Which is More Powerful in Messaging: Emotions or Facts?

If you ask veterans of hard-fought political campaigns which matters most, what a person feels or what a person thinks about your candidate, without exception, they will tell you that heart overrules head in the voting booth. The same goes for the way we make purchasing decisions, the way people vote on juries, and  whether we support charitable causes.

Several advertising studies show the same thing. As described in Brand Immortality: How Brands Can Live Long and Prosper by Hamish Pringle and Peter Field, the UK-based Institute of Practitioners in Advertising analyzed 1,400 case studies of successful advertising. They compared the profitability boost of ads that appealed primarily to emotions versus those that relied on rational information, like statistics.  Ad campaigns with purely emotional content outperformed the rational only content by two-to-one. Ads that were purely emotional also performed better than ads with mixed emotional and rational content, though by a much smaller margin.

These results affirm what Dr. Robert Heath of the University of Bath’s School of Management found in 2006.  He found that U.S. and U.K. television advertisements with high levels of emotional content made the advertising successful, not the message itself. The emotional ads enhanced how people felt about brands being advertised. Ads with low levels of emotion had no effect, even when they were factual and informative.

So why do so many nonprofits still insist on a “just the fact, ma’am” approach to nonprofit marketing?

On Tuesday, September 29th, I’m teaching a writing workshop via webinar where we’ll look at ways to add more emotion into everyday nonprofit marketing and fundraising text to make it more effective with your supporters. We’ll also look at using both negative and positive emotions and discuss the differences in those approaches, while also exploring the different emotional buttons that successful fundraisers and volunteer recruiters most often push.

This is brand new webinar, so I hope you’ll join us on Tuesday! As always, registration is $35 a la carte, or it’s included in your All-Access Pass.

P.S. Check out the Neuromarketing Blog for more on “where brain science and marketing meet.”



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  • I found that the emotional appeals got more attention when I was on staff at a nonprofit arts agency. The challenge for me was always looking for ways to pull at people’s heart strings — which can be hard to do when you’re not promoting a social/humanitarian cause. I experimented with two different types of ads: one with just the facts about the campaign, and then one that featured a teenage girl describing how the arts had changed her view of people with disabilities. The latter ad resulted in more hits to the website.

  • What is really cool is when the facts pull on the heart strings or evoke strong emotion. It’s the best of both worlds. There are many non-profit orgs that use data in combination with emotion-evoking words for powerful and compelling pieces. This works really well in video when it can also be combined with music, but it can also work well with text. Here are a few great examples:

    OMG: Children’s Defense Fund (They do this really well in everything they do…print and video)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r2m9Q649Wkg&feature=player_embedded#t=25

    MomsRising often combines irony, humor, or annoyance to evoke emotion in their campaigns and email:
    http://bit.ly/V5oQb

    I just got this email from Emily’s list tonight:
    http://emilyslist.org/news/kyl_maternity_petition

    There are great examples out there. As someone who attends Kivi’s sessions, I know she can teach you how to do this step by step.

  • Dr. Robert Heath

    Bear in mind that our research (Heath, Brandt & Nairn 2006 Journal of Advertising Research) and the IPA analysis was done on brand advertising. Brands, frankly, tend to have little that is new or different to say these days, which is why emotional appeals work better than messages. Although emotion has a powerful influence on all of us, there may be a more important additional role for facts and information in non-profit advertising.

    Good luck with your seminar.

  • Sounds like an interesting dynamic between the mind and the heart, so to speak. Based on Dr. Heath’s comment, it would seem that facts and information do have a large role to play, but only to whatever extent to which the message is original (i.e. interesting). Emotional appeals do seem to nonetheless rule the day in many regards.

    What people see on a non-profit organization’s website should reflect what was found by these studies (emotional content and/or a original message, depending), and there are firms that offer grants which can get those organizations who apply to the ‘top’ (e.g. http://www.dragonsearchmarketing.com/ppc-management-grant.html). And the content of those who are elevated as such better have the emotional hooks necessary.

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