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Talking In The Third Person Boosts Crowdfunding Success

Using third-person language gives crowdfunding campaigns more appeal and makes them more successful, reveals new research from ESSEC Business School and Ivey Business School.
Using third-person language gives crowdfunding campaigns more appeal and credibility, reveals new research
  • Third-person language is more effective than first-person wording in crowdfunding campaigns, as people perceive indirect appeals as more credible
  • Direct appeals raise less money than otherwise-identical indirect appeals
  • Fundraisers written in the third person can provide social proof of their authenticity as readers assume the writer knows more about the person than they do

The proliferation of fundraising websites, despite being in their relative infancy, has proved to be a double edged sword for those seeking financial support from the generosity of strangers.

The sheer array of websites such as GoFundMe and JustGiving have created a busy marketplace for effective altruism, where we consider how our money can help someone in need, without expecting anything in return. But, whilst such markets give both the donor and the fund-seeker almost limitless options, they can be sure of one thing – stiff competition that threatens to spit one cause out in favour of another. Those launching appeals in such markets face a steep uphill battle for recognition.

Let’s position ourselves as the prospective payer or donator. We have the freedom to be as generous as we wish with plenty of fundraisers to choose from, but how do we decide which one to back? Perhaps a fundraiser for someone’s dying wish has the emotional appeal to draw us straight in. Alternatively, funding a kid’s orphanage may outweigh the needs of a single person. 

As Peter Singer wrote in his book “The Most Good You Can Do”, we should ultimately donate to charities or individuals, which are promising to do the most good for society across the globe. He said doing the most good comes down to pure number crunching on how many lives are saved, how many illnesses are cured, and how many people are lifted out of poverty. Doubtless, this approach can work whether the focus is at a domestic or global level.

Covid19 and the current war in Ukraine have set unescapable precedents for the direction of funds to flow in their favour. These are also global issues which incentivise people to donate to a collective cause. Whilst these are unquestionably  needy campaigns, unfortunately this only makes the cause of the individual fundraiser fall further by the wayside.

So, for those smaller individual fundraising efforts, what can they do to enable their appeals to be heard?

There is a new factor in determining the success of crowdfunding campaigns hitherto overlooked: The pronouns that a campaigner uses to address the audience is actually a critical element in getting people on board.

This concept is grounded in research from ESSEC Business School and Ivey Business School, which found that using third-person language makes crowdfunding campaigns more successful.

In a study conducted by Dr. Amir Sepehri, a consumer psychologist at ESSEC Business School, and Rod Duclos, Kirk Kristofferson, Poormina Vinoo and Hamid Elahi of Ivey Business School, indirect appeals – using third-person language – is a more effective means of gaining support than first-person wording, as the audience tends to perceive indirect appeals as more credible.

Dr. Seperhi and his colleagues’ data consisted of 9017 fundraising appeals posted on GoFundMe between the website’s inception (in May 2010) and November 2017. 500 campaigns were randomly selected from the population and the language of their appeals was identified as being either direct or indirect by independent research assistants.

Strikingly, there were large disparities between each category in how much money each raised in crowdfunding. The researchers found that on average campaigns coded as direct appeals raised only half as much money ($4217.66) as counterparts coded as indirect appeals ($9789.53).

Additionally, the research fleshed out just how much could be gained through the simple alteration of pronouns. The use of “he”, “she”, “his”, or “her” led to as much as $620 more per campaign on average. Conversely, using first-person pronouns had the opposite effect, reducing donations by an average of $682 per campaign

Numbers alone don’t compound the more compelling contentions in the research though. According to Dr. Sepehri, it’s the methodology in the fundraising pitch we need to pay attention to. As much as a psychological grounding and understanding of the consumer is the key to other effective marketing campaigns, it turns out that this is just as important in ensuring successful fundraising.

Dr. Seperhi explains that we use a critical process known as “perceived credibility”, where we weigh up whether someone’s appeal is credible, genuine, authentic or legitimate. As such, the researchers asked questions of participants assessing the fundraisers, ones we commonly ask ourselves; “how much need is this person?” and “to what extent could this person use some help”.

He expanded on this, saying that the idea of what he calls “social proof” factors into the effectiveness of third-person language in crowdfunding. “When we are uncertain of what to do, we tend to look to others for cues, thinking they are likely to have more knowledge than we do,” Dr. Sepehri explains. “This social influence lends credibility to a campaign, making people more likely to reach into their pockets.”

A prime example from the research can be found in the reaction to a GoFundMe appeal for a promising teenage hockey player named Brianna. Participants learned that Brianna recently lost her mother – her number one fan and supporter – in a tragic accident. One group of the study’s participants read the fundraising appeal as follows: “All funds received will go toward her future education”. Another group read the appeal framed in a direct way instead.

Fascinatingly, this small change of language in the fundraising pitch made all the difference. Research findings revealed participants perceived the indirect framing as more credible and consequently donated more money when given the opportunity.

What Dr. Seperhi posits in his research could be a force for reconciling shared interests between both business (particularly advertising) and fundraising campaigns: unlikely allies and potential adversaries. After all, they both want an appeal which is genuine, credible and legitimate.

Dr. Seperhi draws on such a comparison. “In advertising, a clearly identified sponsor orchestrates the initiative and stands to benefit directly from economic transactions that ensue,” he says. “This likens direct fundraising wherein a clearly identified individual orchestrates the initiative and stands to benefit personally from any economic transaction that ensues.”

He adds: “By contrast, in word-of-mouth marketing, third parties take it upon themselves to promote a given brand or product they value. By extension, we propose this description likens ours to indirect fundraising wherein a third party takes it upon themselves to raise money on behalf of someone else.”

The research goes to show it pays in spades for both fundraisers and business to sharpen up their rhetoric, but by working smarter not harder. It’s certainly a better alternative to achieving it through fostering underhanded ways to gain appeal: Despite what previous research has shown, a narcissistic approach will only get us so far.

Perhaps the most insightful thing aspiring fundraisers can learn is to focus on the subject matter rather than too strongly reeling in the person they are trying to appeal to. If they appear genuine and legitimate people will naturally flock to them.

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