It’s hard out there for nonprofits – you face serious competition.

Attention is a limited resource, and everyone’s vying for it.

You want it. Other nonprofits want it. For-profits want it. And even people acting on their own want it (We’ve all seen the “my dog needs surgery” crowdfunding campaigns – hope all those good boys and good girls are wagging tails right now).

You have something else in common with these other entities, too – you’re competing for another finite resource…Money! Everybody wants it but not enough people want to part with it. With so much competition, you can’t afford to squander any opportunities!

So, when you do have people’s attention, how can you improve your odds of turning them into donors? Turns out there’s a science-backed strategy you can implement to get your potential donors in the giving mood.

The Donor Drug – A Chemical Reaction that Inspires Greater Giving

Science is a wild thing. So is the human body.

Over ten years ago, scientists discovered that “oxytocin is produced when we are trusted or shown a kindness, and it motivates cooperation with others.”

When released in our bodies, oxytocin cranks up our empathic abilities–empathy is an average human’s superpower that lets her feel what other people are feeling. It’s one of the reasons we’re able to work together in such enormous groups (like millions of people living in one city), and cooperate well with strangers (baristas, Uber/Lyft/Taxi drivers, players in a pickup basketball game, etc).

And, it turns out, oxytocin could be the prime ingredient in the dish that gets people to donate.

In one study, Paul J. Zak (his lab discovered oxytocin’s role in all this) found that “the amount of oxytocin released by the brain predicted how much people were willing to help others” and that includes charitable giving.

Ok, great. So we know oxytocin makes people more generous…

But what triggers an oxytocin release?

Why Does Your Body Produce Oxytocin?

The answer might surprise you…

It turns out that telling a story is all it takes to get brains releasing that oxytocin. But, as we’ll talk about later, any old story won’t do.

For now, Dr. Zak’s YouTube video, Empathy, Neurochemistry, and the Dramatic Arc, really helps break things down.

(It’s less than six minutes long, but) Here’s the overview:  In order for the chemical reaction to kick in, you first need to catch people’s attention with your story.

How? By stressing them out.

When we see a distressing scenario, our brains release cortisol. Cortisol is an attention focuser (among other things). The more distress you experience or witness, the more your body releases cortisol, and the more you’ll pay attention to that particular stimulus.

Cortisol is the body’s way of making sure it learns any new information that might be pertinent to survival. It’s also the preliminary step to an oxytocin release.

Getting viewer attention is key–you need them to spend enough time and attention on your story that they start to share the emotions of the characters.

No doubt you’ve experienced this yourself…

Ever sit on the edge of your seat or hold your breath during a tense moment in Die Hard? Or have your hands clam up (or sweat from just one armpit) when things aren’t going well for a hero? Or cry during Marley and Me when you’re watching it for the third time by yourself (yeah, I can’t relate to that last one either…)?

We know it’s fake, right? It’s on a screen. We know the people involved are actors. It’s not real.

And yet our brains are powerful enough to make it real for us. Our bodies react sympathetically to the challenges characters are facing on screen.

This phenomenon is commonly referred to as “transportation,” and it appears to be inextricably tied to the release of cortisol and oxytocin.
Which means that stories literally have the power to change our behavior and our brain chemistry!

Can You “Transport” Your Audience?

In the YouTube video, Dr. Zak mentions they were able to predict who would donate with 80% accuracy based on a person’s response to the video they showed. During this study, they measured stress responses and cortisol and oxytocin metrics by monitoring heart rate, blood samples, skin conductance, and respiration.

Ok, so we know that a person synthesizing oxytocin is more charitable, compassionate, generous, and even more trustworthy. And we know that stories that hold attention can lead to oxytocin production.

But to better understand how your nonprofit can tap into this, we should take a closer look at one of the studies conducted by Zak and his team.

A Tale of Two Videos – The Story that Works

Researchers showed two different videos to study participants.

The first video told the story of a terminally ill young boy, Ben, through the perspective of his father.

Ben’s father talks about how happy Ben is to be feeling better after his chemo, and how much fun the boy is having as a result.
But then the father’s voice starts to break as he talks about how he’s struggling. He is having a hard time being happy with Ben…because he knows Ben is going to die in a few months.

