How Long Should Your #Fundraising Appeal Be?

When I was in middle school, it was common for my English teacher to give us an essay assignment. Every time she did, one student would always ask, “How long do you want it to be?” The teacher provided great direction that has guided my writing ever since:

Make it as long as it has to be. If you have something to say, say it. When you’ve said it, stop writing.”

Sometimes, you’ll need to write a lengthy appeal while at other times, a shorter appeal might be more effective.

Mal Warwick, the direct mail guru, once told me about a survey of men and women designed to explore what type of appeals they might prefer. Men said they prefer short appeals while women said they prefer longer ones. The interesting thing is that when follow-up appeals were sent, men and women responded at similar rates. Even more interesting is that both men and women were more likely to respond to the longer appeals.

kerouac-scrollThe idea that people don’t read anymore is a myth.

If the appeal comes from an organization someone cares about, he will take the time to read provided that your copy is compelling and relevant to the reader.

Don’t be afraid of the number of words you are using. Use as many as you need to move your readers.

This general insight also holds true in the business-to-consumer and business-to-business worlds making it something of a universal truth. Writing in Target MarketingBob Bly says:

So when clients tell me they don’t like long copy, I ask, ‘For whom are you writing? Casual readers? Or serious buyers looking to spend their money on what you are selling?’”

Bly observes that longer copy generally generates greater response rates in both b-to-c and b-to-b marketing. Fundraising is no different.

Bly also reports that longer blog posts are better from an SEO perspective, according to research from Orbit Media. Research by HubSpot finds that longer blog posts (over 2,500 words) are more likely to be shared on social media. Site SEO Analysis shows wordier web pages (500 words at minimum, but over 2,000 is better) rank higher in search engines. Eccolo Media reports that longer whitepapers (six to eight pages) are more likely to be read than those that are shorter.

There are certainly times when using fewer words is the way to go. For example, if you’re writing copy for a postcard mailing, you’ll have very limited real estate with which to work. You’ll need to be brief. However, when you have space, it will generally be better for you to write longer rather than shorter.

Following best-practice can often be the wise move. However, that’s not always the case. If your list is large enough and you have the resources, you should test various appeal lengths to see what works best for your organization and its various audiences.

If you test, more often than not, you’ll find that longer copy will generate a better result. Just be sure to keep these 10 tips in mind:

  • Follow my middle school teacher’s advice. Say what you need to say, then stop. Keep it compelling.
  • Be conversational, not institutional.
  • Share a story rather than statistics.
  • Explain how the donor’s gift will be put to good use, and why you need it now.
  • Make sure readers see what’s in it for them.
  • Use simple words.
  • Use short sentences.
  • Use short paragraphs.
  • Use bullet points.
  • Use an easily readable font (i.e., a serif font of 12 points or greater, depending on the age of your readers).

I could go on, but there are plenty of great resources out there. Many worthwhile books have been written to help you write fantastic appeals.

However, as I’ve said earlier, if you follow my middle school teacher’s advice rather than count words, and you test messages of varying lengths, you just might find that shorter is sometimes better.

In recognition of Veterans Day (November 11 in the USA), you might want to consider one of the most compelling presidential speeches ever made. President Abraham Lincoln did not need more than 271 words to make a profound impression when he delivered the Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Yes, sometimes shorter can be powerful. However, for your nonprofit organization, consider writing longer, so long as you keep it compelling.

What have you found that works best for your organization?

On a final note, I thank every veteran and their families for the enormous sacrifices they have made and their profound commitment to the wellbeing of our nation.

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

7 Responses to “How Long Should Your #Fundraising Appeal Be?”

  1. Spot on advice Michael. Nicely put.

  2. Michael,
    Recently my organization tested a short version of a letter we had used last year with success; the longer version this time raised almost double the shorten version head on head. From decision making psychology, it make sense.

    • Larry, thank you for sharing your experience. I’m glad to hear your organization was open to testing. Testing can show us how we can benefit from a new approach, or it can confirm we’re on the right path (resulting in great comfort).

  3. I have tested length many times at the insistence of clients who refuse to believe the professional evidence. I’ve seen longer letters (ie 4 pp) consistently out perform 2 page letters and beat one page versions of the same appeal by a multiple of 4.

    That’s not to say a letter always needs to be long – a very well known international charity responding to a disaster that is already huge in the media clearly doesn’t need 4 pages – they just need to ask.

    • Jill, thank you for your insights. What people think they like is often very different than what they will actually respond to. I’m glad to hear that your clients are at least open-minded enough to let you test approaches for them. Sadly, I’ve known many organizations that even refuse to test because they simply insist they already know better. Sigh. Keep setting them straight!


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