Direct Mail, Strategy & Planning

Before you write the first line of copy for your next campaign make sure that you have answered these Essential Questions.


Thanks for joining me for today’s webinar. I remember the first time that I participated in Project Bread’s Walk for Hunger. So not quite a run like you see here, but it was a 20-mile pledge walk in support of programs to help end hunger in Massachusetts. And it was the mid-1980s. It’s always the first Sunday in May.

And for my very first walk, I remember it was a sunny day, which was lucky because it had rained for several days leading up to the walk, and the course followed most of the same path as the Boston marathon. So it weaved through Boston, Brookline, Newton, Watertown, and Cambridge, but I had no concept of how long it would take me and my friend, Lisa to actually walk the course.

And I certainly wasn’t prepared for the thousands of people who descended on Boston Common. There were individual walkers, corporate and school teams, volunteers, not to mention friends and family of those who gathered to see everyone off. I also had no idea how exhausted I would be when it was all over, how much my feet were going to hurt.

I didn’t even buy special sneakers or anything for the walk or do any walk leading up to it in preparation. And the blisters that I had lasted for days. Sure, it was worth it in the end. And I actually did it again a few times. But it would have been easier and more enjoyable if I had known what to expect.

With that in mind, we’ll take the next half hour to review the questions that I should have asked before stepping onto Boston Common that morning; the same questions that you should ask if you want to be prepared for your next campaign. Question number one: What are the environmental factors? Consider what’s happening outside your organization, that could have an impact on your upcoming campaign.

For example, if you’re a regional non-profit, if there’ve been natural disasters, there’s been some flooding the last number of months in Nebraska, for example, that can have an impact on the local community. Also, especially if you’re a regional non-profit, if there are layoffs by a major employer in town, that can also negatively affect your campaign, as you might imagine. Has your organization been in the press lately? Depending on the press coverage, that could either be a hurdle that you need to overcome if there’s been some perhaps not so positive press, or it could be a nice little jumpstart if you’ve been getting a lot of press. There are also factors within your organization that can impact your campaign. Is the number of sustainers steadily growing? If so, while that’s great for cashflow and great for overall donor retention, it can have a negative impact on your individual campaign, as sustainers or recurring donors tend to make fewer additional or special gifts.

Something else to consider. Are you in the midst of a capital campaign and competing for donations within your organization? All of this just needs to be taken into account as you develop your internal revenue projections. Question number two: What’s the course like? Have you been having a good year?

Maybe a few good years. If so, don’t rest on your laurels since your risk tolerance should be a little greater. If you have been having a few good years in a row, now’s the time to really swing for the fences and test something that if it works, it would have a big impact in your program. Or if it’s more of an uphill climb, if you’ve been maybe losing more donors than you’re adding to your file, or if you’re coming off a few underperforming campaigns, think about what can you do to boost performance, especially boosting the response rates.

This is an example of three performance boosters. The first are premiums and there’s really a wide variety of premiums from the guilt inducing address labels that you’ve all seen, and the other relatively inexpensive premiums like that, to tote bags and t-shirts. I know some Animal organizations give away t-shirts with a gift of a certain level.

And those that have a higher market value like DVDs or CDs, even tickets to events. All of these different types of premiums are meant to lift the response. If you haven’t offered premiums before, there’s a lot to consider. So before doing so, just be mindful of a few things. Number one, how much the performance of the appeal will have to improve to make up for the added cost of the premium.

Premiums can be a great performance booster, but obviously they come with a cost. You have to factor that in before you make the commitment to offer that in your appeal. Is there a minimum order quantity for those premiums? And how does that sort of correspond with the number of people that you’ll be reaching out to? And then if the premium is successful, is this something thing that you’ll want to offer again in future mailings?

Whether it be in the same year or in a different fiscal year, is this something that you’re prepared to continue to do, even if it’s sporadically. A distant relative of the premium is the involvement device. So that could be something like a sticker that you might move from one part of the mailing to another. Even certain surveys are used as an involvement tactic. Like the premium, the goal of the involvement device is to keep the donor engaged as she reads your annual appeal and ultimately takes action by making a gift.

Matching gifts are another performance booster. And while very common at calendar year end, I wanted to share with you that a matching gift can be used successfully at any time of the year. And with all donor segments.

Utilizing a less aggressive ask string is the third performance booster. Using a lower entry amount, which is the first ask, or a lower ask string often leads to a higher response rate, but a lower average gift. You may want to consider testing this for acquisition and lapsed audiences, where the goal is typically to maximize participation or to maximize response.

