Grading the Choice Architecture of Presidential Candidates’ Donor Pages (Pt. 1)

By Sam McNerney (Publicis North America)

& Robert J. Neal (Qualia Agency)

The fundamental premise of Nudge is that small changes in context play an overlooked role in our decisions, and that there is no such thing as a neutral environment where people aren’t swayed in one direction or another. While this insight is often subtle—one famous nudge involves a sticker strategically placed at the bottom of urinals to help men aim better—it can be used to influence how much money we spend, what food we eat, and even which health insurance options we select.

The wisdom of Nudge is no longer in question. Last week, President Obama issued an executive order encouraging federal agencies to use behavioral science to make the government more efficient. If anything, the behavioral science principles Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler extoll in Nudge may represent a new batch of business clichés, replacing “tipping points” with “invisible gorillas.” As Rory Sutherland jokes, we’ll know progress has been made when Daniel Kahneman’s tour bus is overrun by screaming Japanese schoolgirls.

Given the new insights Nudge has revealed about context and decision-making, it’s worth wondering how presidential candidates are using them to design donation pages online. During the 2012 election, President Barack Obama’s campaign wisely experimented with things like suggested donation amounts and their influence on giving. As the designer Kyle Rush describes in a blog post, by splitting the donation section into four groups—amount, personal information, billing information, and occupation—the steps required to complete the donation form on Obama’s campaign page appeared less daunting, which led more people to give.

Using the internet archive WaybackMachine.com, we’ve gathered donation pages from several presidential campaigns dating back to 2000. These pages nicely illustrate a few important behavioral science principles, such as fluency, anchoring, and commitment and consistency. We’ll rank each page with a letter grade.

Although internet standards have changed dramatically since 2000, we decided to give grades based on current standards, even though doing so will be unfair to the old campaigns. For instance, it’s possible that allowing online giving could have negatively affected a candidate in 2000. At the time, the average person was reluctant to submit credit card information online, and many people visited websites only to call and order at the end of the shopping experience. We’re also cognizant of the fact that browser standardization back then was horrendous, which made it difficult to implement good designs that worked for large heterogeneous populations.


Al Gore '00

Richard Thaler insists that if you want someone to do something, “make it easy.” Al Gore’s campaign made it hard. Even though e-payments were available at the time, donors had to print a webpage and mail it in with a personal check to the campaign headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee.  

Besides the monotonous web design, it’s tough to ignore the fact that the donation page does not have a suggested giving amount. Without a suggested amount, donors don’t know what counts as an appropriate donation. Typically, we’re much less willing to spend money on something when we don’t know how much other people have spent on that same thing. Our spending habits are much more influenced by other people than we think, and when it feels like no one else is giving (as Gore’s impersonal webpage suggests), we’re less likely to give ourselves.

It’s also worth noting the fine print on the top of form. This jargon-heavy legalese, likely the first piece of information people encounter, doesn’t exactly motivate donors into giving their money away. A better approach would be to shift the fine print to the bottom of the page. That way, the space for filling out personal information feels slightly more welcoming.

There is one part of this form that uses behavioral science wisely. If you look at the bottom section about sharing information with other organizations, you’ll notice the default is to opt in. This small change, as countless examples from donor programs to retirement savings plans show, will dramatically decrease the rate at which donors chose not to share their information.

Grade: F

John Kerry '04

Four years later, four times better. At this point in internet history, many people had warmed up to making payments online. Kerry’s donation page clearly reflects this shift. The default is to donate with a credit card while the option to donate by phone or mail, though still available, is significantly downplayed. 

Another key development is the use of anchors. If you’re familiar with behavioral science, you’ll appreciate the powerful effect anchors have on how we spend and what we prefer. If not, consider that artificial reference points even influence how we evaluate our own lives. In one study, researchers asked participants how happy they were and how many dates they had been on recently. When the order of the questions was reversed, prompting people to first dwell on their last few dates, participants were more likely to evaluate their happiness through the lens of their dating life.

The anchor on Kerry’s page is $25, which significantly influenced what donors counted as a “fair” amount, much like the question about dating influenced how the participants evaluated their happiness. Empirical research clearly suggests that Kerry raised millions of dollars more than he would have without the anchor. One study found that people donate more if the options are $100, $250, $1,000, and $5,000 than if they are $50, $75, and $150. It’s also worth noting that Kerry’s team did a better job creating a social norm to donate. On Gore’s website, which feels eerily antisocial, donating is perceived as something only enthusiastic supporters would do.

