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10 foundational elements to DRTV success

For nonprofit organizations, nothing makes an impact on people quite like viewing the work and dedication of the mission through moving pictures. But it takes more than amazing video imagery for a DRTV campaign to be successful.

Over the past 25 years, I’ve seen many nonprofit organizations succeed in direct-response television. I’ve also seen way too many charities fail.

Yes, video tells a powerful story. It connects us to others and to ourselves. It transports us to places, people and situations never before imagined. It reminds us of the past and reimagines the possibilities for our own futures.

This unique medium frees us up to cry and laugh – even when we are not cognizant of why. Video reaches deeply into our soul and shows us something about our self through the plight of others.

But a successful DRTV campaign needs to have everything working together – creative, strategy, media buying, call center performance and back-end fulfillment.

In the end, there are 10 foundational elements that, when properly followed and executed, increase your chances of acquiring donors at an acceptable rate. So, here we go ...


In the human context, one person is motivated by the plight of another. In the nonprofit’s context, one viewer – one person – is motivated by one cause, one problem, one great plight.

The point is, simplicity rules the day.


Although that seems obvious, the execution of this concept can be difficult to achieve. Why? The mission of the organization is robust, complex, sophisticated and serves a tremendous need on a grand scale. Therefore, the tendency is to overcommunicate the great, overwhelming need.

Yet we must simplify and focus. One person gives to solve one problem.


Based on what we’ve learned in the past along with so many other charities in the TV space, DRTV viewers respond to images and stories of “need” rather than “success” – by an overwhelming majority.


Think of it like this: Need creates a gap or a problem to solve in the mind of the viewer.

In movies, we are introduced to a protagonist (and an antagonist, by the way) who always needs something. The greater the need, the greater the gap. The greater the gap, the higher the audience response.

The same happens in DRTV. But unlike a movie, the viewer fills the gap. The organization is the trusted, brilliant, conduit that delivers what is most needed to fill the gap.

From the viewer’s perspective, the need must be heartfelt, substantial, tangible and believable. The need must reflect hope, resolve and the possibility of freedom from pain.

Need is not manufactured or “representative.” The need depicted in your commercial will be genuine, authentic, touched, seen and felt.


The DRTV spot must create powerful emotion – enough power to overcome skepticism and inertia. Your DRTV spot must not be just another video, rather it must force the viewer to face the crossroads of action and apathy ... and take action.

After all, DRTV is television. We utilize all the power that TV and film have at their core. TV grabs at the heart. Film allows us to cry. These emotions identify our inner-most values, past experiences and memories.

Creating emotion is the most important element of your spot, yet the most elusive. Pay close attention to emotion as you use words, images, delivery, tension, music and on-screen mirroring.


The DRTV spot will only last for two minutes – about 250 words. In this short period of time, we expect viewers to make a decision – a monthly or annual commitment – on behalf of an organization they’ve probably never heard of.

We can only show our viewers the front door, not the room.

Your DRTV spot can’t possibly tell the entire story about all the wonderful things you’ve accomplished. Too much information can paralyze the donor. That stops them from taking action.

Telling the whole story can become complicated and overwhelming. And it’s guaranteed to suppress results.

Your DRTV spot must be simple – simple problem, simple solution.


Your spot must be infused with the immediate, the urgent, the today – not the tomorrow.

It’s all about the right here and right now. We must convince the viewer that the problem is so important that they must act and act now. We urge viewers to call NOW, to go online NOW. We must compel the viewer about the concequences of inaction and of action.

How do we create this urgency?

The need creates the urgency. Empathy creates urgency. Lost opportunity creates urgency. Life and death create urgency. Fear of loss creates urgency and so does desire for gain.


Today’s viewers are skeptical. They have seen and know too much.

Viewers need to be shown, not just told. We live in an age that says, “Show me how I can make a difference. I need to see it with my own eyes.”

One of the best ways to show proof of delivery is by visualizing what I call The Great Before and After. Show a vulnerable elephant without adequate protection, then show her again safe and sound as a result of generous donors like you.

We can also communicate proof of delivery by filming third-party endorsements. Viewers think along the lines of, “I may not know or trust the organization yet, but I do trust a trustworthy person I know, love or admire.”

If you can’t show proof-of-delivery, you don’t have a TV spot.


Your DRTV spot must have calls-to-action that are simple, clear, bold, appropriate, and repetitive.


Calls to action must be heard through strong voiceover performances with a script written in short, compelling phrases that convey urgency and immediacy.

But the VO isn’t enough. Your spot must also have visual calls to action that appear in a lower-third graphical element. The lower-third must contain all the necessary information to compel action, but without distraction and visual pollution.

For example, lower-thirds contain large phone numbers, easy-to-remember URLs, action phrases that reinforce the offer, a visually arresting font, color and size that are, of course, aligned with your nonprofit’s brand guidelines.

And, of course, the lower-third must be displayed within the spot for durations that allow viewers to grab pen and paper.


As fundraisers, our goal is to make it as easy as possible for a donor to respond to our call to action. But certain barriers are inherently in the way.

For example:

  • Does my money really get “there”?
  • Can I really make a difference?
  • Is the organization good and trustworthy?
  • Is what I’m seeing real and believable?
  • Do I really need to act right now, or can it wait?

We can take down these barriers of entry by first identifying them, then writing scripts and arranging visuals in a way that proactively addresses each anticipated barrier.


The great film and TV composer Artie Kane once said, “Music is the final piece of filmmaking — the essential element that pulls emotion from an audience and puts goosebumps on the screen.”

Sound mesmerizes the audience. It delivers essential information, creates emotion, emphasizes what we see visually on the screen and creates the mood.

The art of crafting music is essential. Similar to cinema, you must produce a spot with a customized score that ebbs and flows according to what we see on the screen and feel in our heart.


Finally, even after all we’ve said and done to make the viewer care about our cause and the animals we serve to protect, people are still people.

Viewers want to feel good about their action. At the end of the day, they must be convinced this is or was the right thing to do. There must be no regrets.

Sometimes viewers want something in return. It could be a feeling, a connection or even something physical – a T-shirt, blanket, tote bag or mug. It might be the notion that by doing good, maybe something good will happen to me. We have to craft the spot making sure we give donors something in return.


There are plenty of pieces that play a role in a DRTV campaign, but you need to keep these 10 elements at the heart of everything you do.

Better storytelling will lead to better results. This can be the difference between the success and failure of a DRTV spot.

Duke Smith

As Senior Vice President, Client Strategy, at RKD Group, Duke Smith brings philanthropic counsel to the charitable community throughout Canada, the United States and internationally. In his 25-year career, Duke has provided direct-marketing fundraising expertise for North America’s largest and most respected nonprofit organizations, including American Red Cross, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Canadian Red Cross, ChildFund International, Heart & Stroke, International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, Plan International Canada, Save the Children USA and Canada, World Vision Canada, UNHCR, UNICEF Canada, United Service Organizations (USO), and many others.

Duke has traveled to more than 40 developing countries to meet, film and photograph children and their families whose lives have been impacted by the organizations he has worked tirelessly to serve.

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