7 Steps to Motivating the Actions You Need (Case Study)

Thanks to New York Times  writer Jane Levere, I was pointed to this print ad campaign from Action Against Hunger (AAH). The first ad features a line-up of paper dolls, with one figure much thinner than the others — but no clear call to action. The second ad features this pizza box with mini pizza inside (much less than you and I are used to eating), highlighting that the 3.5 million children under 5 worldwide who die from hunger on annual basis don’t have enough to eat. Readers are asked to visit AAH’s website (for what?) or text in a small donation.

Jane covered the campaign in her advertising column in yesterday’s Times, and called to get my take on the ads — generously designed pro bono by G2 USA — that will run in December issues of high-end consumer magazines including Esquire, Saveur and Harper’s Bazaar. Ultimat Vodka is the cause partner, and purchaser of the ad space (pricy, believe me). Stylistically they’re much like the typical consumer ads in magazines like these — spare, graphically-compelling, more about aesthetics than anything else.

If you read through to the very end of Jane’s column, you’ll see that she quoted my questioning the choice of corporate partner. She also featured my characterization of the ads as abstract in her headline, but what she didn’t include is the balance of my recommendations for productive calls to action, that are far more important. 

Note: It’s common that a journalist focuses on points you made but weren’t what you emphasized or thought were most important. You’re contacted as a subject expert to help the journalist do her job, not to tell the story you want to tell.

Here are seven steps to take to motivate your network to take the actions you need:

1) Abstraction is deadly. Be concrete and specific.

  • The ads are abstract and high-styled, typical of high-end consumer advertising. They mimic the look-and-feel of what I promise you most of the other ads in these magazines will look like, so will be easy to miss.
  • A concept or abstraction is far harder to grasp than a story about an individual like you, or someone you know. Abstraction is a burden on the reader flipping through.  Make it easy.
  • Plus, pizza is not nutritious!

2) Feature a single individual, rather than a group or — far worse — daunting stats that seem absolutely insurmountable.

  • Stats on the enormity of problems like child malnourishment (3.5 million children under 5 perish every year from poor nutrition) are daunting, and tend to generate the response…well, I can’t do anything about a problem that’s so huge.
  • Instead, feature one child who has been restored to health through the proper nutrition. Relating to a single individual enables your network to relate to her — one-to-one — far better than to even a small group of kids. Think about how you relate when speaking to a group of 10, versus a one-to-one conversation.

3) Avoiding negative imagery (a.k.a. starving child) is spot on. But focus on a positive story  — with specifics — of someone who’s life is improved as a result of your organization’s work!

  • Bring her (let’s call her Anna) to life with a photo.
  • Add specific details about how AAH’s work has helped restore Anna to health, and what her day is like now–the “after” (now, everyday after school, Anna plays soccer with the girls and boys in her neighborhood, until her grandmother chases her in to sweep the hut and get dinner started for her four younger brothers and sisters).
  • It’s details like this that make Anna’s story real, and enable your prospects to relate this story to the children in their own lives.

4) Write to a single person (Judy), not the many you hope to motivate to act. This transforms the interchange to a one-to-one; more conversation than lecture.

  • These ads seem written to the “general public.” Can you imagine speaking the words of either one? You’d never do it.
  • Keep a single member of your target audience (let’s call her Judy) clearly in mind as you craft your concept and content — Judy’s wants, values, morning schedule, face, etc. — to connect. Crafting a persona is a valuable and easily doable way to close the gap with your target audiences, and get to know them so you can shape your messages most effectively. Here’s my how-to guide to persona creation.

5) Reach out to Judy’s heart first, head second.

  • The ads are all head, with their abstract imagery and their stats. They are designed to engage a reader via logic.
  • You’ll be much more successful engaging Judy emotionally (so she can immediately gauge whether there is a match, or not). Her emotional connection (or lack thereof) will direct her rational response.

6) Emphasize a clear, easy-to-do call to action.

    • The paper doll ad has no call to action. The pizza ad features a clear call to action but it’s in small type and the last element in the text block. You really have to work to find it.
    • Any outreach without a clear, doable call to action is a waste. You don’t have to convert (motivate her to give, sign, volunteer) Judy in any one call to action, but you do want to move her forward to the next step.
    • If you want Judy to take that next step, you have to ask her to do so. And make it easy for your her to find and digest the call to action — large and simply-stated is the way to go.

