Tuto­r­i­al 10: Pavlov’s dog and fundrais­ing letters.

It was an exper­i­ment that the Humane Soci­ety might object to these days. A group of psy­chol­o­gists, includ­ing Nobel prize-win­ner Ivan Pavlov, took a dog and put him in a cage, rang a bell and gave him some­thing to eat.

Written by
Jerry Huntsinger
February 19, 2019

Then they fooled the poor animal by ringing the bell, but not giving him anything to eat. So what did he do? Anticipating a tiny morsel of food, he opened his mouth and saliva dripped down his jaws. The psychologists, in triumph, proclaimed this a ‘conditioned response’.

And, despite what you might think, much of your life is controlled by conditioned responses – including, yes, what you receive through the mail. In fact, your feeling of anticipation as you go to the letterbox is a highly refined conditioned response. When you see a real stamp, you have a conditioned response, because you know that the envelope with the stamp is more apt to contain something important than an envelope without a stamp. And you know that if your name and address is neatly typed on the envelope, instead of showing through a window, the contents are more likely to be important.

Your donors are full of conditioned responses. For example, let’s create an appeal that has about a 99 per cent chance of being opened and read. All it takes is an outer envelope with a first-class stamp in the upper-right corner and the donor’s name and address typed in the centre. That will get opened, I guarantee you – and opened with a sense of anticipation.

Then, the letter has the donor’s name and address at the top left and looks just like a letter ought to look. It has a PS at the end of the letter and contains a reply card and a reply envelope.

There you have it. The most successful package ever created, based on the donor’s prior conditioning.

But what do you so often send to your donor instead? A standard colour and size outer envelope, with the name and address showing through a window and in the upper-right corner a little box that says, in the USA, ‘Nonprofit mail’, in the UK it says ‘Royal Mail’.

And inside, a mass-printed letter containing huge paragraphs.

Your donor has a conditioned response about this: she knows that it’s right on the verge of being junk mail.

Can we establish a principle right here? Every package that is not personalised is compromised. And it’s how you handle the compromise that is the hallmark of creativity.

Obviously, you can’t send a first-class, personalised letter to every donor, so you have to compromise. That’s what makes this business so difficult. When you compromise, the real enemy is inertia.

It’s so easy for your donor or prospective donor to look at your appeal and not do anything – just look at it and then throw it away. How do you overcome inertia? A personalised letter with a real stamp overcomes inertia by building anticipation. A nonprofit package can overcome inertia by giving the donor something to hold, something to look at, something to cry about, something to get angry about, or something to do.

If you are one of those executives who says, ‘We just tell our donors the facts and let them make up their minds’, then you probably aren’t raising much money. Facts rarely motivate.

And when you combine facts with a form letter, then you have a formula for disaster.

It’s impossible to escape the reality of conditioned response. For example, how do people read your letter? Perhaps you think they start at the top, carefully read to the bottom of page one, then turn it over and read page two. Finally, when they come to the end, they read your signature and the PS.

Life would be so easy if that were true. However, the truth is that people have a conditioned response that prevents them from reading something that is: (1) not interesting; or (2) difficult to read. And so they use that most wonderful of all instruments, the eye, to scan the letter and send a signal to the brain.

Have you ever watched anybody read a letter after they take it out of the envelope? Perhaps you should. One of the most frequent patterns is for the person to glance quickly at the top of the letter, then turn it over and look at the bottom of page two. Fascinating. Some people will scan the headlines before they read any of the copy.

And where do they begin when they start reading? Often, the very first thing they’ll read is the last paragraph of the PS. Think about it.

© SOFII Foundation 2010-2014.

About the author: Jerry Huntsinger

Jerry Huntsinger is revered in direct marketing circles as the dean of direct mail. 

Some years back Jerry gifted his archive of direct mail tutorials to SOFII and we’ve been serialising them ever since. All 50-plus are gems. Together, they add up to a complete ‘how-to’ guide to everything you need to know about direct mail fundraising.

These tutorials are edited and presented by Gwen Chapman.

Gwen_Chapman.jpg#asset:8990:urlGwen Chapman is a passionate advocate for donor-centric fundraising. She is a senior consultant with international experience in the non-profit sector in Canada, the United States, the UK and South Africa. She explains the importance to these tutorials here.

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