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I wish I knew what they were.

Don’t get me wrong: there are seven things you can stop doing today in your direct marketing program and it will have little to no impact.  I just don’t know what they are yet.

I was re-reading Power of Habit the other day and a case study jumped out at me from the YMCA.


Not this YMCA.

As it’s a good book, I’ll let the authors tell it:

“[T]he accepted wisdom among YMCA executives was the people wanted fancy exercise equipment and sparkling, modern facilities.  The YMCA had spent millions of dollars building weight rooms and yoga studios.  When the surveys were analyzed, however, it turned out that while a facility’s attractiveness and the availability of workout machines might have caused people to join in the first place, what got them to stay was something else. Retention, the data said, was driven by emotional factors, such as whether employees knew members’ names or said hello when they walked in.  People, it turns out, often go to the gym looking for a human connection, not a treadmill.”

(“The surveys” to which they refer are 150,000 YMCA member surveys.  If you’d like more detail on this, there’s pretty cool but data-heavy info on this in a presentation here)

A few lessons from this:

  1. Good for the YMCA for asking for and listening to feedback!
  2. What gets someone to join isn’t always gets them to stay.
  3. What gets someone to stay isn’t always what you’d think without asking. (3a. People are not like me; I have cultivated my soft, pale, unattractive physique so no one is interested in talking to me at the gym.)
  4. You can spend tons of time, toil, and treasure on things that don’t matter if you don’t find out what matters to your constituents first.
  5. And you can make a big difference by doing little things on the right things

Recently, we worked with an international relief charity on an analysis similar to this.  They found that if they could improve their engagement communications with their donors by one point on a ten-point scale, they could improve the lifetime value of their donors by almost one Euro.

They also discovered if they could improve their fundraising communications with their donors by one point, they could improve the lifetime value of their donors by almost 70 Euros.

Their engagement communications – e-newsletter, member magazine, website, blog posts – made almost no impact on their donors’ retention and value.  What mattered to donors – literally 70 times more – was feeling like their donation was having a positive impact, feeling valued as a supporter, and understanding how their donation was used.

All things that were fixable and achieved with a fraction of the resources that were going toward all of the “nice” engagement communications that weren’t making a difference.  For them, the engagement communications were their shiny elliptical machines and pristine yoga studios – expensive, shiny, and worthless.

For you and your organization, it will likely be different: a touchpoint that doesn’t touch hearts, a newsletter that serves so many internal masters it has no point, a discussion of branding that is entering its 27th month.

This sounds like bad news.  A significant part of what you and I do is worthless.  Ick.

But the good news is that with organized donor feedback and analysis, you can cut out what doesn’t work and fix what’s broken with the time and money you got back from not doing things that don’t work.

And how much better will it be to wake up in the morning knowing that everything you will do that day will make a difference in making a difference?

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