7) Start at the end and work backwards. What is the benchmark you’re trying to hit with the specific marketing project you’re working on now?

    • I’m unsure what AAH is going accomplish with these ads. Building awareness is a valid high-level goal, but is not a benchmark (can’t be measured).
    • There is a chance that AAH will bring folks in the door for the first time, but if they don’t text that $10 contribution, there’s no way they can follow up with these potential supporters.

I want to emphasize that this ad space was an opportunity that AAH was right to accept — premium timing in premium media.

Also, it’s often challenging to direct pro bono contributions, especially on the creative side. Jane Levere cites the originality of the creative direction for focusing on abstract images, rather than those of starving children — that the ads are something that magazine readers are likely not to have seen before for a nonprofit. However, they’re similar to all the consumer ads that run in those media — so are likely to be overlooked. It could have been much different: I see many nonprofit campaigns that are original, sophisticated and effective — in imagery and content — without using the “starving child” approach.

Do these ads work to engage you, and would you be motivated to visit the AAH website or make a text donation? If not, what would you change to increase the effectiveness of these ads? Please share your point of view here.

P.S. Get more in-depth case studies, templates and tools, and guidance for nonprofit marketing success in the twice-monthly Getting Attention e-update. Subscribe today.

Nancy Schwartz on November 15, 2011 in Advertising | 4 comments
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  • Bobbbs

    I completely agree with your observations about the critical nature of keeping nonprofit cause-related advertising focused on effective communication and a primary call to action.  This is the curse of nonprofits everywhere who have to work with pro bono creative partners due to budgetary constraints. And I see it everywhere: startling print and broadcast ads that leave me wondering, ‘so now what am I supposed to do?’  In some cases I’m not even sure what the charity does.

    Some people (agencies) defend this kind of advertising as brand-building; I would
    argue that for most nonprofits it’s probably more critical to inspire
    action and engagement.  I had the benefit of working with a “pro bono” agency that created print & broadcast for the nonprofit I was with for many years.  While the ads were certainly beautiful in many cases, they were more affecting than effective.  Which was not the goal. 

    But it did win the agency some awards, so I guess it worked out for them at least.  :)

  • That’s a common story, Bobby. Pro bono creative is a mixed bag — hard to turn down, but hard to harness! Anyone have any tips?

  • Rich

    Monetary compensation shouldn’t be the main factor in deciding who is award a non-profit organizations work. Review the agency’s work, particularly the work they’ve done pro or low bono. Is the work compelling, meaningful and actionable? If so, it’s safe to assume that this is the right firm for your project. A firm is either working towards those goals as their default, or it isn’t. A lack of invoice at the end of the process won’t alter the process of a firm with the “right” focus. For example, our firm does compelling, meaningful, actionable work. Doing anything that doesn’t meet that criteria would have no value to us—in fact, it would be harmful to our brand. 

    As with all purchase decisions, nonprofit leadership would benefit from more training to align with the right-fit partners. They need to learn more about what to look for and what they are working towards so they can have better oversight to the process.
    I’d also like to challenge the wisdom of relying primarily on pro bono. While government and foundation money has become harder to come by, the value of effective, strategic design and communications has increased. The ability to use brand-thinking to raise funds and secure cost-sharing collaborative partner relationships has never been greater. It’s counter-intuitive to not budget appropriately for something that is deeply aligned with your organization’s survival. There are instances where pro bono makes sense. The examples sited in this article wouldn’t meet our pro bono criteria. 

    One last note: we caution against being critical of work we run across in publications. To do good work requires a process of getting to the real meaning, putting that meaning in context and preparing systems to facilitate transactions and interactions. It takes time to dig that far into an organization in order to do useful work. I think it should take about as much time to create a meaningful critique. There are no “golden rules” in marketing communications. Re-read Divid Ogilvy’s book, “On Advertising”, and you’ll see how the rules in that book have largely been shattered. Example: if a magazine is largely about building “oneness”, it would make sense that ads in that magazine have a similar appeal: it addresses the “oneness” that is meaningful to the readership. Putting a left-turn ad in that publication might be risky as it will likely attract the portion of readership interested in ideals not espoused by the publication they have selected. Though this is an interesting concept, I’d want to test the publication’s readership to see if the numbers make sense to take such a risk.

  • Rich,

    Thanks so much for your very thoughtful response. Your guidance on how-tos for productive relationships with pro-bono marketing partners is spot on.

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