Two random things before we start:

  1. We’ll be at the DMA Nonprofit Foundation meeting next week and we’d love to meet with you. Feel free to drop us a line if you would like to meet. Also, DonorVoice folks will be participating two sessions: one about how to use behavioral science in your program and another about the debate around donorcentricity (at which there will be an actual debate and potentially chairs thrown) — hope to see you there!
  2. There was an excellent discussion on last week’s persona post here. Make-a-Wish has done an interesting project with personas where they use them as a way of educating their chapters about different types of stories they can tell and different ways to tell them.  While personas may not be helpful for direct marketing, this brand approach is interesting to getting through to potential communicators.

Now, to the blog post.  I was reading one of the approximately 2,349,087,222,495,873,945 posts about why the 2016 election went the way it did.

Wait!  Before you leave, I won’t talk about politics at all.  Nor will I engage in my own dissection thereof.

But the thesis of the article struck me: that Democrats lost because they focused on data-driven marketing, rather than traditional storytelling and narrative.

I believe this is a false choice faced often by marketers.  We don’t need data over stories or stories over data – we need the two of them working together.

I have a significant bias toward data.  I have argued that there are two types of marketers: those who use data effectively and those who will be the first up against the wall when the revolution comes.  When I say things like this, I get comments with upwards of 70% of the words spelled correctly.  But I should probably not rant against non-data-driven marketers because they fight dirty and their knuckles are closer to the ground.

In short, I believe marketing is a science, with aspects of art that intrude, rather than an art with science looming like an inconvenient truth.

That said, when you look at science, narratives are an important part of why we believe things and why we give.  Specifically, when people empathize with a story, they have 47% higher oxytocin levels and oxytocin leads to greater giving.  In fact, when we see vivid imagery in a narrative, our brain processes it as if it is a visual and motor experience – almost as though it happened to you.

So storytelling is important, even to we cold-hearted numbers people.

But storytelling is not enough itself.  Data is needed to know what story to tell.  For example, when you sign up for the ASPCA newsletter, they ask you to fill out a survey.  One of the questions on that survey is whether you are a cat or dog person.  They then use that information to customize the pictures they show you and the stories they tell.  This simple differentiator is the first line of customization and segmentation for ASPCA and it allows them to tell stories that their donors and prospective donors will care about.  Each nonprofit has these differences.

But of the nonprofits we secret shopped, fewer than a quarter asked about any topic preferences and only six percent asked for any attributes about the donor or connections to the cause.  That makes that for most people for most organizations, a new subscriber is nothing more than a name and contact info.

Incidentally, we will be releasing the full study shortly; please sign up for our newsletter here if you’ve like to get it first:

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Beyond picking which story goes to whom, data tells you what stories are worth telling.  Each person we serve as a nonprofit is a story waiting to happen.  By analyzing what causes people to commit to an organization, you can use just the ones that you know will work for your audience.

So don’t fall into the either/or trap.  Data without storytelling gives you insight, but no way to practice it; storytelling without data ends up telling a great yarn to people who don’t care.