The 10 Most Important Things About Direct Mail

YIKES! You want to know all about this direct mail fundraising business – in 2,000 well-chosen words or less? All the “who, what, where, when, and how” of it? What it’s good for – and what it’s not? Okay, but you’ll find some of this pretty tough to swallow. Let’s start with a few facts:
  • Like it or not, pretty much every nonprofit organization that relies on individual donors or members practices some form of direct mail fundraising. After all, there’s still a limit to how much information you can convey to your donors face-to-face, by phone, or even over the Internet. And it’s rarely possible or worthwhile to have an intimate lunch with every single member. That’s why the mails come in handy.
  • Fundraising letters are – by far – the single biggest means used by nonprofits to recruit new donors. Time and again, surveys reveal that letters provide the means for the majority of donors to make a first gift or become a member of a nonprofit organization.
  • Direct mail is complicated, costly, time-consuming, and requires fanatical attention to detail. There aren’t a whole lot of people who think it’s fun. But direct mail is the worst possible way to enlist new donors – except when it’s compared to just about every other way you can think of. The reason is, most of the time direct mail is cost-effective.
So – whether or not you call it the “annual campaign” or the “membership program” or the “public phase” of a capital campaign – it’s hard to get away from direct mail fundraising. And, as with so many other things in life, it’s generally advisable to do a good job of raising money by mail rather than a bad one. That probably means you’ll have to deal one way or another with a direct mail specialist like me. After all, in the three decades since the introduction of the ZIP code, we’ve managed to learn a good deal about the process. This accumulated wisdom boils down to ten insights – what I call “The Ten Most Important Things About Direct Mail Fundraising.” Here they are, ready or not – no matter how much they may defy understanding at first: 1. Process Direct mail fundraising is a process, not an event. It’s a way for you to build solid, mutually rewarding relationships with lots of donors – without necessarily ever meeting them face-to-face. 2. Long-term Rewards in direct mail come only over the long haul. The real return on investment may be sizable bequests you receive years later from one donor in a hundred, or a thousand. But a successful direct mail fundraising program requires you to make available a number of different ways for donors to become involved – as volunteers or activists, not just financial donors. And you’ll need to provide many different ways for people to channel financial support to you. 3. Cost-effectiveness The cost of any direct mail fundraising project is much less important than its cost-effectiveness. The two aren’t at all the same. Sometimes it makes good sense to spend more. In fact, it often is sensible to spend more money on your top donors – and it may well be practical to save money by spending less on inactive or less generous donors. 4. The list By far the most important aspect of any direct mail fundraising campaign is the list of people you mail to. Mailing an effective package to one list could easily raise ten or twenty times as much money as mailing the same package to another list. 5. The offer Next in importance to the list is the offer you make in a mailing – for example, how much money you ask for, how you say the money will be used, and what benefits (tangible or intangible) you promise in return for a gift. Because there are many different offers you might make, there are lots of different kinds of mailings. The most common ones are annual fund or membership renewals, special appeals, and membership acquisition (or donor prospect) mailings. Each type features a distinctive offer. 6. Segmentation Segmentation is the key to cost-effective appeals to previous donors – based on the principle of “different strokes for different folks.” In segmenting a mailing, you select some donors to be included and others to be excluded. Likewise, you’ll give some donors special – and more expensive – treatment (such as personalization, first class postage, or higher quality materials). The most important criteria to use when making decisions about who gets what are the recency, frequency, and donation amount of your donors and the means by which you originally recruited your donors. For example, there are likely to be big differences between donors who first responded to a Public Service Announcement on television and those who were recruited by mail. 7. Annual giving The majority of successful direct mail fundraising programs are built on the foundation of an annual giving or membership development program (in reality if not in name). This is probably the most effective way for most charities to realize the full potential of direct mail fundraising techniques. In a membership program – just like in the magazine subscription renewal process – the renewal series is the basic element. Using a series of 3, 5, or more successive contacts with each member, you can persuade the largest possible number to renew their memberships each year. 8. Testing By testing alternative lists, offers, packages, or other techniques, you can make incremental improvements in results over time. Every direct mail fundraising program should make some use of testing. It’s the only way to derive value from one of direct mail’s biggest advantages: You can measure its results. 9. Repetition Repeating themes, slogans, and logos (or other graphic devices) is absolutely necessary to get your message across. The repetition of familiar words and images will reinforce what you’re saying and help you penetrate the fog of thousands of competing messages bombarding every donor every day of the year. 10. Record-keeping With consistently accurate and timely record-keeping, you’ll gain all the advantages of direct mail: its measurability, its use of precise segmentation, and its ability to generate a lot of information about donors over the years. An effective direct mail fundraising program demands an investment of time, thought, and money in an efficient computerized record – keeping system. So that’s some of the “what” I do as a direct mail specialist, and a bit of the “why.” But you probably want to know about the day-to-day stuff, too-the things we actually do to earn our keep. Those activities boil down to seven functions: List selection or segmentation If the choice of lists is the most important element in raising money by mail – trust me: it is – then