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Eight ways writing e-mail appeals is the same as writing direct mail letters
Mal Warwick

September, 2008

1. Donors respond to the same lofty goals and aspirations online as they do in direct mail.

Your organization’s vision and mission are the most important motivators. While techniques such as challenge grants, premiums, thermometers (or other symbols of a campaign’s promise), or clever campaign concepts may work a little better online than they do in the mail—so long as they are absolutely clear at a glance—contributions online come from the same space in our hearts, minds, and spirits as they do in direct mail. (If you need a refresher course in the fundamentals of donor motivation, check out the motivational hierarchy developed by Abraham Maslow.)

2. A direct mail appeal will fall flat if its marketing, or creative, concept isn’t absolutely clear without a second look.

The same is true of an e-mail appeal. From the subject line to the lead to the language on the landing page, the marketing concept must ring true. At no point in the process should you muddy the waters by introducing ideas that are inconsistent with the marketing concept.

3. Successful fundraising online is no less dependent than fundraising by mail on making it easy for the donor to give.

You go to great lengths to prepare a response device that is tightly connected, thematically and visually, to the main letter. You should devote no less attention to the landing page where people actually use their credit cards to donate.

4. Just as your direct mail letters must come across as personal, one-to-one communications, so too must your e-mail appeals.

Use "I" and "you" as liberally as possible.

5. Direct mail offers abundant opportunities to boost response and increase cost-effectiveness through segmentation.

The same is true online. At first, you may want to limit yourself to appeals that are identical for all your donors. However, as you build a database of response data—far more detailed and intricate than you could ever build through the mail—you’ll find that the possibilities for segmentation online appear endless. It’s worth learning how to fine-tune your e-mail fundraising program with variable copy and Ask amounts. But don’t get carried away: As in direct mail, the most broadly useful segmentation is based on a donor’s highest previous contribution (HPC).

6. In direct mail, the major factors influencing the success of an appeal are the list, the offer, and the format.

That’s no less the case with e-mail. One major difference is that although renting or exchanging donor, member, subscriber, or activist lists or demographically defined lists is normal in direct mail marketing, you generally can’t rent donor lists from other nonprofit organizations or publications because of privacy and permission issues. The lists generally available for rental don’t work for fundraising and will also subject you to complaints that you are spamming, even if the names are allegedly on an opt-in list, meaning people have given permission for their use.

7. Urgency is a critical element in direct mail.

Unless your appeal conveys a sense that it really makes a difference for the donor to respond right away, chances are high that he’ll simply put your letter aside intending to "get to it later"—which of course happens infrequently. In e-mail, urgency is even more the name of the game. If your organization can e-mail a relevant message about a headline event within a couple of hours of the event, or a day at most, you may generate many times more revenue than you would had you waited an extra day or two. One of the prime virtues of online communication is its speed. You need to make the most of it.

8. True fundraising

—not those one-off gifts that come from donor acquisition campaigns, but the renewal and special appeal gifts that stiffen the backbone of the development process —depends on involving donors. In direct mail, a form of involvement can come from a device as simple as a survey or petition or as substantial as a phone conversation with a legacy giving officer in a follow-up to a letter. In electronic communications, the possibilities of involvement are much more numerous. The most common of the involvement techniques is the e-newsletter.

This article is excerpted from How to Write Successful Fundraising Letters, Second Edition, by Mal Warwick (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Copyright © 2008 by Mal Warwick.. Visit


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