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Think carefully about you use shock tactics in fundraising

Being a bit harder-hitting in our marketing can be a powerful way to create an emotional trigger to encourage action.  That said, it’s also at the riskier end of communications techniques because there is a greater potential to shock or offend recipients rather than inspire them to action.

Anti-fur clothing campaigners like PeTA famously use shock tactics (and lots of stripped off celebrities) to get across their point about animal cruelty and appeal to the audience’s raw emotion.  But, as we know, this doesn’t always work in their favour as even sympathetic audiences can be turned off by communications they deem have simply gone too far.

Here’s a less extreme example. Direct mail pack using disruption tactic


An introduction to AI for charity professionals by Ross Angus

I received this mailing a while ago – it’s in a plain brown envelope with no commentary stating that this was a promotional message.  The main headline reads “URGENT: WAITING LIST INFORMATION ENCLOSED”.  The letters are capitalised and in red.

Wearing my marketer’s hat I suspected this was a direct mail campaign because the NHS does not usually need (or can afford) to resort to red text.  But the vast majority of the intended audiences won’t share my career knowledge.

If I wore only my personal hat at the time, my view was very different.  I was waiting for news on an MRI scan for an ongoing back problem which left me in pain every day and which wasn’t getting sorted out any time soon. When this person opened the envelope to find a charity fundraising campaign from the YMCA’s YCare International to support orphans in Sudan, my initial reaction wasn’t positive or empathetic. 

This isn’t the fault of the campaign directly but they understood the risk of using these tactics at the outset. The risk is exacerbated further when you consider the likely target audience for such campaigns.  More Dorothy than Felicity Donor and therefore considerably more likely to have ongoing health questions.

I don’t know if this campaign worked for YCare or not but we do know that getting people to open the envelope (email, text etc.) and feel something for the cause described within is key to encouraging donations.  So if you want to use ‘shock’ or other disruptive tactics, think about the following:

Disruption and even shock tactics can be useful tools to achieve cut through in today’s media saturated world but getting the recipient reaction just right is crucial.  We’re after;

STOP – read – consider – act Not STOP – read – get offended – react

Spot the difference?