The 3 Senses of Outer Envelopes

As you are reading this article, the first Fundraising SuccessEngage Conference is taking place in Philadelphia. At the pre-conference session yesterday, I was with a few dozen of your colleagues, reviewing direct-mail packages.

It was exciting to be part of a session that focused on direct mail since that has become the forgotten stepchild at most fundraising conferences. Focusing on electronic fundraising, crowd-fundraising and one-on-one fundraising apparently seems far more saleable. Yet direct mail remains an essential part of fundraising. Many, many dollars are raised for nonprofits every year through direct mail, and the arrival of the letter has even been shown to prompt online giving. So doing direct mail better can only enhance the bottom line.

Think of it as a building you are constructing. The stronger your foundation, the more “layers” you can add on top of it. Direct mail can be that strong foundation that allows more visible — shall we say “sexy”? — fundraising programs to launch and develop (and occasionally fail).

What your direct-mail letter says is critical. And ease of replying is essential. But failing to pay attention to the outer carrier (the envelope or whatever it is you use to deliver your mailing to your prospects or donors) can completely negate whatever you put inside it. After all, if the mailing never gets opened, the contents don’t matter; they just become more “stuff” to leave at the curb for pickup and recycling.

To make sure your envelope is more than a means to deliver a carefully crafted letter and reply system, remember these three important things when evaluating your direct mail.

Direct mail envelopes are tactile

One of the first senses the prospective donor engages when receiving your direct-mail appeal is touch. Does your mailing feel like it matters? Is it a bit bulky, suggesting a mysterious insert? Is it thin, possibly containing a personal note? Is the paper stock intriguing to the fingertips?

There aren’t a lot of things you can do to improve the tactile quality of a direct-mail letter without significantly increasing cost (furry envelopes are a bit pricy), but consider how your mailing will be received by the donor when he or she first touches it. Will there be a split second when the donor is curious enough to move on to the next sense?

Direct mail envelopes are visual

How does your direct-mail package look to the donor when he or she first receives it? If there’s a photo, does it compel, please or intrigue? Is there color that captures attention? Does it look professional or personal, instead of ignore-able?

Many tests have been done to find what elements make an envelope more likely to be opened. But take a few minutes to conduct this personal test. Look at 10 or 12 envelopes from direct mail you have received lately. What ones stand out to you? Why do they stand out? (No, you aren’t your target audience, but try this anyway.) What do you find noticeable — and why? Are there ideas you can emulate?

I just did this with the nine letters sitting on my desk right now. Three stood out — a dark blue one (broke through the “whiteness” of the rest of the mail), one with a second window showing a personalized membership card and one that was sized to look like a card with handwritten font. OK, to be honest, a fourth stood out, too — it had a badly cropped photo of a child that resulted in a rather freaky look. That was standing out for all the wrong reasons!

Direct mail envelopes are verbal

No, I am not advocating putting a chip in your mailing that features Supertramp singing “Give a little bit of your love to me” when the donor touches it. But there are messages that are being shouted out by your envelope.

Any words on your envelope — front or back teasers, copy that shows through windows — are saying something to your potential donor. Is that a message they want to hear or that compels them to go further into the envelope? Or does it shout (gasp!), “Junk Mail Alert!” Does it alienate the recipient? Is it confusing?

The postage is also a verbal message. Whether you use an indicia, meter or a live stamp matters. Make sure the postage choice sends the same message that you are trying to convey with your entire envelope. For example, if you want to say “personal note,” don’t use an indicia. And frankly, a mailing that is saying “official mailing” probably shouldn’t have a live stamp. If possible, test to see if you can increase response by using a different form of postage — but if you can’t test, choose what logically seems to shout out the message you are hoping to communicate.

Your assignment for this week: Look at your last three to five direct-mail packages. While looking at the envelopes filled with the contents — just like the donor would when he or she first receives it — ask what they are communicating through feel, look and messaging. Are there changes you need to make in the future to better engage the three senses of direct mail envelopes?

Originally published in NonProfit Pro.

Author: PJBarden

With a professional career in strategic fundraising that spans more than 35 years, Pamela brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to working with nonprofit organizations. She specializes in writing fundraising copy, grant proposals, P.R. materials, instructional articles and blog entries, as well as developing and executing fundraising strategy for her clients. Pamela is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE); an instructor for UCLA Extension School’s Fundraising Certification Program and the University of La Verne, College of Business and Public Management; a frequent webinar speaker; and author of two online courses for UCLA Extension. Pamela earned a Doctorate of Business Administration in 2015; her doctoral project (dissertation) was entitled “Nonprofit Organizations’ Awareness of and Preparation for Legislation, Regulation, and Increasing Scrutiny.” She is a past winner of a Gold Award for Fundraising Excellence and an ECHO Award from DMA; recipient of a Distinguished Instructors Award from UCLA Extension; a weekly columnist for NonprofitPRO (formerly Fundraising Success); and a monthly contributor to Blackbaud’s blog, npEngage.

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