The Conversation is More Important than the Brand

Brand marketers suggest that brand is everything.  In order for your brand to be effective you must invest in building strong brand equity and make sure that you consistently deliver on your brand promise.  To do this, your brand must be consistently portrayed and always visible.

But what if your brand creates friction in the communication process?  Often when we think we are being marketed to we tend to put our guard up.  Even if this doesn't happen on a completely conscious-level, it happens to some degree in our subconscious. 

This was the premise of a recent marketing experiment that I conducted in partnership with The Heritage Foundation.  The main question was this: “If the essence of marketing is messaging, and the essence of messaging is a conversation, how can we remove psychological barriers to that conversation?”  Do "brands" induce feelings of anxiety?  If so, by removing the brand and focusing on facilitating a more effective conversation, can we produce a stronger response?

The Client

The Heritage Foundation is a conservative think tank in Washington, DC.  Their work focuses on formulation and promotion of conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.  They are the most broadly supported organization of their kind with nearly 700,000 financially participating members. 

The Experiment

Heritage was in the third year of a talk radio campaign with Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, and was beginning to experience the law of diminishing returns.  The massive audiences for these two nationally syndicated talk show hosts were not as receptive to our Heritage-branded messages as they were initially and we considered doing something drastic and perhaps even unintuitive-- creating an unbranded campaign.  The idea was to have the radio hosts create excitement around a controversial issue and then send their audience to an unbranded web site where they could learn more.  The visitor would be taken through a guided conversation online that provided an educational experience, and then at the end, provided with an opportunity to respond by signing an open letter to Congress calling for the end of wasteful government spending.  After signing the open letter, the visitor was then taken to another page and provided an appeal to join The Heritage Foundation.

The Web Site

DirtySpendingSecrets.com is very simple web site that was designed for a very specific purpose-- to acquire new names and to inspire new donations.  The message is simple and clear-- Washington is spending too much of your money, and here are some examples of how wasteful some of that spending is.

The site then stepped the visitor through a guided conversation about spending by asking them to answer simple questions.  For example, how much money the US Government spent to train Chinese prostitutes to drink more responsibly on the job?

When the visitor provided their answer, a message appeared with the correct answer and provided additional details-- this provided the educational experience.

When the visitor got to the end of the quiz-- when they were all good and worked up-- the web site prompted them to do something about it by signing the Heritage Foundation's Open Letter to Congress to tell them no more wasteful spending.  This is where the brand is finally introduced.

The visitor is then taken to a Heritage-branded page where they can sign the open letter.  After they sign it, the visitor is prompted to make a donation.


The Results

In the first three weeks of the campaign, the web site generated 115,000 new names for the Heritage Foundation and a significant amount of revenue from new donors.  The web site also went viral with over 40,000 facebook shares, 4,100 tweets, and over 32,000 email shares.

The Key Takeaways

This experiment illuminated a couple of interesting principles:

  • The conversation is more important than the brand.  When we lead with a compelling concept, and initially divorce that concept from being connected with any sort of brand, we can inspire a great many more people to engage in that conversation.  When Rush and Sean talk about this new web site they discovered that exposes all of these government spending secrets, people take interest and seek out the web site.

  • The Call-to-Action should not be introduced until the value proposition has been experienced by the visitor.  Too often, we think too little of our potential donors.  We think if we just stick a donate button on our page, that people will just donate.  And the problem is that some actually do.  But the bigger problem is that so many more actually would if they have been properly guided through a conversation that enables them to discover the value proposition on their own.  Our goal in communication should be to lead the constituent to an "aha! moment." This is no easy task and requires tremendous creativity and strategic thinking.

  • Good ideas go viral.  A lot of people think there is an easy button for social media.  But there isn't.  If you think about things that are share-worthy, they are always things that move people.  They must shock, surprise, make you laugh, make you cry, inspire you in some way-- the point is that a good social media strategy starts by developing a good and share-worthy idea.

