A direct mail writing primer: Tips and tricks for your most effective appeal yet!

publication date: Mar 14, 2017
author/source: Jessie-Lee Wallace

Jessie-Lee WallaceHave you ever had your direct mail copy hijacked by your board, volunteers or communications department?

Are you new to fundraising, and not sure how to approach writing your direct mail appeals?

 Are you not entirely clear on what direct response approaches are considered to be tested and true?

Have you ever had a signatory dislike the style of an appeal letter they were to sign?

Do you often get questions about your direct response program from non-fundraising senior staff within your organization?

Do you find yourself having to explain the quirks of direct mail on an ongoing basis to your charity’s stakeholders?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions, this post is for you!

Many of these situations arise out of a general lack of knowledge around what are commonly accepted best practices for direct mail appeals. Direct Mail is not dead but it is often badly misunderstood.

It is a hybrid of art, marketing, science, and philanthropy. At the end of the day, we all want to raise money for our charities and their work because it truly makes our lives and our world better. I would hazard a guess that if you are reading this, you also feel the same. However, most importantly, direct mail is about story-telling to real, live people.

Direct mail is still one of the best and most consistent ways for a charity to raise money, even though its demise has been forecasted for years! This fundraising vehicle is not going anywhere, despite some charities belief to the contrary, and the increasing positive focus on integrated, multi-channel marketing.

Why then does direct mail get such a bad rap? Jeff Brooks, a well-respected fundraising copy-writer recently said, “Fundraising that works is emotional. It’s simplistic, blatant, corny, and soupy.” Perhaps then, direct mail gets picked on because it is so very misunderstood? Here are some traits of effective direct mail copy (backed by research and results!);

·       It can be blatantly emotional. However, that is a good thing as research has shown that empathy helps donors to give charitably, far more than stats and figures, or fancy design.

It is often written to be read at a grade-seven comprehension level.

Any copy written above that level will have decreased response rates. Make sure to turn your readability stats on in Microsoft word!

People give to people. So please make the copy sound like how someone would speak; contractions, indents, dashes, repetition, colourful phrasing, and wonky grammar are all fair game in the letter copy.

·       It must be donor-centred. It is important to use lots of ‘you’ language. Donors give to a cause and not to a charity. Effective direct mail places the donor as the hero of the story, and the charity and beneficiaries are still important but secondary.

·       It makes unapologetic requests for a donation, more than once.

·       It must be interesting to read. Why would anyone pick-up and continue to read a letter that did not delight, surprise or intrigue, even if it is asking for support for an excellent cause?

Sometimes, direct mail is criticized for its lack of grammatical brilliance or its usage of over-used terms. To avoid some of these pitfalls, click here.

When writing any copy, it’s important to keep in mind who the actual target audience is for direct mail. In Iceberg Philanthropy, Fraser, Jose, and Ruth talk about the typical direct mail donor who they lovingly called Jaqueline, a member of the ‘civic’ generation. From our recent experience working with clients, the older end of the ‘baby boomers’ are also now part of whom we consider prime direct mail audience. We need to always remember to write for her.

Tom Ahern, one of my fundraising heroes, once said… “ donors have in abundance their own personal values, interests, beliefs, connections, experiences, upbringing, lost loves, secret passions, regrets, fears, angers, hopes and built-in empathy; unless you’re a psychopath, empathy is part of human programming. Rather than educate donors about your work, take them on a journey.”

I can tell you, and research and experts like Tom show, I am not alone on this one - that donors would much rather read a piece of direct mail that delights, moves, and includes.  If donors are engaged, they will support your work.

Moreover, if you would like to learn more about the ‘why’ of persuasive writing, my colleague Fraser runs down the importance of choosing a good signatory, a clear call to action and other important elements to consider for your next appeal.

Happy writing!

Jessie-Lee Wallace is a curious, cheerful fundraising professional with expertise in direct mail, digital engagement, data analysis, mid-level and major gifts as well as donor stewardship. She is passionate about sharing a charity’s story, connecting it back to their mission and making it real for their donors. Analytics and metrics are the natural partner to that story and a much needed counterpoint to ensure success. Jessie-Lee loves being a data-sleuth and finding the gold that is in a charity’s database and figuring out just the right way to ‘mine’ it.

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