What Charities Can Teach Business About Direct Mail

Promotional mail can be easily tossed aside. Here's what you can learn from some direct mail experts.
March 22, 2012

I don’t know about your mailbox, but mine usually overflows. Besides a few magazines, bills and personal letters, it's all promotional mail in its various forms: flyers, tons of postcards, catalogs and direct mail "packages."

Almost on auto-pilot, I create two piles: Keep and Toss. It takes about three minutes, mostly because I’m reviewing the promotional stuff as I go along, keeping an eye out for outstanding direct mail.

And guess what? Just about everything that makes the Keep pile comes from a charity. Why is that? The short answer is that they know what they’re doing—they have to because success in direct mail is life or death.

Their creative is compelling, and often riveting. It helps that they have causes they believe in because the focus and passion shine through. Most important, they never deviate from proven direct marketing principles.

Here are some of the things charities do very well.

They use envelopes rather than postcards. The envelopes can be huge or they can be tiny, but they’re envelopes. Envelopes are more credible and they function as involvement devices. A good direct mail envelope has at least a half-dozen elements (return address, teaser, stamp or meter, offer, curiosity and a physical three dimensional factor). Once a recipient starts opening an envelope, she’s engaged with the sender.

The guts of the mailer, everything inside the envelope, can be simple or complicated. Simple might be just a letter with an attached reply form and a Business Reply Envelope (BRE). Complicated can be almost anything.

The absolute must-haves are the letter, reply form and BRE.

Charity mailings are remarkably easy to read. Layouts are loose and inviting, with lots of double spacing, and the type is always in a serif face and larger than the type you’re reading now.

Charity letters are personal—they use "I" and "You," like the first sentence of this article. Often, they’re personalized, but personal is more important than personalized. The personal can be a relevant story that pulls you right into the letter. Save The Children might tell a story about one child. The New York City Rescue Mission might invite you to visit in person to see how they serve 40,000 meals at Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter for just $2.09 for a whole festive meal. (That number is brilliant; who can’t afford that? Plus it tells you that the charity doesn’t waste a penny of your money.)

Charity mailings often include "freemiums." Freemiums might be address labels, a lucky coin, a prayer card. It takes an especially thick hide to keep a gift and not donate. Freemiums have another purpose, too—they’re bulky, which arouses curiosity and helps get the envelope opened.

Letter copy is as long as it needs to be and no longer. I’ve seen letters of 10 pages do very well, and letters of just a few short sentences do just as well. Which should you use? It depends, and that’s why you need a pro to write the letter for you. Don’t forget to test, by the way.

Direct mail is direct sales. Any good sales manager will tell you that you have to ask for the order (or the donation). In the mail, you ask for it several times in different ways. At least one of the ways should involve an assumption that the recipient will donate, something like: "Your donation will…"

The best direct mail packages use real testimonials on the letter, brochure and order form. They may look hokey to advertising people, but they work! We once did a program for a car insurance company, and the whole letter was from a happy customer. It lifted response by 35 percent.

Letters should be (and appear to be) from one human being to another. The signature—one, never two—should be in blue ink. There should be a P.S. with a quick summary of the offer.

Direct mail is a lot like a face-to-face conversation, except you can be talking to hundreds of thousands of people at once.

So remember:

  • Be a person, not a corporation. Say "I” and not “we.”
  • Do something interesting, fun, involving. Recently we sent out small gifts in a new business letter (butterfly pins to women) and thank you notes and calls came in almost immediately.
  • Use the envelope to arouse curiosity, get attention, stand out—so it’ll make it into people’s Keep piles. Try a live stamp, or, better, two live stamps. Print your letter writer’s signature (in blue) above the company name in the return address and add a quick line, a benefit to the reader, on the face of the envelope.
  • Test everything. The results can astonish you. We once discovered that a gorgeous brochure in a mailing for a national stock broker actually reduced response.
  • Whatever you do, don’t do it the way everyone else does.
  • Be unique.

Lois Geller is President and Owner of Lois Geller Marketing Group and headed agencies in New York and Toronto. Lois taught Direct Marketing at NYU. She’s the author of five marketing books, including Response: The Complete Guide to Profitable Direct Marketing. Follow @loisgeller on Twitter and visit her blog Joy of Direct Marketing for more marketing tips.

Photo credit: iStockphoto