Now, It's Your Turn

The model and concept that is outlined here is very repeatable.  I would encourage you to perform your own experiment with the unbranded concept and share your results and learnings.  Remember a good idea that isn't implemented is a worthless idea.



Case Study: Optimizing Name Acquisition

This is an abbreviated case study that illustrates how increasing the relevance and perceived value of your offer can produce stronger response on your landing page.  Flint McGlaughlin, CEO of MECLABS pulled me up onto the stage to share this at the MECLABS Landing Page Optimization Summit in Colorado last month.

You can read the more detailed post on the Marketing Experiments Blog.


"Best Practices Are Nothing But Polled Ignorance"

I wish I could say that I was the first one to say that, but I wasn't.  Last week, I attended the MECLABS Landing Page Optimization Summit in Denver, CO and one of the first things I wrote down was that quote from my mentor Dr. Flint McGlaughlin.  Flint went on to say that the marketer must be the philosopher of an organization.  Philosophers are constantly consumed with the question of "why."  This proves to be a difficult challenge when we face the perpetual barrage of questions that begin with "how."

How can I get this done in time?
How can I make my subject line more effective?
How can I increase my revenue?

Most marketers are too busy asking the questions that begin with "how" that they fail to ever ask the more important questions that begin with "why."

Why did this perform better than that?
Why do my customers/donors prefer this type of content over that type of content?
Why doesn't my landing page convert more people into customers/donors?

But it is precisely the "why" questions that lead to wisdom.  I recently performed an experiment that challenged a longstanding direct response best practice and it reminded me that asking "why" is okay.  The best practice goes like this:

Having more than one conflicting call-to-action on a landing page leads to non-decision and hurts conversion rate.

Now, I think that this actually makes a lot of sense.  What I wanted to discover through this experiment is whether or not there could be a scenario where having multiple calls-to-action could actually lead to a greater conversion rate.  The results were quite convincing.


The Experiment

In this experiment we tested two different landing pages that each had differing conversion paths.  The control had a two column layout with a donation form in the left column and copy in the right column.  The treatment was actually exactly the same with one exception: at the bottom of the right column below the copy we added a secondary call-to-action to register your email address to receive a free PDF download.  Now, because the PDF offer required a confirmation page, we decided to add a secondary opportunity to donate with a page layout similar to the control, but with different copy.

Once the control and treatment pages were developed we performed a simple A/B split test and diverted an even 50% of traffic to both versions over the next 30 days.  Once the results were compiled and validated, the control had a donation conversion rate of 2.52%.

The interesting thing is that the treatment, the version of the landing page with two calls-to-action actually had a statistically identical donation conversion rate of 2.51%.  However, the treatment also received a 4.98% name acquisition conversion rate for people that responded to the secondary call-to-action for the free PDF offer.

What was even more interesting is that the people that responded to the PDF offer then converted at a 14.16% donation conversion rate when provided a second opportunity to give.  This means that by adding the secondary call-to-action for the PDF, and adding a secondary opportunity to give, enabled us to create a 25% lift in donation conversion.

What I Learned From This Experiment

There were actually a few different takeaways from this experiment:

  1. Donation conversion is greatly affected by visitor motivation.  This is something that Dr. Flint McGlaughlin and his team at MECLABS talks about with their Conversion Heuristic:

