Perhaps the biggest transition I had to make in crossing over from the faculty side of academia to the development side was in how to write for fundraising appeals. In my academic career I honed my skills at scholarly writing and got pretty good at it, publishing a peer-reviewed book in my field. I also worked at more informal, blog-type writing and began to find my voice there as well. Upon transitioning into alumni/development work, however, I began to write direct mail appeals and that was something altogether different.
I had much to learn, for unlike a dissertation, direct mail appeals are not about carefully crafted arguments based on logic and reason. Rather, they are about marketing and eliciting a response. The job of the appeal is to sell the idea or cause on an emotional level. Reason and logic have their place in fundraising, but if we are honest then we have to admit that most giving is 80% emotional and 20% rational. As much as the academic in me hates to admit it, corny works.
With a background in academic writing, I was used to constructing logical arguments that people would read sequentially. I had to learn that, with a direct mail appeal, people do not read a letter from beginning to end. Instead, they jump around. A lot.
I had occasion to read Mal Warwick’s text on writing fundraising appeals, and he cited some interesting research by Siegfried Vögele who did eye-tracking studies back in the 1980s to see how people actually read fundraising letters. The results were as stunning as they were counterintuitive, and the implications are huge.
It turns out that, of the people who actually open the letter and look at it, 90% will jump down to the postscript if there is one. They do not read the opening paragraph or the salutation right away. Instead, they skip straight to the bottom. This has tremendous significance for appeal writers because it means that the postscript is the lede!
Vögele also found a consistent pattern in a majority of readers wherein they read the P.S. first, then jumped back up to the first paragraph to read the opening 1-2 sentences, and then skimmed the rest, focusing on call-outs and bold text. In most cases the letter never actually gets read from start to finish. This means you must have a strong lede/call-to-action in the postscript, a compelling first two sentences, and a case statement that can be gleaned by skimming over bold text and call-outs in the main body of the letter.
According to Vögele’s research, all of that happens in about eight seconds. That’s it! That is about all you are going have of your reader’s time and attention. The P.S., the first couple of sentences and scannable text in bold throughout are the most precious real estate in a fundraising letter, so choose those words carefully. The success of your appeal depends on it.