His father talks about needing to become a stronger person, a better person, for Ben’s sake. He wants to be able to enjoy his time with his son before Ben passes away.

The emotional narration (from a father who has since lost his son to cancer, according to Zak) is played over an animated video of a boy playing with cuts to a father figure.

The second video, viewed by different study participants, showed an animated father and son walking around a zoo and talking. The father refers to Ben as his “miracle boy,” but doesn’t the video doesn’t spend any time explaining the significance of that name, or giving much context to the situation.

All participants were paid to participate in the study. At the end of the viewing, they were asked if they wanted to donate to a charity supporting a cause related to the video.

Guess which video did a better job of holding the attention of viewers–and which one had more viewers donate after watching?

Ding ding ding! The first video, by a lot.

Is Your Content More Like Video One or Two?

The second video has no effect on viewers because, according to Zak, “we don’t know why we are watching Ben and his father, and we are unsure what we are supposed to learn.”

If your brain doesn’t get a shot of distress, it won’t produce any cortisol. Without cortisol, your attention will quickly fade and you’ll look for other stimuli.

Here’s Zak’s takeaway:

  • Character-driven stories “consistently cause oxytocin synthesis
  • “When you want to motivate, persuade, or be remembered, start with a story of human struggle and eventual triumph” (Dr. Zak recommends this for oiling the inner workings of your organization, too – not just to encourage charitable donors)

If you want to make content that’s powerful enough to change the brain chemistry and behavior of your viewers, Zak advises asking yourself and your team questions like:

  • Why should donors “or a person on the street care about the project you are proposing?”
  • “How does it change the world or improve lives?”
  • “How will people feel when it is complete?

Let’s take this a step further and tie in some “viral marketing” emotions.

What Kind of Emotional Messages Get Shared?

According to Derek Halpern over at Social Triggers (who pulled these insights from the research paper “What Makes Online Content Go Viral?”), there are three big elements to focus on when creating viral content:

1. “Positive content is more viral than negative content”

Many nonprofits are looking to fix a negative element in the lives of other people (or animals, or society, or forests, etc). And, while the subject might be negative, there’s usually a pivotal twist towards triumphant positivity. In many cases, this twist tells the story of how donors can help, or what the world would look like when your nonprofit succeeds, or how there’s actually a solution, it’s just a matter of funding it–this will vary depending on the problem being addressed.

2. “Content that evoked high arousal emotions–positive or negative–is more viral than content without emotion”

This echoes Paul J. Zak’s research. It’s the difference between the story of a father talking about being stronger and better for his dying son and the story of a father and son at the zoo with no context.

Halpern gives us a list of high arousal emotions: anger, fear, anxiety, joy, surprise, awe, lust, “or anything related to the fear of loss.”

3. “Practically useful content gets shared”

At first glance, this nugget might not seem as helpful as the other two… But including a clear call to action in your content is crucial to getting people to act (and to share).

A Powerful Case for Video Storytelling–Applying What You’ve Learned

There’s one element from Dr. Zak’s oxytocin research that we didn’t touch on, and we’ll close with it now.

In addition to the two videos, there was a text version of the story that the team experimented with. And “the video showing Ben with his father talking on camera is better at both sustaining attention and causing empathic transportation than when people simply read what Ben’s father has to say themselves.”

The text version of your story is better than nothing…But when you find your most powerful story, turning it into a video can take your engagement to the next level (and drive more donations).

The story is more important than the medium, but if you want to talk about your next video project, click the link below and say hi – because Epic Dog Studios can help. Talk is free – let’s see what your story is capable of!

Elliott Regan

Elliott Regan

Blog Writer Extraordinaire

Plain ol’ Elliott Regan is a psychology fan, a writing man, and a member of a rock n’ roll ban…d. A triple threat in the loosest sense of the phrase, he likes to write about what makes people tick and what makes their screens flick. Apparently, he has a thing for rhymes. He’s ghosted pieces for a best-selling author whose byline appears in top-tier publications–but that’s a story he’ll only tell ‘round the campfire…

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