charitable gift in their Wills, to benefit children’s medicine. As most ads should, it ends with a call to action:

“Contact us…to see how you can help.”

My client asked, “What do you think?”

“Publish it!” I wrote back eagerly.

For one thing: ANY ad for bequests is better than NO ad for bequests.

Plus, I burbled: “Your proposed ad neatly solves the #1 problem in bequest marketing.”

Which is?

Good research shows that the most common reason people who are otherwise charitable do NOT in the end make gifts in their Wills is (drum roll):


Now,” I wrote, “it will occur to them, assuming they read your ad. So, hey: good work, everyone!”

Before you dash on, credit where credit’s due: I think I learned that particular research fact about “it never occurred to me” from Iceberg Philanthropy; if not, then from some other research just as world-changing.

Though I do, at the end I whispered, have ONE teensy hesitation about the proposed ad.

“‘Contact us’ is NOT much of an offer,” I said in closing.

And then I lectured, since that’s what consultants do: “Without a strong (i.e., convincing, moving, sharp, astute, insightful, timely, trending) offer, there’s no quantifiable way to measure the effectiveness of this ad.”

Or pontificating words to that effect.

To which my client replied:

“Look, Tom, for the life of me, as many times as I’ve heard you say ‘offer,’ I still don’t know what that is EXACTLY! Are we offering to physically give them something? Mail them a packet? Or is it supposed to be more exciting than that?”

Fabulous question, Jen!

Forgive me, world, for I have sinned: I went to Ad School. That’s my excuse; I’m sticking with it.

My teachers were a bunch of cynical, delightful, unsympathetic pros (both genders) who knew (and adored) the trade of copywriting.

They were merciless. They relished making fun of my pathetic attempts at ad-making. And they taught me most of what I use today to get results. We should all be so lucky.

At Ad School, you learn stuff like:

“Without a strong offer, there’s no accurate way to measure whether an ad is really working.”

There are basically two types of ads:

  • “response” ads (they make offers)
  • “image” ads (they do NOT make offers; and on that topic, most nonprofits really shouldn’t get into image advertising, but if your boss feels you must, because pro bono work from a hot agency sounds like “a deal,” please consult Jeff Brooks’ Stupid Nonprofit Ads archive; you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll get the point)

Without competent offers, you’re lost.

Literally lost: you have no idea which ads work and which ads don’t.


Because offers ask for response, which in turn make your ads measurable.

If nobody responds, you know your ad failed. You did not put the right offer in front of the right people at the right time.

If a few people respond, you know your ad is headed in the right direction. Your offer was sort of on-target. It might need improvement or more repetition.

If a lot of people respond, you know “Wow: we struck emotional paydirt!”

When that happens, a fundraiser can with confidence shift her time and money into ads that offer the best return on investment. The most successful bequest marketing program I know spent $100,000 over two years testing various types of ads in their local market. They tried everything they could get their hands on, even billboards. What worked best? It turned out that 15-second spots on public radio delivered the largest number of qualified leads. It was NOT the result people expected.

What was the offer? The most common offer there is: “For more information….” The radio announcer then mentioned an easy-to-recall custom URL that jumped people to a dedicated landing page online … where they met a terrific little booklet they could get for free: “A quick guide to the pleasure and promise of charitable bequests.”

Without offers — without a mechanism that invites response — you’ll have no idea whether an ad works or not.

But I digress (who doesn’t?)

Anyway, my response to my favorite client was this:

“‘Contact us’ is too passive.

“It’s so passive, your response rate could easily be zero.

“Which will tell you nothing useful about the ad.”

Here’s the problem:

Getting someone to add a charitable gift to a Will takes forever. It might take 15 years for a family to update its household Will (research and personal experience shows).

“So,” I hectored on, “when your new ad appears, it will probably be WAY too early in the sales process to expect the donor to be greatly motivated at that moment.

“‘Contact us’? In 15 years, maybe.

“And one more thing: ‘contact us’ is not very tangible. Can’t touch it. Can’t see it. Can’t hear it. Can’t smell it. A free booklet, on the other hand, is tangible. And tangible outsells abstract any day of the year.”

My conclusion:

“I see no great benefit in this offer … so far.”

“What’s a benefit, Mommy?”

“Features tell. Benefits sell.” Say it aloud. Never forget it. “Features tell. Benefits sell.”

Features: what it does.

Benefits: what it might do for me personally.

This is a feature: “A guide…”

This is a benefit: “A quick guide…”

This is a feature: “A guide to charitable bequests.”

This is a benefit: “A quick guide to the pleasure and promise of charitable bequests.”

This is a feature: “Contact us…to see how you can help.”

This is a benefit: “Contact us…to take our special behind-the-scenes tour and see for yourself why a gift in your Will could be the most important contribution you ever make to the future of children’s health.”

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