by Managing Editor Deborah Block and Paul Karps Before we actually begin to write an acquisition package for an organization—or for the direct mail agency working with that nonprofit—we’re often asked to develop one or more Marketing Concepts as a first step in the creative process. As we see it, our role as freelance writers gives us more of an outsider’s perspective on the group—even if we’ve written for the organization in the past—which meshes particularly well when it comes to writing to other outsiders (aka cold prospects). Of course, we also enjoy the creative challenge of coming up with ideas we feel could work in acquisition. So for this column, we thought we’d share with you some of the ways we —as copywriters—approach this sort of assignment. Perhaps you’ll be able to use one or more of our tips the next time you’re confronted with a comparable task. Look at old mailings First off, we like to see as many of the group’s previous acquisition packages as we can get our hands on. Obviously, this will give us a better sense of what’s performed and what hasn’t. But here’s the thing: It really helps to see these packages for ourselves instead of being told by someone else how “a survey package bombed” or “stories never work for us.” We, for example, might read this survey package—and understand immediately why it didn’t work in that instance. Same for the use of a story. It’s one thing to tell a story . . . and quite another to tell a good story well. Don’t forget house appeals We also find it particularly helpful to review previous housefile mailings. In effect, we’re looking for ideas, stories, topics, and/or formats that could be adapted into an acquisition package. Now, granted, not every successful house appeal can be transformed into a prospect mailing. But it is the case that if a certain appeal resonates with existing donors, the concept has the potential to resonate with prospects (who are indeed targeted to approximate these same donors). Check out the Web site and more Okay, we know that some Web sites are better than others. But nowadays, it’s the single best spot for info. So take advantage of the site—especially because this represents the organization’s most public persona. Either on the Web site or in print, also remember to review newsletters, annual reports, and other publications. Because you never know where you’ll find that one golden nugget—a story, project, or topic—that you can use as the centerpiece of your Marketing Concept. Don’t rely on a gimmick When writing up a concept, it’s critical to differentiate a strategic technique (or gimmick) from actual content. For example, it’s not enough to say, “This will be a petition package.” While it’s undoubtedly a popular involvement device in acquisition—generally because it’s a tried-and-true strategy that works—it’s more important in writing up a concept to spell out the broader theme or issue that’s being addressed by the petition. What’s it about? What’s the goal? Who is it going to? What’s the urgency? In other words, as you develop your concept, think of the petition (or whatever the technique) more in terms of being a means to an end rather than being the end itself. Provide options Typically, we try to be as flexible as possible in our concepts. Since so many different factors come into play when creating a new acquisition package—especially budgetary constraints—we like to offer a variety of options. Then the client can decide which way to go, depending on the individual circumstances. In some cases, for instance, we might suggest the inclusion of a four-color insert piece to give the package some visual pizzazz. At the same time, however, we understand this may be too expensive. So we may offer the alternative of putting comparable information on the bottom portion of the reply slip (printing in one or two colors). Here are some other scenarios: We could write a four-page letter or a shorter two-page letter with an informational insert. We might want to tell a story in the package, but give the client the option of using it in the letter or in an insert or even in a lift note. Writing the concept itself Usually we’ll begin with some sort of introduction that summarizes our core idea. If it’s a relatively straightforward concept, this may run as short as a paragraph. But there are certainly times when we find ourselves needing to go into more detail to justify our choice of the overall theme. We then, more often than not, go through each of the package’s components—to present as complete a picture as we can of what this mailing may end up looking like. If possible, we may also include some sample language for the letter, as well as for the outer (if appropriate) or other components. Mixing and matching If we write up multiple concepts—each of which may include any number of options—we’ll conclude our memo with a paragraph or so explaining how the client should feel free to mix and match the various strategies, involvement devices, or formats presented. At a minimum, these represent propositions that can be tested further on down the road. Copywriters Deborah Block and Paul Karps are partners in BK Kreative in Mountain View, Calif.