direct mail: the most expensive ever

This is a tricky post to write. I don’t want it to sound snarky or critical. I’ll trust you to let me know if I do fall off on the critical side of things (my intensity sometimes comes across a little too strong). Anyway, here goes.

Hoots came in from the mailbox a few days ago. She was laughing and holding a couple of green envelopes. She dropped them and the other mail on the table.

Here’s what I saw:

Two identical envelopes from two rescue missions in two different cities in the US.
Please understand, these are from two different organizations, thousands of miles apart.

I’ve disguised the organizations in question, because we love them. We’re donors to both of these rescue missions because we like their work. The missions are not near each other geographically and obviously use a syndicated direct mail program. That’s fine if that’s what they want. No gripe about them, in fact just the opposite, we love these ministries’ work.

Let’s open ’em up.

Here’s what the kits look like inside.

Pretty much identical. Not the greatest quality control, edges aren’t even and lines aren’t straight, but the messaging is readable. Not a logo in sight.

Now to the letters.

Hmmm… they did get our names right. Interestingly they have very much the same messaging. Nothing unique about either of these missions…apparently. But we know them both to be unique, special and very interesting. Also, we know a little about each of the leaders of these missions. And they’re interesting people. On the other hand, this isn’t very engaging is it?

Also notice the last paragraph. They’re using the same meal cost but doing a calculated ask based on giving history. Good for them to tailor our ask.

The back of the letters, more of the same. Clearly one organization is bigger than the other, but that’s a technicality that won’t really motivate donors. There’s also a little of that pesky quality control showing but the letters are very consistent.

So what’s my beef? Not with syndication if that is what you want to do. Not many donors will be like us and give to multiple nonprofits around the country…but there is a growing number who do.

My beef is that both of these organizations are unique, powerful, change agents in their respective communities. Both leaders, I believe, are charismatic, engaging and interesting. Sure wouldn’t know that from these pieces. The argument is usually: “No big deal, this is just a direct mail piece, we do very personal newsletters.”

Good. So you use very personal newsletters and very impersonal bland direct mail appeals? That’s good? Isn’t that confusing?

Then the argument becomes: “But it works.”

OK. Maybe it works….for now. And maybe you just think it works and don’t know how much better life would be if you were telling your story and letting some authenticity leak out…every where.

Then the argument becomes: “But it’s cheap.”

Really? It actually could be the most expensive mail you’ve ever produced if you’re persuading your donors that you are just like everyone else. If someone is printing and mailing thousands and thousands and thousands of pieces of mail every year for you that is doing nothing but painting you as pale, boring, lifeless…then it could be the most expensive mail you’ve ever mailed. (And that doesn’t even get into the whole flawed business model which is based on making money from how many pieces of mail are printed and mailed…but I’m trying not to get snarky, so…I’ll just breathe deeply).

I believe that donors are growing more and more sophisticated. Carpet bombing direct mail without regard for unique messaging, powerful branding and sophisticated data modeling is not a sustainable strategy. It just isn’t.

What happens if your bland direct mail letter lands in the mail box next to a vibrant, interesting piece chock full of authenticity and uniqueness? My guess is that you’re going to miss out on a gift.

I wonder how many times that is happening right now to your direct mail?

OK, that’s what I’m thinking. What about you? Agree or disagree? Let’s talk.
I always love hearing from you, even when you disagree with me.

Steve Thomas
Partner, Oneicity

Picture of Steve Thomas

Steve Thomas

13 thoughts on “direct mail: the most expensive ever”

  1. Terrific (and eye-opening) post as usual Steve.

    I love, love, love direct mail :). Unfortunately it takes a solid understanding of both donor-centered fundraising AND the organization for it to be its most effective – neither of which many direct mail houses have. Couple that with an organization that doesn’t truly understand direct mail (or even fundraising for that matter) and the organization is likely to be sold a bill of goods by the mail house.

    I saw one of the best examples of this in my very first position as development director for a regional nonprofit ambulance corp. The previous year a full color (very expensive) piece had been mailed out featuring the organization’s TRUCKS. Lemme tell you, EMTs love their trucks – donors could care less. The mailing received so many complaints and was an all around disaster. This isn’t to say that it didn’t get results from the loyal community (although not to nearly as great an extent as when I redid the mailing the following year :-), but you’re right – mailings like this do little to advance the relationship between the donor and the organization.

    The solution? 1) Understanding how mail houses work and interviewing several before making a selection (if you’re not doing your mailing in-house). 2) Learning effective copy-writing (no, your English teacher would NOT approve) through study and observance. 3) HIRING a copy-writer.

    In these times when donors’ dollars are short, organizations need to learn how to make the case that will set them apart from all the rest.

