During WWII, the US government believed it needed to shape the public’s thoughts and opinions. It was important for the government to keep us all on the same page and pulling in the same direction. Put plainly, the government wanted to influence people’s thinking. They began experimenting with propaganda.
And what they learned from analyzing the results of their early propaganda efforts surprised them.
One of the ways they tried to change people’s minds was with propaganda films. You can imagine them. Maybe you’ve even seen some. Black and White film, maps with huge arrows, scary caricatures of the enemy, maybe that classic newsreel voiceover. I’m not a fan of that either, but the lesson is important for your fundraising and marketing.
Here’s how they designed their simple propaganda experiment. Since it’s the government they used soldiers as their study group.
First they surveyed the group of soldiers to determine their opinions.
Then they showed the soldiers their nifty propaganda film designed to change those opinions.
Right after the film, they surveyed the soldiers again to record how much their opinions had changed.
Surprise #1. The soldiers’ opinions didn’t change. The film hadn’t influenced their thinking. That must have been awkward.
But they waited a few weeks and surveyed the soldiers again.
Surprise #2: The group’s opinions had changed dramatically, just as they had hoped for originally. But the change in opinion happened weeks after seeing the film. Not immediately after seeing the film. The propaganda worked, but the effect was delayed, not immediate.
Crazy, right? The government and the psychologists behind the effort had assumed that the impact of the film’s message would decrease over time. That’s logical. Over time the viewers would forget the message and be less impacted.
But the opposite happened. The message’s impact increased over time.
That’s counterintuitive at first. How could the message become more powerful over time?
The secret is something called “discounting cues.” These discounting cues produce a “delayed persuasive effect” (sometimes it’s called the “sleeper effect”).
Here’s how it works. When you encounter a message designed to persuade you, you have a natural tendency to discount the message because you know you’re being persuaded or sold. It’s logical. People think: “Uh oh. They’re trying to influence me, I need to guard myself a bit.” Shields go up. You discount the power of the message and the effort to persuade you. It’s a mental stiff arm to keep those persuasive ideas at bay.
Yet. Over time those shields come down. The message is no longer on your mind so your defenses against it drop. And that allows the power of the message to take effect.
Well we’re not making propaganda films around here, so let’s make the fundraising and marketing connections.
First, a single impact isn’t as powerful as a series of messages. Don’t bank on one mailing or one email to connect with and motivate donors. Multiple opportunities to encounter your message are required for the greatest donor impact and connection. Even if a donor does see every mailing or email (they don’t) you need more than one to get that response. That’s why we preach frequency as a central element to successful fundraising.
Second, donor relationships are built over time. Don’t trip yourself up and think that fundraising is disconnected from relationships. The fundraising with the greatest real, long-term ROI is based in a relationship. You have to connect with donors’ hearts. You want donors to care about the problem your organization is solving. You want them to think differently about your cause. You must not rely on a single impact, message, phone call or visit. A series of well-designed messages are what you need to gain, cultivate and hold your donor’s attention (ideally digital, print and in-person are all integrated).
Third, it’s not enough to assume the sleeper effect works passively. You have to prompt, connect or interact with the donor again. Calls to Action are the name of the game. A prompt for the donor to think differently is a significant call to action. It’s not magic, it’s the way we’re made. We put up defenses even against most persuasive messages. That’s the way of the world. Good messaging, thoughtful frequency and specific calls to action are what you have to have in today’s world.
Finally, I hope you weren’t overly bothered that I began by having you think about propaganda. I don’t advocate propaganda or any of the other slop bucket of inappropriate persuasion methods. I do believe in learning what “those guys” do so that I can learn and help my clients. We are persuading donors. I’m not talking about using strong arm tactics. I’m talking about the heavy lifting of getting your donors to think about you at all, not to mention give their money, time or attention to you.
I’d love to know what you think about the “sleeper effect” and how this concept is applied to marketing and fundraising. I hope you know how much I appreciate hearing from you.
If you’re not getting our email newsletter with information about this blog, you’re missing out on some of the good stuff. You can sign up here. Have no fear, I’ll never sell you out or spam you.