Creating and designing a good appeal for a charity campaign can be a tough task. Fundraisers and charities have a limited number of instruments available to them (a picture, some words, a request) to try and convince members of the public to hand over some money.

To add to the difficulty of the challenge, we know from behavioural scientists that the people we are trying to reach are also likely to be sceptical, and to have short attention spans which are demanded by many other things. What can development NGOs do to make a campaign stand out and increase its persuasive power?

The answer lies in the use of persuasion cues; little bits of a campaign message which can add, highlight, or improve a message to make it more interesting, relevant or persuasive. Take, for example, a simple appeal to support the fight against global poverty (see image below).

Here’s what’s probably going on backstage in your thoughts: you are confronted with some information (the appeal) and asked to make a choice (make a donation to support the campaign), but instead of engaging with the merits of the argument most people base their decision on a quick evaluation of the person in the picture. If they see the messenger as a credible source of information, they will be more easily convinced that the appeal is right and they should donate.

However, beware, as the opposite is true as well: many times people receive an appeal to help fight global poverty, and they feel moved to pay it some attention, but then they see it’s endorsed by a morally dubious celebrity or a very rich businessperson and end up casting a mistrusting eye to the whole appeal.

In 2016, we set out to understand more about the way messengers can be used to increase the persuasive power of a charity campaign through an experiment. What we’ve done, broadly, is ask our study participants to make five choices between two charity appeals, picking the one they feel they would more likely donate to. The appeals are identical in everything (design, a simple text, a picture), but 42 different messengers appear in the appeals. As this is the only changing detail, if an appeal with a certain messenger is chosen more (or less) often than another, we conclude it must be so because of the different messengers.

Our 42 messengers are divided in 10 different categories, such as aid recipients, NGO workers, and celebrities, and within each category we add male and female messengers, and messengers from a white or non-white ethnic background. We also ask our study participants to rate messengers on a set of traits to do with their perceived warmth (how likeable they are, how attractive they are), and competence (how knowledgeable they are, how experienced they are). This is all done so we have a pretty specific idea about what characteristics of the messengers are adding (or subtracting) the most persuasive power from our appeal. So here is a list of five (and a half) insights we found from our experiment:

1. The right messenger in your campaign can make a big positive difference

When we included a fictional NGO frontline worker by the name of Anne Front (see the picture below), we were expecting good results, but were still surprised at how well Anne did in all our tests. Respondents saw her as both as competent and very caring figure, and, on average, said that they would donate to the appeal including her picture 78% of the times, and, for example, people reported they would be 7% more likely to donate to an appeal if it included Anne Front instead of Emma Watson.

Anne Front is originally a picture of Nurse Hedda Nyhus, kindly shared by DFID:

2. The wrong messengers can do a lot of harm

The power of messengers is not always positive. The experiment showed us a few examples of messengers that common sense would suggest would be very persuasive, but instead end up lessening the chances of a donation happening. Messages including the pictures of celebrities including Emma Watson, Idris Elba, Bill Nighy and MIA were on average only chosen 44% of the times against all other appeals. Businesspeople did even worse, with their appeals being chosen for donations only 35% of the times. What is even more striking is that we included appeals endorsed by “generic supporters” (people like me and you), and these were chosen on average 51% of the time. Simpler approaches, it seems, are sometimes better.

3. Some messengers work with everyone, and others work with specific audience segments

Anne Front is just a specific example of a bigger success story: in general, we found that using NGO frontline workers as messengers in the appeal is a good strategy for three interesting audience segments: young people, engaged and non-engaged audiences.  We also found out this is the case with volunteers as well. What if your campaign is aiming to get on board the non-engaged segment? Our results show that messengers such as businesspeople, celebrities, military figures and philanthropist are likely to have a negative impact on your efforts. However, celebrities could be more useful if you are trying to reach young audiences.

4. It’s all about warmth AND competence

Although common sense would suggest that a messenger who is either warm or competent would be a more effective addition to a global poverty campaign, our evidence shows the picture is more complicated. When messengers are warm but not competent, or competent but not warm, their inclusion in the campaign doesn’t have an effect, or, sometimes, could even have a negative impact on the chances of convincing someone to donate. Examples of competent but not warm messengers include philanthropic figures such as Bill or Melinda Gates. The public knows they know what they are talking about, but questions their motives for caring about global poverty, which stops them from supporting the campaign described in the appeal. Examples of messengers perceived as warm but less competent are celebrities: they are more caring, perhaps, and driven by good feelings, but they are also seen as lacking in experience.

4.5. But what if I don’t have both?

Both our big success stories, volunteers and NGO workers, were consistently seen as being both warm and competent. This however doesn’t mean that you’re stuck if you are thinking of using messengers which are high on one but not the other trait: we found that messenger coupling can help overcome the obstacle. For example, we included a picture of Barbara Frost, the CEO of WaterAid, but to overcome her potential perceived lack of warmth the picture included aid beneficiaries. Appeals including their picture were chosen 70% of the times, almost as good as Anne Front, our undisputed frontrunner.

5. What about all the other factors that come into play in the appeal?

Things get more complicated once other factors are brought back in. Firstly, in the UK, non-white messengers are penalised with respect to their warmth and competence ratings, and are less effective at persuading the public to donate. We believe this could be at least in part due to the fact that past charity campaigns often used stereotypical images  portraying poor people  as incapable (and incompetent) who depend wholly on generous contributions from donors. These campaigns could also have instilled in western audiences a sense that aid recipients asking for help could be motivated by less-than good reasons.

Secondly, the type of appeal matters: we compared the effectiveness of messengers in a donation appeal with an identical appeal asking for a petition signature. We found that NGO workers and volunteers messengers work with both actions, but that their effectiveness is much lower in the case of petition-asking appeals. The effectiveness of other messengers instead is action-specific. For example, appeals including Malala Yousafzai as the messenger performed particularly badly with donations (they were chosen only 28% of the times), but was effective when it came to petitions (with appeals chosen 59% of the times). We can see that a more political figure such as Malala made potentially more sense in the eyes of the public asking for political change, than for financial support in the form of a donation.

In conclusion, messengers can contribute to making your campaign more persuasive and in different ways. Messengers are a quick persuasive cue that people can use to make decisions about your campaign. We found that NGO workers and volunteers, who are both warm and competent, increase the chances your appeal gets a donation. However, we also found that messengers can also damage the credibility and persuasiveness of an appeal: this is the case with celebrities (who are warm but incompetent), and philanthropists (who are competent, but not warm). Thinking about your audiences (for example by using celebrities with younger audiences) or the way you increase your messengers’ perceived warmth and competence (for example by adding other figures to your messenger picture or endorsers list) can help overcome this issue, and make appeals more persuasive in the eyes of the public.



About the author(s)

Paolo Morini

Aid Attitudes Tracker researcher at University College London. When I'm not planning experiments or analysing data I'm most likely thinking about carbohydrates, prosecco or swimming.


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