    C = 4m + 3v + 2(i - f) - 2a 

    This expression in plain english goes like this: Conversion equals four times visitor motivation, plus three times clarity of value proposition, plus two times incentive minus friction, minus two times anxiety.  The variable with the highest coefficient is Visitor Motivation.  What this means is that if visitor motivation is high enough, then it can often overcome inhibitors like friction and anxiety.  Clearly when we add a secondary call-to-action to a web site we are adding friction into the process. But because the traffic that was coming to the web site was motivated to give, then it really didn't matter.
  2. Reciprocity is alive in well in the donation conversion process.  Reciprocity is a psychological principle that suggests that when I give you something, in some way you feel indebted to me, and because our natural inclination is to not be in someone's debit we tend to want to settle the score by returning the favor.  When we offered a gift (free pdf) to the visitors to the site, they were more predisposed to return the favor (donating to the organization) after receiving the gift.
  3. Best practices are not enough.  If you really want to maximize your revenue by optimizing your web pages, then relying on long-held best practices is not enough-- you need to be willing to challenge best practices and even conventional wisdom  by constantly testing within a rigorous methodology.  Science trumps the marketer's intuition every day of the week.  Remember what Dr. Flint McGlaughlin says, "Best practices are nothing but polled ignorance."

Happy Experimenting!


Music Attaches Itself to Life

I don’t remember where I was, but a Sheryl Crow song came on, All I Want to Do is Have Some Fun, and it was amazing how instantly I was whisked away to a (a-hem) party that I was at in High School.  I remember how I felt—young, unconquerable, yet inwardly insecure—I remember details like the front porch at my friend’s house that had these severely over-grown holly bushes that seemed to engulf the prime seating area on the porch.

When I hear the Nessun Dorma from Puccini’s Turandot, I think of my grandmother.  I was her live-in caretaker when she had entered into the early phases of Alzheimer’s.  I remember that song came on in a Best Buy and I was wearing a big suede coat with puffy fleece lining and recall vividly singing along to the words in the middle of the home audio section to the delight to Grams.

When I hear the classic hymn, Be Thou My Vision I remember standing at the alter next to my (soon-to-be) wife, holding her hand and marveling at the clouds finally parting from the soggy-wet rainy day and sun beams shining in through the big curtain glass window in the Bible Chapel where we took our vows.

Music is powerful.  The interesting thing is that it attaches itself to our lives uniquely.  My triggered emotions and memories connected to a particular song may be very different than your own.  Most likely, you have different emotions and memories—and most definitely different songs that have so deeply (and surprisingly randomly) attached themselves to you.

But music is a powerful, and woefully underutilized medium when it comes to marketing and fundraising.  How might we use music to attach itself to a positive giving experience?  We’ve become programmed to drop whatever it is we are working on to check the newest email that comes in when we hear that simple little email “chime.”  How might we create a similar sensory experience in the donation process?

Please share your thoughts on this—and some of your music-attached-memories. 


Too Much is Sometimes Too Much

I spend a lot of time on airplanes. More often than not, there are weather delays, or mechanical issues, or something else that prevents my flight from leaving at the advertised date and/or time. Usually when this happens we get some sort of message from either the pilot or flight attendant over the intercom. I'm amazed at some of the things that they'll say on that thing! Do we really need to know that the thing that they are fixing is imperative to our ability to take-off and land. I mean, if it's busted, I'm not so sure I want to be on this plane even after they fixed it. This introduces a whole new series of anxiety-inducing questions that I would have never needed to entertain.

'If that thing broke, what's to stop it from breaking again?'

'What if the guy fixing the broken part, doesn't do a good job?'

'What other little very important parts could have been affected?'

Sometimes too much information is not helpful-- it can be actually quite hurtful. When communicating with customers and donors, we need to give them enough information to accomplish our goal for that particular conversation-- but that's it. This is especially important when things go wrong. Often when there is a problem, we get insecure. When we communicate out of our insecurity, we often say more than we should say. When we say more than we should say, we may make things actually worse.

Here's a simple way to overcome this challenge: plan ahead. When you must have a challenging conversation with a customer or donor, think through what the goal of that conversation is. Write it out on a piece of paper. Make a short list of talking points that bring clarity to the goal you've defined. Finally-- and this is most important-- plan to listen more than you talk. Many times, the customer or donor just wants to be validated-- they want to be given the opportunity to voice their concerns or frustrations--and if you can give them that, then you can often accomplish more than your best speech ever could.