In the realm of fundraising senses – 1 Touch me right here!

Recently I had the fortune to work with Dan Hill one of the worldwide gurus on emotions applied to marketing. Dan advises the top Fortune 500 companies and political candidates on how to effectively advertise and succeed using emotions. What surprised me talking to Dan is how advanced commercial marketing is compared to fundraising. They understand better how the brain functions (specifically how to use emotions) and are using neurosciences to develop relevant messages and tactics to sell more sodas, shoes and beers.

Let’s have a look at the last Superbowl in the US. To air a 30 second ad it costs $ 30 million. Companies that invest this much must be sure that their commercial is not only cool and wins prizes at Cannes, but that it ultimately drives sales. How do they do that? By using emotions! The two most successful commercials last year (in terms of viewers and sales) were in fact those of Budweiser (using the story of a horse) and the one from Coca Cola on security cameras.  Companies like SAND Research – that analyse and score the marketing campaigns based on the emotional engagement of viewers – are able to predict which campaigns or which TV ad will drive more sales. And they rated Coke and Budweiser as the top two. What is interesting is that the winning element in both cases is the use of a story that drives emotions and leads to action, just like we should do in our NGO world more often and better.

More intriguing is that the Coke global campaign around the emotion of happiness (“Share happiness”, “Open happiness”) strongly uses the multi-sensorial channels showing people what happens when they interact with a Coke machine, getting people to interact among themselves through a Coke screen (like with small machines inviting strangers from Pakistan and India to interact), engaging people online and offline to personalize bottles and cans with the name of their friends .

Looking closely to the insights from neurosciences, I came to the conclusion that indeed McLuhan could be rephrased today as “The message is the medium”, meaning that what is really crucial today is the content over and above the medium we use. And the key here is that the content – being through a direct mail piece or a face to face recruiter in the street – is more powerful as long as it is able to activate emotions using multiple sensory touch points.

Emotions and therefore our decisions to give or engage with a cause are activated by a combination of sensory elements, primarily by what we see, what we hear, smell, taste and touch. According to Dan Hill our senses absorb 400 million bytes of information per second! This is why our communication and our fundraising should always try to involve all sensory spectrums and not over indulge on written words, because specific parts of the brain are intended to react to different sensory stimuli and activate specific emotions that in turn activate our attention and guide our involvement with messages, causes, organizations and events.


Let’s look at the “Sensory homunculus” at the beginning of the post, a model developed by the National History Museum in London. It shows what a man’s body would look like if each part grew in proportion to the area of the cortex of the brain concerned with its sensory perception. As you can see hands (i.e. touch) and face (taste, smell, hearing, vision) have biggest proportion, i.e. our brain devotes a lot of attention and importance to the stimuli that reach each of these senses. So, how many of these sensory terminals do we target and reach with our campaigns and through our media? Aren’t we limiting our fundraising to very few senses, i.e. the rational part?

I want to start a series of blogs on sensory fundraising,  especially those underutilized in fundraising like smell, touch and sound. I will start with the tactile or sensory part to show how making our fundraising ‘touchable’ is crucial to convince donors.


Touch me please!

Vilayanur Ramachandran and David Brang from the University of California found in a study that when we touch something we activate a “synaesthesia”, i.e. a connection between two apparently unconnected areas of the brain:  the area that regulates the tactile part or the movements and the limbic system that regulates emotions and memory. And we know that these two parts are crucial when we decide to donate.  The effectiveness of objects we can touch, and the possibility to “touch” is well known in fundraising campaigns and is connected with the idea of providing a donor with some tangible element of the cause. For example, the ORS sachet for rehydration of children used by UNICEF or the bracelet to measure the level of malnutrition used by Medecin Sans Frontier have been the main element of the success of these fundraising campaigns for many years, both in direct mail and in face to face. And interestingly enough when UNICEF tested the use of real sachet against a photo or a description of the sachet in the mail, the real sachet pulled the highest response and average gift. One of my best fundraising tools today is a rapid HIV test that can detect HIV in 20 minutes at home and costs only $30 dollars: touch it, I said to my donors, and see how easy and cheap it could be to prevent AIDS.

So which part of your fundraising is tactile? How can you make “touchable” and tangible your need or your solution?  If you drive your donor with a story through a multi-sensorial experience you will maximise the emotional response and ultimately response, average gift and retention.

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