Writing for direct response is strange and difficult, whether we’re talking fundraising emails, ad copy, or social media posts. That’s true even for the English majors among us (👋). Maybe especially for us. That’s because the goals most of us were trained to write toward—beauty, originality, entertainment— sometimes take a back seat. Sometimes they don’t even come along for the ride.
Direct response writing has a different goal. What we care about is writing effective copy, and we only succeed if we get people to actually do something—make a gift, sign a petition, share content.
It’s a tricky style to get a handle on, but crucial to anyone in the get-a-person-to-do-a-thing business. AKA, us. And, maybe, you.
1 – Problem, Solution, Action
When drafting fundraising or advocacy copy, clearly identify the problem you are trying to solve. Then, propose a solution that makes sense. And that takes you to the action—whatever is the thing that supporters can do that will contribute to the solution.
I know it sounds obvious. Read some emails a nonprofit sent you recently and you’ll see that it’s not.
The crucial thing is matching the scale of these three elements. If the problem is too big, it’s hard to describe an action that convincingly addresses it, and supporters will be demoralized. If the problem is manageable, but the solution you describe isn’t plausible, supporters will see right through you.
You and your cause need to have done the work and have a strategy and theory of change well thought out long before you put pen to paper. Er, fingers to keyboard. Or mouth to voice-to-text app? You do you.
So let’s say your problem is “President Trump is a reckless walking catastrophe who threatens our freedom, our planet, our democracy, and everything we hold dear.” That might be accurate, but it’s probably too broad for a single email appeal. So let’s focus it down a bit to:
Problem: Trump’s newest healthcare plan is a disaster that will cut 24 million of Americans off from health care.
Okay, that’s still a depressingly huge problem, but it’s something we can hold on to! Now for the solution. We could say “President Trump resigns.” That would certainly solve this and many other problems! But it’s hard to see how supporter actions right now would help it happen. Or we could try “Congressional Republicans grow a conscience and a backbone and reject Trumpcare en masse,” but that isn’t particularly plausible. So instead we need something like:
Solution: Hold all 48 Democratic senators as NO votes, and pressure three or more GOP senators to join them.
That’s a plan that is sufficient to address the problem, and creates the potential for meaningful action. And here’s the good news: A good problem/solution pair will often generate multiple options for actions, which you can string into a campaign.
Action: Sign a petition asking your senators to reject Trumpcare.
Action: Call your senators now and tell them to VOTE NO.
Action: Attend a rally at a local district office.
Action: Donate money to run ads in-state.
Action: Something something John McCain?
BTW, if you find yourself writing campaign copy and your actions don’t make sense, you’ve got bigger issues that writing can’t solve. Strategy first, messaging second.
2 – Define the moment
The internet is all about impulse buys, as the contents of my craft closet make clear. And this applies to nonprofit engagement just as much as those Ruth Bader Ginsburg coloring books in my Etsy cart.
It’s not enough to say “this issue or action matters.” You need to show why it matters right now.
If your ask isn’t urgent, even supporters who care deeply will scroll on by until they find something online that they can’t resist in this moment.
The best reason is usually the truth! Look to the calendar (our match deadline is six hours away!), the process (Congress is voting tomorrow!), or the immediate real-world stakes (thousands of scared children are fleeing Syria) to create urgency.
3 – Aim for the heart*
Humans are not logical beings. We like to think of ourselves as thinkers, but we are feelers, and we are ruled by our instincts and emotions. Speaking in statistics and hoping that a cold cost-benefit analysis will convince supporters to engage is, well, highly illogical.
Instead, aim for the gut, and speak to the heart. Make a reader feel your issue before you ask them to do something about it. A few tips for evoking emotion:
Identify a hero or villain or both! (Seven-year-old Mona’s blue t-shirt has a lion on it. It’s her favorite animal because it’s brave and strong. Just like her.)
Build suspense when you can (Mona has had to tap into that strength more and more this year, wearing her lion shirt to feel fearless—she is on her way to her 4th chemotherapy treatment.)
Use vivid, visceral details (Each day, Mona’s parents watch as their daughter’s baby-toothed smile grows fainter and her blue eyes dim. Her blonde curls drop to the floor in handfuls.)
Be selective with statistics. They can help show why your solution is plausible, but are unlikely to make the user care enough to take your action. (Mona is one of the 24 million Americans who would lose health coverage if the Graham-Cassidy healthcare bill passes. We can’t let a single child lose access to chemo treatments or lifesaving procedures. You can help Congress stop this—call your Senator today to vote NO on Graham-Cassidy.)
4 – Speak to identity
Donors support your organization because your work is in line with our values. I stand with Planned Parenthood because I’m outraged that a bunch of old men think they know more about my body than I do. My parents donate to Sierra Club because they love trees and want them to be around for their great grandkids.
The causes we care about are part of how we know who we are.
It’s powerful for people to be reminded that working with your org is a way for them to live their values, that they make the difference (not simply their money or their time). Some questions to ask when drafting those reminders:
- What makes your organization different?
- Why does someone become a supporter?
- What does it mean to engage with your cause? How does giving or taking action make me different (i.e. better) from other people?
- What emotions motivate your supporters? Outrage? Hope? Empathy?
There you go. You’re all set! Remember, none of these tactics are meant to be used in isolation. They are tools to frame your writing and give you a place to start when you’re feeling stuck.