Direct Mail: ‘Old Fashioned’ but it Still Works

I read yesterday that marketers can now choose from more than 60 channels to communicate their message. Now, I can’t name all 60, but I do know that it seems like every week there is some new way we need to communicate our fundraising message.

That’s good — we want to reach people where they are. The “Hey! Get over here!” approach to fundraising just lacks something …

But amidst all the glitter and gigabytes of the new approaches, there is a stodgy, kind of dull fundraising tool that just won’t go away — because it works. And that’s direct mail.

On my desk is a basket filled with the direct-mail pieces I have received for the past several weeks. I get a lot of mail because I donate to organizations that (1) mail a lot; (2) rent my name to other nonprofits; and (3) don’t seem to give up on me even if I only give once a year or so. Some of them also push the creative envelope (groan!) with their sizes, formats, contents and messages.

Since I am a confessed old dog, I’m not at all ashamed to admit I like direct mail for fundraising. I’m not saying I exclusively like direct mail for fundraising. But, for most nonprofits, direct mail needs to be a part of the fundraising mix. I’m not in cahoots with the USPS or with printers and mailers; rather, I simply love what works. And direct mail works.

Want proof? I received an e-mail from the executive director of a nonprofit that mailed in June to a group of former donors. He wrote, “Our response rate for that June appeal as of this week is 9.3 percent.” Yes (for you skeptics), that means that just more than nine in 10 recipients of the letter didn’t give, but a healthy percent that had been ignoring electronic communications took the time to open the letter, read (or scan) it, and make a donation.

Here are some reasons why I think direct mail belongs in nearly every fundraiser’s arsenal:

  1. Direct mail often has more shelf-life than electronic communications.
  2. Direct mail can use more real estate when needed to both show and tell your story.
  3. Direct-mail messages can be easily targeted; sometimes just minor copy changes can reignite lapsed donors or get a donor to engage at a deeper level.
  4. Direct mail has a proven track record and known methodologies that increase response and donor connection.
  5. A good direct-mail program that is interesting, offers variety and is frequent enough can be the foundation of support for a nonprofit.

So as you consider your fundraising program for the last quarter of the calendar year — those all-important 92 days for fundraising — think about direct mail, and then take these steps so it fulfills its promise.

Step 1: Look at what others are mailing.
If you have samples like I do, that’s a great “classroom.” If you haven’t been intentionally collecting direct mail, vow now to do that for 2014. But in the meantime, check out Who’s Mailing What! — a robust online collection of mail (and e-mail, as well). What stands out to you? What’s new? What would you like to model after? Obviously if a mailing was probably sent to a million recipients it may not be a feasible format if you’re mailing a few thousand, but examine it for things you can emulate.

Step 2: Filter your observations through common sense.
Several years ago, I learned an important lesson: the big nonprofits may not always follow best practices because they aren’t dependent on the results of the mailing to make the next payroll. (That’s not an across-the-board statement — just something to be mindful of.) As a reader of this newsletter, you regularly see advice that others have proven in the laboratory of real life. If you have mailed before, you have your own experience. Bring all that knowledge together as you plan your strategy.

Step 3: Remember who you are mailing to.
Yes, I am going to say it again: You are not the target audience. A clever envelope can backfire if it is too difficult for your audience to open. Brilliant copy may go unread if the font size is too small. An insert may send potential donors down a rabbit trail if it’s off message or introduces a new idea. Step out of your world and into the world of your donors and ask, “What is going to make my donor open the envelope, at least scan the contents and be compelled to donate?”

Step 4: Don’t expect one mailing to stand alone.
Direct mail isn’t like a flu shot where you do it once and you’re good for the year. Your direct mail can be strengthened if you follow it up (or even proceed it) with an e-mail. A special landing page for the mailing can reinforce the offer and the importance of giving. Featuring the same project in your newsletter just before the mailing goes out can “prime the pump,” making it more likely that your donors will respond.

Mailing more than once in the last quarter increases your chances of arriving in-home when a potential donor has the inclination to open your envelope. Major donors may appreciate a telephone call after the mailing is received to answer any questions. Remember those 60-plus channels? You don’t have to use them all, but direct mail will be stronger when it’s part of a multichannel strategy.

Ah, I could talk about direct mail forever … but I’ll stop here! All this old dog asks is that all you skeptics out there take a few minutes to consider (or re-consider) direct mail — an old-fashioned fundraising tool that can breathe new life into your year-end fundraising.

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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