Direct Mail, Strategy & Planning

Upgrade ask strings are a simple and easy way to increase revenue without increasing expense! But when do you use them? Are they only for renewal appeals or can you use them in add gift appeals as well? How much should you ask for? Is your ask based on the previous gift or a percentage? Learn the answers to these questions and more.


Sarah: Good afternoon, everybody. My name is Sarah Tron and I’m your host for today’s webinar. Today’s proven practice webinar topic is Upgrade Ask Strings Different Tips and Tricks for you. And our presenter is Virginia Dambach, Virginia works with Greater Public, formerly DEI, Public Radio and Television stations around the country, and local and regional nonprofit organizations in the areas of development, assessment, grant writing, direct marketing and fundraising planning, implementation, and analysis.

Prior to founding her company, Dambach & more, she served as the director of development for Prairie Public Broadcasting, the statewide network here in North Dakota, and Nevada Public Radio in Las Vegas. Welcome Virginia.

Virginia: Thanks so much, Sarah. Why do you want to use ask strings? And the answer is right here.

More net revenue, zero expense, and it is an amazing amount of net revenue. But first you may ask, as I once did, what is an ask string? And it’s simply a list of suggested amounts that you put on your response device. And you also use your ask string in the body of the letter with language that sounds like this, “Your gift of 75, 50, or even $35 will help assure the broadcaster programs you depend on and enjoy.”

So there you go. And here’s what it looks like. It appears in the letter text, you can see that in the top line, “Please join us today with your gift of 35, 50, 75 or whatever you can give.” And then on the form on the response device, they’re listed again, 35, 50, 75, and here, instead of other, they say, surprise us.

And I would like to see what kind of surprises they get. I bet they’re good. For lapsed in acquisition, you want to use a basic ask string and that’s what this is illustrating here. If you don’t suggest a specific amount, your average gift is going to be much lower than it could be. If your string starts too high, your response rates are going to be depressed. Research says that your ask cannot be any higher than $45. And actually, 29 or 32 or 35 are actually better because your goal with acquisition and lapsed is getting people in the door. You can upgrade their gift through add gifts and renewals, but you want to get them in the door first.

So why use the ask string? Well, money doesn’t fall from trees. But also really you do get what you ask for. If you ask for anything you can afford, that’s what you’ll get.

If you ask for 60, 50, or even 30, the majority of your gifts are going to be between 30 and $60. If you base your ask string on previous giving levels, you can increase your average gift each and every year. Now that’s for renewals and add gift amounts. And when do you use an ask string? Every time you ask. Every time you ask with every appeal, direct mail or email, whether it’s acquisition, renewal, add gift or lapsed. Every time you ask you want to use an ask string.

And the basic ask string usually starts with your entry level for membership and it increases by small increments. And then this is reiterating, testing is shown that the in entry level of 45 or higher reduces response rates. So make sure that your basic ask string is lower than that.

And here comes a sample 35, 60, 75, a hundred. And that’s for on-air appeals, on your general webpage form, in lapsed and acquisition direct mail, and email appeals. What you don’t want is to go 35, 62, 55, 500,000. I mean, you don’t want the soup to nuts. You don’t want gigantic gaps. This one is spread a little high. It’s a little aggressive, but that’s up to you.

Renewal ask strings. This is where you can really, really increase net revenue because the ask string starts with the amount given the previous year for the join or renewal. And it goes up from there. That means that if a person gave a hundred dollars last year, the ask string will not ever show an amount below that level, ask for an upgrade in the response device message.

You begin the string with the last gift amount. So here we’re going to see a sample and there it is. In the custom message there it says, “Please consider renewing with a gift of $60. Thank you.” And then on the list, it shows 50, which was last year’s gift amount and then 60, 75, a hundred. And actually I’m going to say right now, fewer choices would be better here.

If we dropped off the 300 and the 500, it would actually be better. You don’t want to give people too many choices. That’s the very latest research which I just read this morning. Oh, that is very latest research. Latest. We can get, the higher, the gift, the larger the increment. So if a person, for instance, this person here.

“Please consider renewing with a gift of $450.” Their last gift was 375. So here you’re done with those $25 increments, 375, 450, 500, a thousand, that’s a pretty big leap. You might want to go 750 in there. And again, fewer levels to go through, but you have it in writing here on the response device, you have it on the list of gift amounts. That ask should also be in your letter itself, not just on the response device.

