Anyone who writes fundraising copy knows that readers only give one’s materials a few seconds before making the decision to read more closely, or set them aside. In a previous post, I cited some research that shows an average of 20 seconds from the moment the outer envelope is first glanced, to when the reader finishes making the first pass. These are precious seconds, and visual aids such as bold call-outs and headlines are critical to communicating your message.

Headline writing is an art unto itself, and with so much riding on them it is important to be very intentional in their design. The job of the headline is twofold: communicate some essential aspect of the overall message, and draw the reader deeper into the explanatory text that follows it. Over the years, marketers and copyeditors have developed a number of formulas for writing effective headlines. Here are three of the most common, along with examples of how they might be used in a fundraising appeal.

1.  End Result   →   Time  →   Address Objection

This format communicates the end result right away to the reader. It does not lead to a conclusion so much as it leads from one. It immediately announces the good that will be achieved, quickly gives a sense of the time needed, and addresses any questions or objections one is likely to have. For example…

[End Result] Make a Difference [Time] Today, [Address Objection] It Only Takes a Minute!

This headline sympathizes with the reader about being busy, and addresses that pain-point by assuring him or her that you want to make it as easy as possible – a fact that you will then elaborate on in the sentences that follow.

2.  Take this Action   →   Specific Time   →   End Result

This format focuses first on a call to action—answering the reader’s unspoken question, “what am I supposed to do?” As above, it encapsulates the action in a specific timeframe, and leaves no doubt about what the end good will be. This type of headline can be particularly useful in creating a sense of urgency, as with a year-end appeal. For example…

[Take this Action] Gifts Postmarked [Specific Time] by December 31 [End Result] are Tax-Deductible!

This headline communicates quickly that there is indeed a good to be attained, but that it requires immediate action. The sentences that follow can still elaborate on the details, but the headline is what draws the reader to that portion of the message.

3.  Seemingly Unattainable Good   →  Time Period

Finally, this format is intended to set the reader up for success in a way he or she might not think possible, and to create a sense that time is running out. This can be especially effective for campaigns that have some kind of challenge grant or matching component. For example…

[Seemingly Unattainable Good] Double Your Impact, [Time Period] But Only This Week!

This kind of headline is eye-catching, but needs to be followed up with a brief explanation of how exactly that seemingly unattainable good is possible. In the particular case above, it also addresses the common objection that one’s gift will be two small to make a difference.

Remember, people do not read fundraising appeals; they scan them. By necessity, the headlines you use must be able to carry the full weight of the message—to the extent that if one read nothing but the headlines, the essence of the appeal and its call to action would still come across loud and clear.

Question: What techniques do you use to grab readers’ attention in your fundraising copy? Leave a reply below.

Posted by Mark Zobel PhD, CFRE

I help nonprofits accomplish their missions and achieve their visions for a better world through donor-centered fundraising and comprehensive development work.

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