Grading the Choice Architecture of Presidential Candidates' Donor Pages (Pt. 2)

By Sam McNerney (Publicis North America)

& Robert J. Neal (Qualia Agency)

This article is the second in a two-part series.

Last week we looked at how presidential campaigns over the past decade have used (or, in many cases, failed to use) behavioral science to optimize donation pages. This week we turn to four candidates from the 2016 crop. Have they learned from the mistakes of their predecessors? Like the examples outlined in the previous post, we considered just the donation page—even though there are many other aspects of the donation process—and what each candidate is doing well from a behavioral science perspective.

Not surprisingly, many candidates are ignoring several methods proven to increase contributions, so we don’t believe that any one page can be selected as the best. However, compared to past campaigns, the current donation pages are much stronger. Here’s what stood out to us. 

Hillary Clinton

Hillary’s donation page has three low options--$3, $5, and $10. This setup is missing both the contrast effect (the idea that small amounts only seem small when they are next to large amounts and vice versa) and the anchoring effect (our tendency to make judgments not objectively but relative to an initial value) and probably costing her campaign a significant amount of money. You can imagine a committee of advisors thinking that low anchors would make Hillary appear more down to earth. However, the small starting donation of $3 is contrasted with a message that might sound elitist. The phrase “Become an official supporter of Hillary’s campaign” implies that a voter can be an “official” supporter if and only if he donates.

Even though the anchors on Hillary’s page are low, it’s important to note that donating any amount will provide Hillary’s campaign with something just as important as money: contact information. A $25 minimum might raise more money than a $5 minimum, but a high anchor might not be the most effective way to collect zip codes, email addresses, and telephone numbers—the lifeblood of campaigns over the long run. One of the many smart tactics the Obama team used in 2008 and 2012 was telling supporters that they could be among the first to know who Obama’s Vice Presidential candidate would be if they registered to receive the news via text message. It was an easy way to collect millions of cell phone numbers that were in turn used on Election Day to get out the vote.

Another thing Hillary’s campaign did well is copy Obama’s design elements. The overall look of the page is clean, and the signup mechanics are seamless. Additionally, in the third step of the donation process, the interface provides donors with an opportunity to make their donation a “recurring contribution.” There is no default option, which is key because donors must select “yes” or “no” to complete the donation. This small nudge may not cause many donors to give on a monthly basis, but by at least prompting them to consider it, more will. 

Donald Trump

Trump’s campaign did a great job emphasizing the highest amount a donor could give ($2,700). In one line of text near the top of the page, the campaign notifies donors that “by law the maximum amount an individual may contribute is $2,700.” This subtle anchor is set to the highest amount, which makes anything less seem more reasonable. In contrast, his rivals start with a low anchor and work upwards.

Unfortunately, the useless copy about mailing checks might diminish the effect of the high anchor. It almost feels like the Gore/Lieberman page from 2000. If Trump wants to make America great again, he might want to downplay the fact that his campaign is headquartered on 5th Avenue in New York City. (Also, unlike Obama, both Hillary and Trump have pictures of themselves without other people around.)

Left : The payment screen of Clinton's donation page.  Right : The payment screen of Trump's donation page. 

Left: The payment screen of Clinton's donation page. Right: The payment screen of Trump's donation page. 

Another area of concern is step three, the “payment” section. According to campaign finance laws, Americans must list their occupation and employer when they donate money to a political campaign. Trump’s team uses too much space to notify donors of this law. By contrast, notice how inconspicuous and personal Hillary’s page is; it simply says, “Federal law requires us to collect the following information.” As soon as you make legal jargon noticeable and bulky, as Trump’s team did, you risk scaring off potential donors who might fear unknown legal hazards. 

Finally, it’s worth noting the difference between Clinton’s “Donate $3” and Trump’s “Continue $10.” We’re not sure how this difference affects donation rates, but “Donate $3” seems like a much stronger piece of copy compared to “Continue $10,” which doesn’t really make sense. 

