My Very First Experiment: How Changing One Sentence Led to a 42% Increase in Revenue

It seems like forever ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday.  It was a sunny February day in Miami, Florida about four years ago.  I had just settled into to the Intercontinental hotel getting ready for the MarketingSherpa Email Optimization Summit.  My reasons for attending was to brush up on some skills, and maybe walk away with a few new email tactics that I could apply to my nonprofit clients.  After all, I was the expert, right?  I was sure that everything I was going to see I had seen before, or read about online, so my expectation was that this would be a good refresher course.  Boy, was I wrong.

Within the first five minutes, I had my marketing intuition challenged when Dr. Flint McGlaughlin put up a slide on the screen with the following three emails.  Each one was a different version of the same content.  Each was designed by a top-tier NYC agency.  The audience was asked to look at each one and vote for the email that was the most optimized, that is, the email that would produce the highest response. 

It might be fun for you to do the same thing.  Look at each one and pick out the email that you think will perform best.

Now consider the following:

Why did you pick the version you picked?
What made you believe that this one would do better than the others?
Why didn’t you pick the other ones?
What is the criterion that a marketer can look at and know that it is optimized?

Now, here is the results of a test of each of the three treatments.  

As you can see, each one performed worse than the control.  Now, the control was never showed to the audience-- but it didn’t matter-- the point was that when it comes optimizing emails, marketing intuition is not enough.  Testing is what trumps marketing intuition.  And when you test, you need to use a rigorous methodology.

After that, I was sold.  At the first break, I called my team and told them that “starting Monday, we will change the way we do everything for our clients…actually, no-- starting now.”

At the time, I was consulting with the George W. Bush Presidential Center, and my team and I were doing all of the online donor acquisition work.  The very next day, we were sending an email to a few rented lists in an effort to acquire new donors.  This seemed like the perfect opportunity to test some of this new “rigorous testing methodology” that I was learning, so right there--from the floor of the conference--I phoned-in our very first test.  Below are the screenshots of both the treatment and the control:

Can you see the difference?  It is very subtle.  In fact, the only difference appears in only one sentence-- the very last sentence of the email.

Now, best practices would tell me that only 18% of people that actually open and read emails will read all the way to the bottom, so how could making a change like this make a meaningful difference?

Even my client raised this concern.  In fact, he was very reluctant to do the test, but eventually did acquiesce reminding me that I was the one that would be held accountable for results.  Great.  I love pressure.  But I really believed in the test and was willing to bet the farm on this one.

So, we ran the test.  And check out the results-- the new treatment, the one with revised sentence generated a 139% increase in the Clickthrough rate and a 42% increase in revenue.

Here’s what you need to understand

The last sentence contained the call-to-action of the email.  You can see an enlarged version of both the control and the optimized treatment below.

  • Key Principle #1 - You must make them click.  The call-to-action is perhaps the most critical element of any email, and interestingly enough, the action that you want the recipient to take is always the same-- you want them to CLICK!  One mistake that many email marketers make is that they often give the email recipient too much information.  And the recipient responds by saying no, and not clicking through to the landing page.  But the landing page is where the conversion takes place-- not the email.  So the goal of the email must first and foremost, inspire the recipient to click, not give, or buy, or register-- or anything else-- just take the next step by clicking.

  • Key Principle #2 - Your offer must be desirable to the recipient.  Look again at the control copy and the optimized copy.  What conveys more value to you-- “…making a tax-deductible online contribution now” or “…[becoming] a Charter Member of the George W. Bush Presidential Center.”?  Consider the exclusivity of the two offers: can I make a tax-deductible online contribution anywhere else?  How about joining-- as a Charter Member-- a Presidential Center that bears George W. Bush’s name?  Can I do that anywhere else?  When we look at the offers in this light, it becomes very clear what is the most desirable offer.

  • Key Principle #3 - Increasing traffic to your landing page usually means more conversions.  Here is what is interesting about this experiment.  We had 139% increase in Clickthrough from the optimized treatment.  That means we had 139% more people visiting the landing page where they actually could make a gift.  But, when we looked at our landing page metrics, the conversion rate (the percentage at which visitors donated) was much lower, and yet we still increased donations by 42%.  So how can this be?  What I learned is that by focusing my email on selling a click-- not a donation-- I can get a ton more people to at least go that next step with me to learn more on the landing page.  Because I get so many more people to the landing page, some of the people that would have never even considered giving a gift have the opportunity to change their mind (with a strong value proposition presented on the landing page) and donate.  These are people that if had received the control version with the call-to-action to donate, would have probably said no and not clicked.

Now, it’s your turn

Now it’s time to apply what you just learned.  Look at one of your emails.  Examine the call-to-action.  Ask yourself, “Is there an offer?  Is it desirable?  Am I giving people too much information in the email that can be off-loaded to the landing page thus creating a compelling reason to click?”  Most email service providers can do simple A/B split tests, so why not create a little experiment.  Break up your email file into two segments and send one segment version A (the Control) and send the other version b (the Treatment).  Then watch and see what your subscribers tell you by the way they respond.  I’d love to hear about it, so shoot me a note and let me know what you learned.


"Testing Trumps Best Practices"

That's a lesson I keep learning over and over again.

