What Do the Reading Habits of Teens Have to Do With Your Donor Acquisition Strategy? | npENGAGE

What Do the Reading Habits of Teens Have to Do With Your Donor Acquisition Strategy?

By on May 20, 2014


By Scott Gilman: Louisville Cardinals, horse racing, nonprofits, music, movies, various rants. Find Scott On Twitter


A recent New York Times article stated that fewer than 20% of 17-year-olds read for pleasure “almost every day”, down from over 30% 30 years ago.  And 27% of today’s 17-year-olds say they “hardly ever” read for pleasure.

As a Literature major and still aspiring novelist (it’ll happen one day, I hope) this is depressing news. Fewer people reading; I weep for the future.

But just because teenagers are not reading as much for pleasure anymore does not mean they are not reading at all, or, more specifically, encountering text.

Reading is Evolving

Think of your own reading: in addition to books and magazines, how much time do you spend reading e-mails, other material for work, mail and even text messages? If you’re like everyone else, you are probably inundated with words and messages, regardless how often you read a book.

In thinking about my contribution to the latest npEXPERTS eBook, Cupid’s Arrow: Targeted Strategies to Acquire Supporters, and my recommendations to emphasize visual messaging (video, photo galleries, infographics and interactive maps), it dawned on me that I had ignored the power of words, how the fine art of copywriting is still a viable way to reach and inspire new donors and supporters.

It turns out, just the act of reaching out, of disseminating new messages, even those just a few words long, can be very effective.

The Science of Messaging

Perhaps you’ve heard the reason why we seem addicted to our e-mail in-boxes, mobile devices, social media and the like. There is a chemical explanation: dopamine. As natural seekers of information and engagement with others, we seek a dopamine rush that keeps us in an information loop.

As Psychology Today explains, “Dopamine starts you seeking, then you get rewarded for the seeking which makes you seek more. It becomes harder and harder to stop looking at email, stop texting, or stop checking your cell phone to see if you have a message or a new text.”*

With that in mind, we know that as consumers – and seekers – of information, people following us on social media or receiving our e-mail are constantly craving new information: a new message, a new status update. Looking into it even further, we see, from the same article, that shorter messages, ones that do not fully satisfy our dopamine system, are best suited to keep us in these loops (think tweets and generally short text messages).

Writing for Mobile

So this is where that leaves us: fewer people (at least teens) are reading for pleasure, and we can assume (like adults) that they are seeking information and stimulus elsewhere, probably through a mobile device. We know that visual messaging is effective in digital formats. And we know we naturally crave new information: the arrival of a message in an in-box, the ping or vibration from an incoming text.

As non-profit marketers, fundraisers and communicators, with the task of acquiring new supporters and maintaining relationships with them over time, we can play into the need for more information by regular e-mail communications, frequent updates through social media, even text messaging. (Defining “frequency” is of course important, but so too is testing the content of your messaging.)

Plus, if we are hard-wired to be drawn into shorter messages, we should all be considering the implications this has on our longer forms of outreach, particularly e-mail.

  • Do longer e-mails work?
  • What about image-only e-mails (or mostly image only)?
  • What about text-only e-mails no longer than those of a typical tweet or Facebook post?
  • What about increasing the frequency of messaging during an important campaign?

Cupid’s Arrow used the relationship metaphor for how non-profits relate to constituents. In our relationships with individuals, how we communicate is often just as important as what we communicate.

Non-profits need to learn from this.

Understanding the communication habits of those with whom we’re in a relationship is often the single most important task for maintaining that relationship – and helping that relationship grow. Same is true for marketers and fundraisers, for organizations and their constituents.

That’s what the e-book says, at least, in case you didn’t read it.

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