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You can't feel

You Can't Feel "Empty Urgency"

 In a way, subject lines are a microcosm of fundraising.

Writing them can be maddening, mysterious, marvelous...

They are tantalizingly short. They can be infuriatingly tricky. But, if you're up for a challenge, they're good fun.

That's why I like to study subject lines, to turn them over in my mind and try to figure out what makes the good ones tick and what makes the bad ones fall flat.

So, when last week I came across a selection of subject lines curated by fundraising copywriter, trainer, speaker, and author Tom Ahern, I was surprised and delighted.

Tom shared two lists of subject lines. It's helpful to contrast them.

List #1: Subject lines for emails Tom OPENED.

  • We Are Your Biggest Fan
  • Massive Starvation
  • May contain cute kittens...
  • Tomorrow!
  • Get your free 'RESIST' sticker while supplies last!
  • You did it, Tom!
  • HGO wants to turn your love story into an opera!
  • The words you never want to hear a parent say
  • This video will give you the chills...
  • Thanks for 12 Great Years! Here is a Little Thank You!
  • Help Map the Noise
  • The Grinches Who Stole The Arctic

List #2: Subject lines for emails Tom IGNORED.

  • Hours left: give a tax-deductible gift that matters
  • If you open 1 email today, make it this one
  • Down to the wire!
  • Announcing: TRIPLE gifts, Tom
  • MATCH EXTENDED: Only hours left to double your year-end gift, Tom
  • We are so close to reaching our goal
  • DOUBLE your gift, DOUBLE your impact
  • 6 hours left!
  • Before midnight
  • Tom: Read this before midnight
  • It's your last chance!

Now, why do you suppose the subject lines in the first list were so much more effective?

. . .

Time's up!

(Or take your time. Whatever.)


Your supporters can't feel "empty urgency"

 Notice that the subject lines Tom IGNORED are all essentially focused on time and money — nothing else.

I call this empty urgency. It's urgency without heart.

For example:

  • Announcing: TRIPLE gifts, Tom
  • Down to the wire!
  • If you open 1 email today, make it this one

The first subject line features ALL CAPS to emphasize the impact of Tom's $$$. It also includes Tom's name.

The second one is all about urgency. Time is running out. Perhaps they are so close to their fundraising goal.

The third one implies urgency via uniqueness.

But none of these subject lines has heart.

If you want to convey compelling urgency (of course you do), your urgency must have heart.

This is why email subject lines that tend to get opened are the ones that "stand the test of heart." In other words, they’re full of pathos.

Pathos is a Greek word — and Greek can be annoying. (Just kidding, Greece.)

But seriously, despite terminology that may sound strange to English-listening ears, I believe Aristotle's 3-pronged approach to persuasion is worth remembering.

  1. Pathos ❤️ (heart/emotion)
    • e.g., humor, puppies, children, love, tragedy
  2. Ethos 🙏 (soul/credibility)
    • e.g., celebrities, experts, titles, degrees, endorsements
  3. Logos 🧠 (mind/logic)
    • data, facts, figures, charts, logical arguments

According to Aristotle, to be truly persuasive we must use a combination of all of the above.

This principle applies to appeals in general. The relative amounts of pathos, ethos, and logos needed for any given appeal will vary depending on the purpose and the audience...

  • A Cheetos commercial during the Super Bowl needs a lot of pathos. Think: humor. Persuasion via feeling.
  • A solar energy sales pitch at a trade show needs a lot of logos. Think: specifications. Persuasion via numbers.
  • A Sunday sermon needs a lot of ethos. Think: citing scripture. Persuasion via an appeal to authority.

Fundraising is different from most other kinds of appeals. It usually reaches people when they're busy.

Even your biggest supporters, when they receive your communications, are ordinarily in the middle of something, such as:

  • thinking about a work project
  • walking in the door
  • walking out the door
  • petting a cat
  • hugging a child
  • making dinner
  • and so on and so on…

Although they love you, their minds are elsewhere.

What's more, your supporters are not a captive audience.

  • They aren’t sitting on the couch during the Super Bowl, reflexively absorbing your messaging during commercial breaks.
  • They aren’t wandering leisurely through a solar energy trade show and stopping to peruse what you have to offer.
  • They aren’t sitting primly in pews, facing you, listening (or planning to, at least!).

You have just a moment to bypass busy brains from the moments they find themselves in to your cause and the need that you're working to address.

If you're not careful, in an instant you might bore your donors and lose them.



So how do you avoid sending boring comms that will lose your absent-minded, life-living favorite people — your supporters?

With pathos.

Lots of it. Piled high. With love. From the heart.

And this goes double for subject lines!

Think about it. Subject lines are a kind of micro-appeal. With only 55 characters (ish), a subject line must persuade readers to click to open.

For example, from Tom Ahern's OPENED subject lines:

  • You did it, Tom!
  • This video will give you chills
  • The Grinches Who Stole The Arctic

The first subject line promises to make Tom feel good.

The second promises to make Tom feel chills.

The third promises to make Tom feel angry.

We all want to feel something. So we click. And if we're really feeling it, we give.

Bottom line: Pathos makes you feel something. When you FEEL more, you CARE more and you GIVE more.

There's little room for error here. Make sure that in the fundraising space you have, you start with pathos.

Logos and ethos will have to wait.

For example: in your subject lines, if you only dangle time crunches and dollar amounts, your supporters won't feel much of anything.

They certainly won't feel your empty urgency.



While you're here...

Why not read a little more?

Here are a few blog posts you might like:

1. The 1 Forrest Gump Fundraising Secret You Need

2. How To Balance Doom & Gloom with Happy & Hopeful in Your Fundraising Appeal

3. 7 Boring Ways to Transform Your Fundraising



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