Should you sweat the little stuff?

Tom Ahern tells a discouraging story of a board member who refuses to let his organization send out any printed material with indented paragraphs at In defense of the endangered indent. Seems the guy just liked the look of those neat left margins.

That board member is a buffoon. He was putting his aesthetic preference over knowledge:

“Of course you indent paragraphs!” printed-page scientists would thunder. “Indents aren’t eye candy. They’re rungs in a ladder, stepping the reader down the page.”

I agree. Even though I don’t know for sure that it’s true. I’ve never tested it. It’s too small a thing to waste the valuable and limited resource of testing on. I suspect if you tested indented against non-indented copy, you would fail to get statistically valid results. So lacking specific direct-response knowledge or any trustworthy way to get that knowledge, I go with what’s known in other related fields. (And, BTW, other knowledge says indents are not needed online.)

So you might say it really doesn’t matter whether you indent copy or not. Why not just let the board member have his pig-headed way? No scientifically measurable harm done?

Well, no.

Non-indented paragraphs in print are in the pecked to death by ducks category. One peck, no need to worry. But there are other pecks, many of which you can’t avoid. And eventually those pecks can add up to an agonizing death.

In fundraising, the big stuff — like the call to action, the subject line, the list — that’s where you swing the results in a big way. But the little stuff like indented paragraphs, added together and making small differences over time — it matters also.

Here are a few more little things in direct mail that would be unlikely to make a difference in a test, but you should probably do nevertheless:


  • Page break mid-sentence. If a page ends with an unfinished sentence, you slightly improve the chance that the reader will turn the page and keep going. More reading = more response.
  • “Please turn page” at the bottom of a page. How corny can you get? But people tend to follow directions.
  • Period at the end of a headline. The period says “stop.” You don’t want people to stop.
  • Legible signature. Unreadable scrawled signatures are not approachable. It’s a celebrity, not a friend.

I’m pretty sure these things would not be proven either true or false in testing — unless you’re mailing in the multi-millions. And you have more important things to test, things that have a lot more impact.

But if you get a lot of small stuff right, you’ll have more income at the end of the year and more donors retaining. Not a lot more. But more.

Do you want to forego that just because a board member has too much time on his hands?


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.

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