11 cardinal rules of Direct Mail copywriting (and how to break them)

  1. brady-4Use “I” and “you” (but mostly “you”). In fact, “you” may be the most frequently used word in your direct mail letters. Your appeal is a letter from one individual to another individual. You’re not writing a press release, a position paper, or a brochure. Abolish the plural “you” from your vocabulary (as in “Dear Friends” for example), and try to avoid the royal “we.” RULE-BREAKERS: You may write a letter in the first person plural if – but only if – for example, the letter is to be signed by a married couple, or your organization’s two venerable co-founders, or a famous Republican and a famous Democrat. Otherwise, stick to one signatory.
  2. Appeal on the basis of benefits, not needs. Donors give money because they get something in return (if only good feelings). To tap their generosity, describe what they’ll receive in return for their money – such benefits as lives saved, or human dignity gained, or larger causes served. Don’t be shy about emphasizing tangible benefits, too. Donors may tell you they give money for nobler reasons, but premiums often make a difference. (Remember: most donors read your letters in the privacy of their own homes.) RULE-BREAKER: If you’re sending a genuine emergency appeal, you’d be a fool not to write about your organization’s needs – and graphically so! But if it’s not a real emergency – and you’re really in trouble if you habitually cry wolf – then write about benefits, not needs. You’ll raise a lot more money that way.
  3. Ask for money, not for “support.” The purpose of a direct mail fundraising letter is to ask for financial help. Be sure you do so – clearly, explicitly and repeatedly. The “Ask” should not be an afterthought, tacked onto the end of a letter: it’s your reason for writing. Repeat the Ask several times in the body of the letter as well as on the reply device. It may even be appropriate to lead your letter with the Ask. RULE-BREAKERS: Many direct mail packages are structured not as appeals for funds but as membership invitations. Others feature surveys or other donor involvement devices. In these cases, you might be well-advised to de-emphasize the financial commitment, and highlight membership benefits, or write about the impact of completing a survey or mailing a postcard you’ve enclosed.
  4. Write a package, not a letter. Your fundraising letter is arguably the single most important element in the mailing package. But it’s only one of several items that must fit smoothly together and work as a whole. At a minimum, your package will probably include an outer (or carrier) envelope, a reply envelope, and a reply device in addition to the letter.When you sit down to write, think about how each of these components will help persuade donors to send money now. Make sure the same themes, symbols, colors, and typefaces are used on all elements, so that the package is as accessible as possible to donors. And be certain that every element in the package relates directly to the Big Idea, or marketing concept, that gives the appeal its unity. RULE-BREAKER: Sometimes it pays to spend a little extra money on a package insert that doesn’t directly relate to the marketing concept: for example, a premium offer presented on a “buckslip,” but mentioned nowhere else in the package. Often, in fact, such buckslips work best if they don’t use the same color and design as other package elements. (That way, they stand out more clearly.)
  5. Write in American English (if you’re writing to Americans!). Use compact, powerful words and short, punchy sentences. Favor words that convey emotions over those that communicate thoughts. Avoid foreign phrases or big words. Minimize your use of adjectives and adverbs. Don’t use abbreviations or acronyms; spell out names, even if their repetition looks a little silly to you. Repeat (and underline) key words and phrases. Make sure that even an imbecile could understand your marketing concept. RULE-BREAKER: A letter that could have been written by a twelve-year-old might not look right over the signature of a college president or a U.S. Senator, so follow this rule judiciously. (But don’t make the mistake of confusing big words, complex sentences and complicated thoughts with intelligent communication: even a literate fundraising letter needs to be clear and straightforward.)
  6. Format your letter for easy reading. Be conscious of the white space you’re leaving around your copy; the eye needs rest. Indent every paragraph. Avoid paragraphs more than 7 lines long, but vary the size of your paragraphs. Use bullets and indented paragraphs. In long letters, try subheads that are centered and underlined. Underline sparingly but consistently throughout your letter: enough to call attention to key words and phrases, but not so much as to distract the eye from your message. RULE-BREAKERS: Don’t mechanically follow the rule above. Some special formats, such as telegrams or handwritten notes, have formatting rules of their own. Don’t ignore them.
  7. Give your readers a reason to send money NOW. Creating a sense of urgency is one of your biggest copywriting challenges. Try to find a genuine reason why gifts are needed right away: for example, a deadline for a matching grant or an approaching election date. Or tie your fund request to an arbitrary budgetary deadline so you can argue why gifts are needed within the next 15 days. There is always a reason to send a gift now. And the argument for the urgency of your appeal bears repeating – ideally, not just in the text of your letter, but also in a P.S. and on the reply device as well. RULE-BREAKERS: Be very careful about fixed deadlines if you’re mailing via bulk rate. (Instead of citing a date, use a phrase like “within the next two weeks.”) Don’t overuse the same arguments for urgency, lest your credibility suffer. And try not to depend on deadlines based on actual dates in your acquisition packages: the value of those packages will be greater if you can continue to use them over time.
  8. Write as long a letter as you need to make the case for your offer. Though everyone won’t read every word you write, some recipients will do so, and others will scan your copy for the information that most interests them. To be certain you push their hot buttons, use every strong argument you can devise for your readers to send you money now. To spell out every argument may mean writing a long letter; it may also mean repeating what you’ve written to the same donors many times in the past. But don’t worry about boring your readers by restating your case: studies show that even the most active direct mail donors remember very little about the organizations they support. RULE-BREAKER: Not every organization – and not every appeal – calls for a long letter. Not by a long shot! A well-known organization with a readily identifiable purpose might be able to make its case with only a sentence or two. And in writing to your proven donors, you can sometimes state the argument for a straightforward membership renewal or special appeal in few words. And remember these three additional rules of copywriting – rules that are NOT to be broken:
  9. You – the signer – are an individual human being, with hopes, fears, convictions, and experiences. Write about them.
  10. You are writing to one person – the addressee – who has hopes, fears, convictions, and experiences. Write about them.
  11. Your organization addresses human needs on many levels, intangible as well as concrete, emotional as well as practical. Write about them.
Mal Warwick is founder and chairman of Mal Warwick | Donordigital and the author of twenty books on fundraising. His most recent book is The Business Solution to Poverty with Paul Polak.

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