Thursday, January 16, 2014

More Magic Woids and Phrases

Just on the heels of a study from Stony Brook University in New York that takes a look at what good books have in common, a pair of researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology takes a look at the commonalities among Kickstarter campaigns that got funded, versus campaigns that went down the proverbial drain.

Lily Hay Newman writes about the Georgia Tech study at, where there’s also a link to the presser announcing the study (where you can find a link to the paper itself). For a word weenie such as myself, this study is gold, and could be used in extrapolation by anyone seeking to write a successful bit of writing, whether it be for grants, job applications, or even college essays.

That being said, this is more than a peek into raw search engine optimization; it’s clear form the study that simply inserting these phrases into a proposal wont’ guarantee success – they’re part of a bigger puzzle of success that incorporates winning attitudes as well as winning phraseology.

The study’s authors, Tanushree Mitra and Eric Gilbert, looked at over 45,000 Kickstarter campaigns in a wide variety of subjects. They discovered, after controlling for a variety of variables including whether or not the campaign was linked to a strong Facebook presence and whether the campaign had a watchable video to go with the words, that there is a pattern of phrases linked to the ideas of reciprocity, scarcity, social proof, liking, and authority that were common among winning campaigns. Less-successful campaigns had less of these phrases in common and were more prone to phraseology that made them come across as needy, greedy, also-rans, and less confident about their project’s current state and future viability.

None of that should be surprising to anyone who has written grants, written novels, or sold a product, but it’s good information for people (like me) who have been involved in projects where such selling has to be done and success is the desired outcome. The authors themselves say: “[P]hrases which exude negativism (not been able) or lack assurance (later, I hope to get) are predictors of [campaigns that are] not funded. [U]nsurprisingly, phrases which signal lucrative offers to potential backers (also receive two, mention your) are positive predictors of successful funding.

Backing away from the specificity of this research to Kickstarter campaigns, I can see how the general positive attributes of winning campaigns could be used in other instances where a writer or group wants to persuade successfully an audience to participate, donate, or further consider their work.

The study notes, first of all, that strong reciprocity – clear messages that show what the audience will receive if they donate – are key to successful campaigns (though it appears the draw of dressing up and seeing campaigners dressed up is a negative as far as campaign success goes).

Also key – no surprise here – is that pledgers will fund campaigns they’re already prone to liking, as long as the campaign demonstrates those who pledge will be showered with appropriate praise.
Other successful attributes include campaigns that have strong social proof of previous support (the phrases “has pledged” and “pledged and” show, firstly, that support is already there, and, second, that pledges were often accompanied by other forms of support; appeals to authority; and positive outlook of the campaign as a whole (phrases such as “we can afford” and “project will be” are strong indicators of a successful campaign).

Attributes that resulted in a failed campaign are also telling. Phrases such as “not been able” and “even a dollar” demonstrate past failure, and past experience with failure. Potential pledgers could interpret these phrases as coming from campaigners who are resigned to fail again – and who wants to be involved with a failed campaign? Other phrases concentrate too much on need or greed – “provide us,” “the needed,” “need one,” and the like. There’s too much focus on negativism, failed campaigns, and desperation in these failing campaigns to make them successful.

Of course, all of this has to be taken as part of the whole. As the study authors point out, there are many other variables that also make for winning or losing campaigns. They also point out that some of the magic woids and phrases they identify carry only a weak positive potential. But their results are still intriguing.
Per the study’s authors: “[S]uccessfully funded project demonstrate more active thinking, (cognitive process)a higher degree of social process, higher perception rates (senses), higher levels of emotions (affect) and exhibit personal concerns via references to money, occupation, leisure, and home.”

It’s this bit of conclusionary material that I find most interesting. Look at that list again, and consider how more active thinking, more consideration of social processes, higher uses of senses and emotions and a heightened attention to personal concerns could be used to enhance, say, a novel, an essay, a resume, a letter of recommendation, or any other type of writing where one is selling a product, service, or idea to an audience which has the opportunity to spread its choices among a good variety of possible campaigns. It’s all stuff were hear in writing tips and courses from high school on up. But here, in this study, quantified for our consideration.

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