The Scent of Conversion

path-182628-editedThe latest trend in planned giving communications is something called “donor-focused design,” an approach that places the donor at the center of the design process. The concept is based on the presumption that an organization’s communications will be more effective and will resonate more with donors if they reflect the needs, objectives, and in particular, language of those donors. 

Interestingly, this concept is completely in line with a philosophy of website design that the best practitioners have followed for some time. The most effective websites are designed using the results of research into user experience (UX), including areas such as eye scanning, and information tracking.

As early as 2001, research done by Dr. Ed Chi, who at the time was Principal Scientist for Augmented Social Cognition, as well as others at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), indicated that humans track information in a fashion similar to the way that animals follow a scent. 

                                       People... engage in what [Dr. Ed Chi] calls ‘hub-and-spoke’ surfing: They begin at the center, and they follow a trail based on its information scent.... If the scent is sufficiently strong, the surfer will continue to go on that trail. But if the trail is weak, they go back to the hub. ‘People repeat this process until they're satisfied,’ Chi said.                                     

Dr. Chi further indicated that "Information scent is made of cues that people use to decide whether a path is interesting.  These cues consist (of) images, hyperlinks and bibliographic citations related to the information needed."

A subsequent study in which users tried to find website items of interest, was conducted by User Interface Engineering, a leading research, training, and consulting firm. This study indicated that users were far more successful in finding their targets when description or trigger words, which the users identified and communicated to the study authors in advance, were included on the homepage. When users successfully found their target content, the description or trigger words appeared on the homepage 72% of the time. When users were unsuccessful in finding their target content, their trigger words appeared on the homepage only an average of 6% of the time.

The combination of these two results would argue for website content that reflects:

  • the target users’ information seeking preferences
  • trigger words that keep these users following the information scent toward conversion, e.g., filling out a contact form, or requesting a gift proposal 

A simple, yet effective example of information scent is presented on Steven Bradley’s Web Design blog:


A link with the single word 
forms or policies doesn’t create a strong scent since it could lead to so many different things.

  • Forms (W-4, equipment request, expense report)
  • Policies (vacation, work from home, parental leave)

By showing examples of what would be in the section, however, a much stronger expectation of gain is created.


Being able to create targeted and resonant content presupposes an in-depth knowledge of your donors, actual and potential.  What questions are they asking, in what sequence, and with what objective in mind?  Armed with this information, you can begin to plot a website information scent trail for your donors that will lead them to and through a conversion process that is meaningful for you and your donors.

Employing techniques based on information-scent research forces the question, "What's most relevant to the donor?" The end result can only be web content that contains the relevant solution as well as the information scent to get the donor to it.