we ought to spend a lot of our time identifying which donors will be included in each mailing, which ones won’t, and how to treat each segment. In fact, consulting agencies like mine often have full-time staff members dedicated exclusively to list work. With 25,000 lists available on the open market, and unlimited possibilities in segmenting your own “house list,” there’s a lot of choosing to do! Copywriting and design (the “creative”) This part probably isn’t as important as it’s cracked up to be. Oh, better writing and page layout will generally improve a mailing’s results, all other things being equal. The package format is even more important, so we worry about that, too. But the most meaningful aspect of the creative work in direct mail lies in crafting the “offer” – and ensuring that the resulting package forcefully, faithfully, and single-mindedly delivers that offer. In other words, writing fundraising letters is not like writing other things. We frequently turn to specialized copywriters, some of whom are among the highest-paid people in direct mail. Data processing Without computers, there’s really no such thing as direct mail nowadays. We use those overgrown adding machines at virtually every critical stage of the process: To select lists. To minimize duplicates. To write the copy and lay out the art. To print labels or feed personalized data to a printer. To analyze mailing results. And to maintain our lists of donors. So, you guessed it, most direct mail operations of any size employ data processing specialists, too. Somebody’s got to keep all those ornery machines happy! Production management This is the stuffy term we use to encompass all the painstaking detail work involved in ensuring that the right words and images get printed on the right paper and mailed at the correct postage rate to the right people. So, yes, there are production managers, too – to compensate for people like me who lack the patience to do that indispensable work. Caging and cashiering Once a mailing has “dropped” and (presumably) people start sending gifts in response, there’s a ton of additional work to do. This consists largely of “caging” (processing the information that can be gleaned from the returns) and “cashiering” (processing the gifts themselves). It’s rare for a direct mail fundraising agency to handle these tasks in-house (because charities regulators frown when the consultants who’ve helped prepare a mailing also control the funds it generates). Almost always, a nonprofit organization that farms out this work will seek a specialized computer service bureau – frequently the same place where its donor list is maintained. Financial management There’s a great deal of cash tied up in a direct mail fundraising project of any size. Mailings costing tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars are more the rule than the exception. And a single mailing may yield hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions. This calls for a very attentive financial manager. Mismanaged cash flow has bankrupted many an organization. And the people who look over our shoulders – both board members and charities regulators – insist on niceties such as adequate financial controls and audit trails. Those of us in direct mail who don’t naturally gravitate to such activities are forced to turn to highly trained financial managers. Many are accountants. Back-end analysis We direct mail people sometimes pretend that our craft is more science than art. (It’s the other way around, I suspect.) But the scientific method looms large in the practice of direct mail, and nowhere more so than in analyzing the results of a mailing. Testing – to explore untried lists or the effect of tweaking some element in the letter’s copy or design – is grounded in sound statistical methods. Without statistical controls and statistical validity, testing is useless (or worse). Thus, information from the caging process is often massaged and manipulated six ways from Sunday, all in hopes of finding a productive new mailing list, marginally improving a letter’s results, or cutting its cost by a few pennies. Hand-holding All those activities, however – everything from list selection to back-end analysis – are for naught unless the folks who hold the purse strings have a thorough understanding of the process (or a whole lot of faith). Direct mail tends to make people very, very nervous – perhaps even more so than the cash at risk might explain. Inevitably, then, a direct mail specialist is cast in the role of teacher or therapist (or both). Board members or executives may need to be reassured. And they’ve all got to understand how to respond to queries and complaints from those few agitated donors or volunteers who fear their organization is getting a bum deal. In truth, I spend a substantial proportion of my time explaining, justifying, and apologizing for the irrationalities of this counter-intuitive field. OK. Now you know most of what we do, and why. But I still haven’t told you what direct mail is good for – and what it’s not. That part’s simple. The value of direct mail lies chiefly in four of its qualities:
  • Direct mail is cheap and easy compared to most other means of delivering fundraising messages. This means it’s usually the best way to identify and enlist new donors. It also makes direct mail the communications channel of last resort with donors you can’t afford the time or money to contact in other ways.
  • Direct mail can (and should) be conducted year-round and on a schedule. Thus, direct mail can nurture and help sustain those relationships with donors that are core of the development process – ideally, when combined with other fundraising and communications activities. And the mails can maintain contact with donors even when the trustees are sitting on their duffs or the development director is on vacation.
  • Direct mail is targetable. This means you can send different messages at different times to different groups of donors or prospects. Targeting comes in especially handy when you want to strengthen your relationships with some donors and reduce your investment in relations with others.
  • Direct mail can be personalized. “Personalization” doesn’t mean plastering donors’ names in every corner of every sheet of paper in a mailing, in the manner of Publishers Clearing House. Personalization really means embedding in the text of our appeals certain important facts we know about individual donors. How much money they gave last year, for example. Or when their dues are due.
  • So, with all that said, how do you do direct mail?
Ah, but that’s another story!

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