And so defining a table. The basic table for pledge and web and acquisition is pretty basic 35, 50, 60, 75, other. A table based on the last gift amount for renewals, you would go through the upgrade like this, and it would just keep going.

And here are the results that you get with a typical upgrade ask string from a single month’s renewals. Here, you can see the average upgrade. The first month is $3.85. The second hit is $9.09 $3.57, $15.70. And if you look at the number of people who responded here, I’ve done some math for you. This is to prove what I’ve been saying that this is significant money. Just multiplying just this one month by the number of people who responded. And by the average upgrade amount, you generated from your renewal upgrades in. one month, 12,000 bucks with absolutely no added cost.

Additional gift ask strings. Conservative or aggressive? You’re going to go back and forth with this, back and forth because you want as much money as you can get, but you don’t want to offend people.

So the conservative answer is you want the member’s last renewal amount, and you would ask for half that amount as your add gift. And then you’d ask for the same amount, and then you would ask for one and a half times that gift.

Or you could ask for the highest previous renewal gift in the past three years. You ask for half that amount, you ask that same amount, or one and a half times.

If you’re going to be aggressive, you would start with asking for the same amount, their last renewal amount, you would ask for that amount again. So that’s the basic formula that you’re looking at. And again, if you analyze results, you can look at the average upgrade here. You’ve got how many you solicited, how much you made, the number who responded, the percent of response.

And right there next to the last column, $8.72 per person was the average upgrade amount. Now again, do the math. If you’re multiplying that by 83 people, that will tell you how much you made for absolutely no additional cost. The greater your response rate, the higher your net revenue is going to be.

Now, back to the basics with your lapsed upgrades. The goal of lapsed is to bring donors back to active status. So you go back to the basic upgrade string and then you take them from that amount in your add gift appeals and your renewal appeal. And here’s what we can look at. Here’s what you can see in your lapsed appeal results.

Lots and lots of times your upgrade is actually going to be a downgrade, if you’re looking at the last gift to compared to what they gave this time. Now here in a few categories, you have upgrades, and we all ask, “Why would that be?” It could be that the downgrades are normal and the folks who pledged a higher amount to get a premium gift, very often downgrade.

But in these where you have an upgrade amount among the lapsed file, I would really dig deeper and analyze to see where those lapsed donors came from. Were they pledge acquired? Were they direct mail acquired? Were they web acquired? Because I’d want to know where they came from and what message I sent them so that I could replicate that because really, I’d rather have an upgrade from my lapsed people than a downgrade.

Typically on lapsed, you’re going to see downgrades from previous gifts. And that is not a bad thing. It’s like explaining to my boss why lapsed income was down one year and I had to tell them that’s really good news because it means renewals is up.

Pledge upgrade ask. Yep, really, you can do this too. Any donors who pledged and want to be billed can be asked for an upgrade. If you ask for an upgrade, you often end up collecting more money, than your original total. Your fulfillment could be higher than a hundred percent on the amount of money that you’re trying to raise.

Sarah: Okay, so to clarify, for those that you are billing. If you ask for an upgrade, it can increase the overall fulfillment?

Virginia: The amount of money that is originally pledged, say it’s a hundred thousand. Okay. And you’ve already collected. 75,000 from credit cards and EFTs. So that leaves you 25,000 left to collect.

And with your upgrade ask, you could collect more than that amount. And this has happened at stations over and over where the amount collected is greater than the original amount pledged. And here’s the sample a very poor sample because it’s been photocopied one too many times.

Thank you for your pledge of $125. We’re glad you enjoyed blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. By increasing your pledge to 150, you could receive two CDs and for 250 both the VHF and the CD, that would now be a DVD. And so then you see your upgrades of people will use this ask and upgrade.

Oftentimes during pledge, the original pledge is an impulse buy. The same is true when you send people the bill, it’s another impulse. Oh yeah, that would be really great. I would really like to have whatever that thing was you were offering and do that right there in your pledge billing. And to increase your fulfillment, look at the last line. “To guarantee delivery of this special gift, we need to receive your payment by X date.” And it’s just amazing what a deadline does in helping your fulfillment.

So final tips, ask for a specific upgrade amount, period. The majority of your gifts are going to be near those amounts. If you ask for five, you’re going to get close to five. If you ask for 35, you’ll get close to 35. Make a specific ask in the letter copy as well as on the response form. So there you have it.

Sarah: Thank you so much for joining us today and we will see many of you next month.