  2. Wow-Steve, what an eye-opener! Thanks for sharing! This is probably a case where both boards decided to go with the least expensive vendor that could do the job to spec. Focusing on cost per piece instead of return on investment is all too common, and leads to examples like you highlight in your post above.

    As a direct mail professional who works with many nonprofits, I can tell you that the future of direct mail communication will be more personal. Even smaller nonprofits can leverage historical data that they have about their donors to personalize their appeals & messages. This may cost a bit more, but it has a dramatic impact on the response rate.

    Regarding personalization, I recently wrote a post on PURLs (personalized URLs) which ties together printed & online communication. Here’s a link to anyone who’s curious: http://bit.ly/bdI9gG
    However, nonprofits don’t need to even get this sophisticated to keep it personal & relevant.

    I agree with Pam that professional copywriting is critical.

  3. @Pamela — Thanks for your comment.

    I love Direct Mail as well. I do think that it’s days are numbered particularly when executed like this, but it is a great tool.

    What I know that I held back in my blog was that this is the work of a very large advertising agency, not a local mail house. They are one of the “big guys” in the rescue mission fund raising world. And they have a huge staff of pros doing this work. They have a bunch of clients. I don’t know exactly how many, but a bunch that they do this kind of work for.

    Does that change what you think of the piece?

    Thank you for your input and perspective. Let me know what you think.

  4. @Blase — Like Pamela, you naturally assumed that the culprit in this was a local mail house. Nope. Big Ad Agency. They’d say they very much are pros. I’d say that they’re pros as well, but I’m not a big fan of this kind of work. I do like some of the other things they do. But this low-end syndication-type direct mail doesn’t seem effective.

    Knowing they’re a great big ad agency, does that change your perspective?


  5. Steve:

    Ah! Knowing that a big advertising agency prepared these mailings doesn’t really change my opinion. In fact, what advertising agencies typically know about direct response (donor-centered relationship fundraising) could fit in a thimble.

  6. @Blase — you are most welcome! Thanks for joining the conversation. Now if I could just get one of those “big agency guys” to come by and help us with their perspective. Seriously, we’d love to have other viewpoints!

  7. Well, I’m not from the big agency and I don’t think I have a particularly different viewpoint, but I can say that I too love love love direct mail.

    Thanks for writing this post. “But it’s cheap,” sends shivers up my spine.

    Unfortunately, it’s hard to see it any other way when you’re in that constant survival mode so many nonprofits get sucked into.

    Now if there was just a way to fix that…

  8. @Paul–Thanks for joining the conversation. Good stuff, Paul!.

    “Cheap” as the primary metric is a bit startling isn’t it?

    You bring up a great point-many NPOs do end up in constant survival mode. That’s a hard mindset to break out of. Unfortunately, that thinking can lead to ugly, ugly results.

    So how can NPO management breakout of the survival-thinking mindset? That might be a great conversation.

    Any ideas?

  9. Shocking but not surprising. I’ve talked to people at “big agencies” who have openly admitted – ‘who cares what we do or say, the donors will give anyway’. Shocking but not surprising. we certainly DO NOT prescribe to that point of view and it is sickening to me that someone thinks that they can treat all donors like numbers because – they will give anyway and – there will always be more… if i was the org that agency or designer would have been fired immediately. this stuff just makes me angry – such little respect for the people in this world that care so much…

  10. @John–Nice to know someone else gets as worked up as I do.

    One thing to make clear is that the fact that this creative is identical is not a surprise to the clients. They’re in a syndication program (there are other names for it) but basically they are being batched up with organizations around the country. So it isn’t a surprise that to them that their work looks like others. The surprise might be in how it is received and how it portrays their organization. This kind of creative cannot tell of the unique service and character of an individual organization. And that might be the surprise.

    As you indicate, there are times when agencies do work that isn’t supposed to be syndicated and the creative is depressingly similar even though the client is paying for unique work. That’s even worse. That maybe some of what has your dander up–and rightfully so.

    Also, many times the organization feels like they can’t afford the “good stuff” and that’s where they are definitely wrong. There’s great creative driven by strategy and analytics at affordable pricing.

    Thanks so much for your input!

  11. My initial reaction is that the OE teaser — “We need your help” — kills this right away. There was a time that charities could scream “We need your help” and see the dollars come in big time. No longer because fundraising competition has grown so fierce in the last couple of decades.

    Just my two cents. Great post!

  12. @John–I hate to admit this, but I didn’t actually read the teaser because I was so shocked to be looking at identical letters.

    You’re right. Anytime the charity or nonprofit makes fundraising about the organization’s needs rather than about the people they’re helping, they’ve missed it with the reader.

    Good thought John. Thanks.

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