Exclusive Interview with Cornell University Professor Vanessa Bohns
“So much of persuasion and communication is nonverbal, and it’s harder to ignore someone who is standing right in front of you than some anonymous person behind an email…” — Professor Vanessa Bohns
The election of Donald J. Trump prompted everyday American citizens to give more money to progressive groups that would hold the new president accountable, while pushing back on his policy ideas.
Since November 2016, we have seen a surge in small donations to social justice organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Planned Parenthood. Donations from concerned Americans have become the fuel for a resistance driven by people power.
Grassroots Campaigns (GCI) specializes in fundraising small donations for progressive organizations. GCI began its mission doing this for its first client, the Democratic National Committee (DNC), over a decade ago.
GCI harnessed the last wave of resistance in 2004, á la Bush-Cheney, and raised more than $25 million for the DNC — all in small dollar donations. That wave turned into a tidal wave where MoveOn joined forces with GCI to run a 17-state face-to-face neighbor-to-neighbor operation with the goal of leaving no voter behind and supporting candidates all the way to the ballot box.
For more than a decade, GCI has raised millions for advocacy organizations, candidates, and the Democratic party. With all its experience helping clients and partners effectively communicate with concerned American citizens and their pocketbooks and bank accounts, GCI has learned one important thing: face-to-face conversations work better, especially when comparing them to Emails or text messages that do the same.
Cornell University professor of Organizational Behavior, Vanessa Bohns, has conducted research on the power of face-to-face communication, which has become incredibly important in an era when many organizations overestimate the utility of digital communications like Email and text messaging. Professor Bohns’ research found that “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.”
GCI’s Director of Communication, John R. Gagain Jr., conducted an exclusive interview for GCI’s new publication Grasstops with Professor Bohns on her research and recent Harvard Business Review (HBR) article entitled: “A Face-to-Face Request is 34 Times More Successful than Email.”
John R. Gagain Jr. (GCI)
What’s the story of your study / HBR article? How did it begin?
Professor Vanessa Bohns (PVB)
My findings on face-to-face requests had been fairly established for a while, but I was always asked whether the same thing would apply to phone and email requests. The HBR article summarizes my first attempt to address that question.
How did you get interested in face to face fundraising?
Back when I was a graduate student in New York City, I had to go to Penn Station to collect data, which I would dread. I would approach people who were waiting for the train and ask them to fill out a survey, and my collaborator and I were looking at whether certain kinds of scripts were more effective than others. Our original prediction didn’t pan out, but when we looked at the data, we were both surprised at how high the compliance rate was overall. Regardless of the script, most people were agreeing to do the survey for me. We realized that other people were likely to be similarly surprised by this, so we enlisted participants to do the same thing and predict how many people would agree to fill out a survey for them. They experienced the same thing I did: They dreaded asking people and assumed they would experience lots of rejection, when in fact most people agreed to their request and were nice when saying “no.” We decided to try this with an actual fundraising group, so we got people raising money for Team in Training to participate in a study, and they experienced the same thing. They thought they would have to ask about twice as many people as they did to reach their fundraising goal.
What does the study / article mean for organizations looking to raise money in light of the recent and current uptick in political activism post-2016 election?
It takes a lot more energy to talk to people face-to-face, but it is far more effective. Getting people to ask a few individuals they see on a daily basis in person for a donation is likely to be more effective than large email blasts.
What has been some of the feedback you’ve been receiving about your study / HBR article?
A lot of people have confirmed the findings and given me examples of switching to face-to-face methods rather than relying on email in their own organizations once they saw how much more effective in-person requests were. But even people who had realized previously that face-to-face was more effective have been surprised by the magnitude of the effect. The difference in compliance for face-to-face requests versus email requests in our studies is just huge.
Do you get personally solicited for funds via email / online from organizations, candidates, etc.? What do you think when you do, especially now after your study / HBR article?
I generally ignore and forget about email solicitations. But I remember in-person solicitations because even if you ultimately say “no” to someone in person, you actually have to engage with them and your emotions are often triggered, emotions like guilt. I’m far more aware of all the reasons it’s easier to say “no” to or ignore an email request than an in-person request.
What are the next steps in your research?
We’re looking at asking friends vs. strangers, since we’ve primarily focused on making requests of strangers up to this point. We’re also looking at how power dynamics might play a role in people’s predictions about whether they can influence someone. People in positions of power are human too and subject to the same difficulties of saying “no,” yet we tend to view them as imperturbable. So, I think that people will expect that people in positions of power are far more likely to say “no” to them if they were to ask for someone, when in fact they may be more amendable than we imagine.
What would you hope social activists, organizations, electoral candidates, and everyday citizens do going forward, especially now that your HBR article exists?
In general, I think we need more face-to-face communication when trying to persuade one another. We often prefer to write out our arguments and pleas because we want to get the phrasing “just right,” and this is often an admirable goal. However, so much of persuasion and communication is nonverbal, and it’s harder to ignore someone who is standing right in front of you than some anonymous person behind an email or an article.