Finally, Kerry’s team wisely moved the legalese to the bottom of the page. As a result, donors encountered the jargon after they provided their information and selected a donation amount. By the time people got to the fine print, they probably felt as if they’d invested too much time to turn back. As Jared Spool outlines in a 2009 blog post, a major online retailer in the United States netted nearly $300 million in one year when they moved the annoying register/login page to the end of the checkout, after users had filled their virtual shopping carts. One of us conducted a similar experiment with online video game signups and found that by moving the more engaging and desirable portions of account creation to the top of the funnel conversions increased significantly.

Grade: C-

Mitt Romney '12

The most obvious difference between the campaigns of 2004 and 2012 is web design. It’s obvious from glancing at Romney’s donation page that his team hired professional designers. This update matters. 

Remember that System 2 is lazy while System 1 will make snap judgments about bright colors, simple language, and appealing designs—three components embedded in Romney’s page. The easier it is to process those aspects of the choice environment, the more favorably people will judge Romney. It sounds superficial, but it’s true. How the opportunity to donate is presented and framed largely shapes our willingness to give. The core beliefs of a candidate, such as Romney’s position on the economy or climate change, might be slightly overrated when it comes to our willingness to give once we make it to the donation page. Even seemingly trivial things, such as using credit card logos and placing them next to the lock icon, has been shown to significantly lift shopping page completion rates.

The second thing to notice is that the “select donation amounts" prompt is placed at the beginning. By asking people to select a contribution amount rather than input personal information first, Romney took advantaged of the commitment and consistency principle, which shows that people are more likely to follow through with an action when they commit to doing it at the outset.

The low anchor ($15) is smaller than Kerry’s ($25), while the high anchor ($5000) is higher than Kerry’s ($2,500). Again, it’s tough to know how exactly this shift influenced donation rates, but there are clear signs that Romney’s team is experimenting. The willingness to experiment represents a fundamental shift in how candidates asked for money online. Instead of only relying on speeches, commercials, and debates, Romney’s team likely began measuring which anchors raised the most money, paying close attention to how small changes in the anchors affected how much people donated.

Finally, Romney’s website feels much more personal, mostly because of his photo, which is a crucial addition. Research by Princeton psychologist Susan Fiske shows that people tend to focus on warmth and competence when deciding on a candidate, so it’s tough to believe that until around 2008 most candidates did not have photos on their donation pages. Nobody wants to give money to abstract entities like “Gore/Lieberman GELAC.” We want to give money to people. 

One last note: Kerry's call to action - “We need your help today to fight back against Republican attacks” - is much stronger than Romney's. The phrase, "We need your help today..." provides a sense of urgency. "Make a difference" is too abstract.

Grade: C+

Barack Obama '12

It’s known that President Obama consulted with behavioral scientists to improve his chances during his presidential campaigns. His decision to invest in behavioral science paid off. 

In terms of overall feel, Obama’s donation page combines both of the traits Fiske’s research emphasizes: warmth and competence. The photo shows Obama not in a formal suit but nice khaki pants and a dress shirt, portraying the President as professional but also casual. His position at the podium, surrounded by thousands of supporters, nicely affirms his image as a competent politician.

Like Romney’s donation page, Obama’s clearly experiments with anchors to boost not just the rate at which people donate but the total amount of each donation. However, the key change that makes this page the strongest so far is the segmented donation process. Selecting the donation amount at the beginning, on a separate screen, triggers the commitment and consistency principle, likely influencing people to proceed throughout the rest of the process.

The perception of progress is also important. Notice the green “1” under “Amount” and the two subsequent steps in grey. By making the steps required to donate obvious and highlighting the progress people make as they proceed through them, donors will feel like they’re investing in something and therefore sense that they have something to lose. With the subtle sting of loss aversion simmering in the back of their minds, they’re more motivated to finish what they started. (LinkedIn uses a similar tactic with its “Profile Strength” gauge. PayPal prompts users to complete their profiles by outlining what percent of their profile they’ve already completed.)

Lastly, it’s easy. With one glance it’s clear that donating to Obama’s campaign will be seamless. Even though each campaign is required by law to gather the same information, breaking up the steps makes everything appear simpler. The interface is sharp, the process clarified, the copy compelling: "Let's finish what we started."

Grade: B


In the next post, we’ll focus on the 2016 candidates and select the strongest donation page among them. We’ll also tell you whether Republicans or Democrats have the edge in optimizing their donation pages using behavioral principles. Stay tuned!