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Friday, January 19, 2018

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Is direct mail dead? (No, it's just dull.)
Tom Ahern

August, 2010

God, I love direct mail.

For one thing: great spectator sport. Gladiatorial, really. Two packages step into the arena. Only one steps out alive! (Assuming you're running an A/B split test....)

And if you're into emotional thrill rides (hey, I'm confessing here), nothing beats direct mail.

Within three weeks or so, most of your response (97%?) is back in house. Within three weeks or so, you know with scientific certitude whether your mailing has won or lost ... whether you deserve celebration or ignominy ... whether you're a star or a dunce, an artist of note or a ham-handed dauber.

As David Ogilvy told the world, direct marketing and direct mail are where the truly effective copywriters quietly labor. Without awards. But bringing in buckets of dough.

Share my joy: A national charity just emailed to say a new, cheaper package I wrote for them is beating their long-time control. Which means hot dogs and champagne for this writer!

Yes, I love direct mail. It's utterly empirical. You KNOW when you've done a good job.


I used to write a food column for a decent-sized lifestyle magazine with an affluent, well-educated audience.

To succeed in that line of work, the writer accepts one cardinal assumption: The moment I stop entertaining my readers, they will stop reading. Sure, they might coast along for another paragraph or two, carried downstream by inertia. But boring writing meets a swift, summary fate: "Death by moving on...."

Back to direct mail. Readers of direct mail share at least one trait with readers of popular magazines: they are both volunteers.

I.e., they read what interests them. What does not interest them, they snub ... an insight ad giant Howard Luck Gossage (1917-1969) offered the world 50 years ago.

Luckily, there are so many ways to interest and entertain readers.

Tell them a quick story; hearing tales is an ancient human delight.

Tell them something surprising -- and tap into the part of the human brain that automatically responds to anything new.

My shameless favorite in fundraising direct mail? Make readers feel good about themselves. The technical name? Flattery.

And, please, I am not talking mild, perfunctory, grudging flattery. No, no, no! I'm talking copious flattery. All-consuming flattery. A firestorm of flattery.

Flattery that starts on the envelope, jumps right to the Johnson Box, and never quits ... all the way through the P.S. and the reply device.

What kind of flattery? The most honest kind there is in fundraising: The bold and brilliant notion that donors really matter. As this letter hurries to point out....

My name's Diane [Doe].
            I'm a mother, a wife, a career fashion designer ... and, thanks to the magnificent care I received at [XYZ Hospital], I am also now a cancer survivor.
            If you are, or have been, a donor to [XYZ Hospital], I want to take this special opportunity to thank you personally for your contribution to my recovery.

In my opinion, flattery is the thing donors need/crave most from the charities they support. It's what donor-centricity is about, really, I think. Yet, flattery is the thing I notice is most often left out of fundraising appeals written by beginners (and many "experts," too).

Flattery is not distasteful. Nor is it fake. You DO need your donors. And you SHOULD thank them richly for their support.


For the last couple of years, I've been trying to figure out a specific problem: Can local nonprofits with small-to-tiny mailing lists successfully use direct mail?

Absolutely! is the verifiable answer. I have had modest-sized clients with limited databases succeed shockingly well with direct mail (they wrote it; I didn't). I have had workshop attendees report extraordinary results, after applying a few simple rules.

What rules? Here's my checklist...

Is your letter a real conversation with the reader -- or is your "letter" actually just a brochure in disguise? A conversation has an "I" talking to a "you." There are two people on the page chatting about something wonderful: helping others. A brochure, on the other, lists all the agency's programs, offers a bunch of service statistics, and mentions the donor in passing if at all. Writing brochures rather than real letters is the most common direct mail mistake I encounter.

Is your letter personal or impersonal? The word "you" should be plastered everywhere in a fundraising letter. If it isn't? Rewrite.

Does your letter make a promise? When donors send a gift, they are in essence buying your promise. For example, "With your help, I promise, [XYZ] will end homelessness among our military veterans - and prevent other veterans from becoming homeless. That's a pretty big promise, I agree. But we've been working on this particular problem since the 1980s...."

Does your letter boil with urgency? Face it: inertia is the real enemy in fundraising. Getting people off their keesters to write a check or make an online donation is tough; it's always easier NOT to act than to act. Urgency says two things: (1) Just do it (thank you, Wieden & Kennedy, Nike's ad shop; if nothing else, read the "Wiedenisms"); and (2) Get it done. Because you'll feel better immediately. I feel better when I pay my bills. A donor will feel better when she makes the gift -- and adds her mighty (no matter the amount) shoulder to the wheel. (See how this flattery thing works?)

Does your letter ask at least 3 times? I try to get my first ask into the very early paragraphs, then again at the end of page 1 or the top of page 2, then again near the closing, then again in the P.S. And sometimes also in the Johnson Box. And even on the envelope. Again, it's an inertia thing. Getting someone to act requires the repeated application of a well-swung two-by-four. Make your asks clear and direct, "I am writing today to ask you for your gift."

Does your letter entertain? Is there news value in it? Does it tell a personal story?

Is the donor the hero of your letter? See the section on "flattery," above.

Is your letter fast and easy to read? Successful direct mail tests at the 6th-or-so grade level. This isn't a vocabulary issue. This is a "how short are things" issue. Lots of short words. Lots of short sentences. Lots of short paragraph. My letters almost never contain a paragraph longer than 3 lines. And I have lots of 1 sentence paragraphs. My opening paragraph is a few words long: "Welcome ... I hope." That one was conspicuously successful. The faster people can read, the more likely they are to stay. And the longer they stay, the more likely they are to give.

Leaern lots and lots more at


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