This week, I'm getting geared up for the MECLABS Landing Page Optimization Summit in Boston.  Last year, I had the opportunity to speak on the big stage with my friend and colleague, Nat Ward.  In our presentation, we shared some of the learnings from our experiments.  This is a short clip from our presentation where we show how we increased our donation conversion rate by 25% by putting multiple calls-to-action on our landing page.


I Live Left of LOCO

Those of you that know me know that this statement has nothing to do with my political orientation.  LOCO stands for the Law Of Channel Orthodoxy.  Well, it's a theory actually.  A theory I made up.  But I call it a law because it makes a better acronym and because people take laws much more seriously.

Anyway, the Law of Channel Orthodoxy goes like this:

The time and expense necessary to delivery a fundraising message (Resources) is positively correlated to the potential success of that message (Response Rate).

For example, let's consider face-to-face fundraising.  It is most definitely the most time-intensive, and expensive fundraising method.  But it is often the most successful.  If I were to fly around the country and ask each of my donors to give a gift, then I could expect a response rate of 40 to 60 percent or more (note: this is based on 18,000 face-to-face visits that was conducted over a 10 year period which maintained a 45% response rate).

Then, let's hop down to direct mail or telefunding.  Is it as expensive to call or mail all of our donors?  Absolutely not!  But will I get a 45% response rate-- probably not.  Typical response rates for a successful direct mail and telefunding campaign would be between 6% and upwards of 20%.

Now, consider email.  Is it as expensive to send an email as it is a direct mail package?  No way!  But are you going to get a 20% response rate on an email appeal?  Not likely.  According to the 2012 Convio Nonprofit Online Marketing Benchmark Report, the average response rate for a house file email appeal continues to hover around 0.15%.

So, in each of these examples, it seems that the Law of Channel Orthodoxy seems to hold up.  Still with me?

Okay, so the question we must ask then is, "how do we beat the Law of Channel Orthodoxy?"

Answer?  Well, there are actually two ways:

Innovation - When we develop a way to achieve the same results while at the same time reducing the time and expense investment, we call this an innovation.  Believe me, there are many ways that we can innovate in the nonprofit space.  But the problem is that too often nonprofits feel they need to play it safe.  We go for the guarantee, instead of taking a risk on something that could either go big, or be a big bust.  But what I think many organizations fail to realize is that there is a risk associated with the status quo.  If we fail to test and try new things, we are pretty much guaranteed to become obsolete. 


But there is another way that we can beat LOCO.

Optimization - When we increase our response rates or improve results without proportionally increasing the amount of required resources, we call this optimization.  Optimization begins with the belief, as Peter Drucker once said, that "adequacy is the enemy of excellence."  It forces us to never be satisfied.  It teaches us to interpret a 10% response rate as a 90% non-response rate, and inspires us to develop better ways to communicate so that we can get those non-responders to join us.  Optimization can transform the culture of an organization by changing the conversation from "if only..." to "what if..."  Optimization is synonymous with perpetual improvement and is essential to success.

So, in order to beat the Law of Channel Orthodoxy, we need to find a way to live left of LOCO.  I'm telling you, once you get used to it, you wouldn't want to go any other way.  Here's a few questions that you can ask yourself to help break free from going completely LOCO.  It might be a good idea to ask your staff these same questions and compare your answers with theirs.


1.  My fundraising calendar is really solid because we have been doing things the same way for the past few years and have received good results.  (T/F)

2. I don't typically try new fundraising techniques because they can be risky and we owe it to our donors to only invest in sure winners. (T/F)

3. I'm very happy with our fundraising results.  I don't see how we could possibly do any better.  (T/F)

4.  Im convinced that if we just implement best practices, then we will receive optimal results. (T/F)

5. Ive been doing this a long time, and my experience and intuition is what I lean on when I evaluate a new fundraising program. (T/F)

So, How Did You Do?

If you answered true to one or more of the above statements, then you may be going LOCO!  But don’t worry, it is curable…


Game Changing: How Ministries Are Using Social Gaming to Engage New Supporters

Is it possible to use social gaming for social good?  This presentation explores the fast-growing social gaming market and presents two case studies of ministries that are using social gaming to build brand, relationships, and donors online.  The presentation concludes with a tactical 6-step planning exercise for anyone considering integrating social gaming into their online marketing and fundraising strategy.

 Download the complete 105-slide presentation here.

This presentation was delivered on Wednesday, May 1, 2013 at the National Christian Leadership Alliance Conference in Anaheim, CA

Other Related Resources

Social Game Viral Simulator - Use this Excel spreadsheet to develop an estimate of the number of participants you can expect to acquire through an interactive social game.

Game Changing Innovation Article - This article, featured in the fall 2012 edition of Outcomes Magazine, walks through the Moody Virtual Marathon case study.

Oracle Whitepaper: Using Social Gaming to Drive Engagement: Insights and Best Practices for Brand Managers - This whitepaper features some best practices and tips for integrating social gaming.  At the end are two case studies that feature major brands that use embedded philanthropy in their social games.

Social Network Games 2012 Report - This report is a good primer on social games, market trends, and terminology that you need to know if you are going to consider developing a social gaming strategy.