Do you really need to go to college to understand this? Harvard Business Review reported this week that face-to-face encounters are more effective than emails when asking people to donate.
That’s no big surprise—it’s common sense. But we wish the professors who conducted this study had delved more deeply into how email works.
First, consider their main premise.
“Despite the reach of email, asking in person is the significantly more effective approach; you need to ask six people in person to equal the power of a 200-recipient email blast,” wrote Vanessa K. Bohns, assistant professor of Organizational Behavior at the ILR School at Cornell University. “Still, most people tend to think the email ask will be more effective.”
Bohns continued: “In research Mahdi Roghanizad of Western University and I conducted, recently published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, we have found people tend to overestimate the power of their persuasiveness via text-based communication, and underestimate the power of their persuasiveness via face-to-face communication.”
That may be true. But let’s move on to the next finding:
“In one study, we had 45 participants ask 450 strangers (10 strangers each) to complete a brief survey,” Bohns wrote. “All participants made the exact same request following the exact same script. However, half of the participants made their requests over email, while the other half asked face-to-face.
“We found people were much more likely to agree to complete a survey when they were asked in-person as opposed to over email. These findings are consistent with previous research showing that people are more likely to comply with requests in person than over email.”
So why do people think email is more effective when, as Bohns writes, “it is so clearly not?” Her answer: While participants may see the legitimacy of their request, "they failed to anticipate what the recipients of their emails were likely to see: an untrustworthy email asking them to click on a suspicious link.
“Indeed, when we replicated our results in a second study, we found the nonverbal cues requesters conveyed during a face-to-face interaction made all the difference in how people viewed the legitimacy of their requests, but requesters were oblivious to this fact.”
Oh, I get it: Email is viewed as spam.
Bohns concludes: “If your office runs on email and text-based communication, it’s worth considering whether you could be a more effective communicator by having conversations in person.”
Now wait a minute. Here the author is getting into a dollars-and-cents issue, so it’s time to leave academia and get out into the real world.
What Bohns writes may be relevant when you’re asking a few well-heeled donors for support. But given the cost of a single sales or fundraising visit, email is much more effective on the mass scale.
And that trust issue? Most nonprofit groups have regular donors who welcome their email and direct mail appeals.
In my case, I hear often from Film Forum, a nonprofit art film house in New York. I trust the institution—I frequently go there. But I wouldn’t want them hitting me up when I’m about to enjoy a film. Send me an email.
It’s harder to refuse a request in person than it is to ignore an email. But modern marketing is built on customer choice, and the person’s choice may not be to get an in-your-face request.
Finally, you would need email to set up the sales call. And it would take advance data analytics to determine if the prospect was at the stage in the donor or customer journey that would pay to make such a visit.
So while this study may reveal valuable psychological truths, it doesn’t tell you very much about email.