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders’s campaign uses the contrast effect well to increase average donation amounts for lower end contributors. Rather than have two low amounts next to each other in the bottom tier, as Hillary’s page does, the suggested amounts on Sanders’s page jump from $10 to $35, which increases the likelihood that donors will perceive $10 as too little. 

The subtlest but best item on Sanders’s page is a small piece of copy that says, “Your contribution will benefit Bernie Sanders.” The psychologist Ellen Langer has shown that merely providing a reason for an ask, even if it’s implied, increases follow-through significantly.

The option to “Make it monthly” is another nice addition. More people will donate monthly, not because they’re feeling more generous, but because they have the opportunity to do so. However, the blue default option should be to donate monthly rather than opt out. (It’s also worth wondering if the default in the “Your Contribution” section should be switched from $10 to $35.)

One weakness of Sanders’s page is that it feels slightly bare and impersonal. Where’s Bernie? It’s not clear whom potential donors are giving their money to. Research by Susan Fiske—which we mentioned in the previous post—suggests that warmth and competence are important traits voters consider when deciding which candidate they prefer. Without a photo of Sanders, this page does not check those two boxes very well. 

Jeb Bush

Jeb Bush’s campaign does the best with anchoring but the worst with design. The campaign starts the donation options with $25, which is a good anchor—neither too big nor too small. The default to make a recurring donation is opt-in—note the blue checked box—which will increase the number of donors who decide to make their donation recurring. The photo of Bush with two people nicely frames him as both a warm and competent candidate. 

However, the cluttered feel of the screen underneath the photo (pictured above) is likely to lead to higher cognitive load, thus making the overall donation process seem harder. The confusion is worsened by arcane fields like "Bundler ID" and atypical interaction patterns like "Click if Retired" that reduce fluency even more. 

Like most of the other candidates, Bush does a good job of tucking a few paragraphs of legalese at the bottom of the page. Users have to actively scroll down to read that they must be citizens or legal residents or that contributions are not tax-deductible. Out of sight, out of mind.

Finally, it’s also worth noting that Bush is the only Republican candidate with an “ES” option for Spanish worsened by arcane fields like “Bundler ID” and atypical interaction patterns like “Click if Retired” that reduce fluency even more.

Concluding Thoughts

These campaigns could incorporate many small nudges to improve average donation amount, number of donations, and the positive feeling donors have when they donate. One of us (Robert) has tested numerous nudges on many campaigns to great effect. Here are two simple, yet effective strategies for these campaigns to consider.

First, most donation pages don’t provide users with a compelling reason to donate. If you’re a potential donor, it’s implied that you’re donating because you already support the candidate. However, studies show that when we’re explicitly given a reason to do something, we’re more likely to do it. An easy way to increase the number of donations and the satisfaction of donating is to tie certain donation amounts to concrete goals.

For example, if Hillary’s campaign wants to push for free two-year community college, it could tie donating a certain amount to reaching college voters: “$100 will allow us to reach 9 more college voters.” This approach helps offset the fact that when money is made salient, people are more selfish and less willing to contribute to a shared cause, as researchers Wendy Liu and Jennifer Aaker have shown. Likewise, Trump’s campaign might use copy that reads, “$250 will help us to fight off establishment special interest groups for an additional 6 days in [donor’s state].”

The second nudge relates to the order of the donation amounts. Notably, all of the candidates surveyed here start with low donation amounts and work their way up to higher ones, even though anchoring is more effective when the amounts are presented in descending order. In fact, Robert conducted one experiment in which he found that switching the order led to an 8% increase in total contributions.

These are just two of the many choice architecture interventions that campaigns might benefit from using. As behavioral science continues to become mainstream we expect to see more candidates design nudges and incorporate them into their campaigns. However, optimizing nudges will depend on a campaign’s willingness to rigorously test and rapidly adapt based on the results. Nearly seven years after Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein published Nudge, we know that incorporating clever interventions into choice environments is just the starting point. To know if they work, we need to experiment.