The idea with a less aggressive ask is that potential donors won’t be put off by the amount on the reply device and will be more likely to make a gift. This is also why it’s important to use a variable ask based on the donor’s prior giving history for active and lapsed donor segments. You wouldn’t want to ask someone who’s made a $25 gift for the past three years for a gift of $125 out of the blue. That would likely turn them off, they’ll probably ended up not giving anything. And then your response rate will decrease. Question number three: What does success look like? Of course, you’ll have a dollar goal for your campaign, but think of each donor segment, cold prospects, warm prospects, your active donors, lapsed, et cetera.

Think of each of those donor segments as like a stage in your race. What’s the target response rate and the average gift by segment? What is your target cost to acquire a new donor? If you’re planning to do a follow-up or even two, what are the gross and net revenue targets for each hit by audience segment? And should all the segments get a follow up? Determine your key performance indicators, preferably by audience segment, and make sure to set reasonable expectations based on past performance.

Before you take your very first step, set the goal, determine the strategy, and finally, identify the tactics, the message points, the offer, the creative, the tone, the timing, and the number of hits. Too many times, I see people start with the tactics. Like with any race, if you don’t know where you’re going, how will you get there? If you start with the tactics, but not the goal and it’s supporting strategy, you may end up applying the wrong tool for the job.

I’ve seen this happen more times than I can count. An example might be where an organization is looking to improve response rates within its lapsed audience. But at the same time, they ended up testing a more aggressive ask string because they’re trying to increase total revenue for the campaign.

In this example, the tactic using a more aggressive ask string is out of alignment with the segment strategy. Since for lapsed donors, almost always the segment strategy should be to increase the response rate. To ensure that you’re not applying the wrong tactic or the wrong tool for the job, start by clarifying in your own mind what it is you’re trying to accomplish.

Then review each of these three ways to make more money. I know that there’s four boxes on here, but there’s a reason that cutting costs is in gray. So, think about these top three ways to make more money. Do you have the same goal for each audience segment? Probably not. Focus on one audience segment at a time, then select one of these tactics to apply to that segment. And then wash, rinse, repeat. Once you go through that and you’ve completed that task, then complete that same task for each segment. Only then will you have your mailing plan. For example, you might be looking to increase the average gift from your multi-year donors. If that’s the case, then the ask string that you use should support this goal.

In addition, what you may have learned is that you might find that your renewal rate for first year donors has been trending downward. And that’s one reason that your overall number of donors has been on a two-year decline. With a goal of more donors, you may find that you want to incorporate one of the performance boosters we talked about.

This segment may get a less aggressive ask string while those loyal multi-year donors might get the more aggressive ask. So even though you were doing one consistent campaign, everybody shouldn’t be getting exactly the same offer. Everybody shouldn’t be getting exactly the same message. Of course, there are going to be key message points that are consistent, like the case for giving, but the tactics that you apply, the offer for example, is a great one, is really going to vary by audience segment.

Lastly, if you’re in a lean year, you may find that you need to adjust your segment strategy. You need to adjust your segmentation strategy so that only lapsed donors who achieve break even can be mailed. This is a cost cutting strategy that could lead to more net revenue. But it’s dependent on the course.

If you’re really having a few good years, this is not the time to focus on cost cutting. And that’s why in this slide, we talk about three ways to make more money with these three tactics at the top. But cutting costs in gray at the bottom. Cutting costs is really something that you would do under unusual circumstances.

It’s not a strategy for growth. It’s a defensive posture. Question number four: Are you running a sprint or a marathon? Are you embarking on a short appeal or a multi-phase campaign? If it’s a multi-phase campaign, think about how you communicate to donors over the life of the campaign. How will you build urgency over time?

Typically, this is accomplished by setting a dollar goal and a deadline, and then extending the deadline in subsequent efforts. Consider adding a follow-up. Follow up. mailings can yield an additional 40 to 65% in gross revenue. But again, this tactic should be employed judiciously and perhaps not with every audience segment. A follow-up mailing tends to drop between 14 and 30 days after the first hit.

The average gross revenue from the follow-up is just a little shy of 50% from the first mailing, but less so in the education space. This is one of the simplest and most impactful things that you can do right away. But again, the tactic needs to be applied judiciously, which is why you need to do revenue projections, including cost and net revenue projections for each audience segment and each audience segment by hit.

This is an example of a mail and email plan for a client’s upcoming calendar year-end and early spring campaign. Now in looking at this, when you see the number of mail and email deployments, your first thought might be, that is too much. Your first thought might even be, that is way, way too much, but we’re not making these decisions based on feelings.

Instead, we’re looking at past results to determine how many mail and email deployments make sense based on the response rate and the revenue. And not every audience segment is getting every mail and every email. This is why you need to understand past results by segment before you draft your plan. And it’s why you can’t just look at what you did last year.

You need to look at how each segment performed last year or in the last campaign. Question number five: what’s your training plan?  As you’re reviewing what you did last year and performance by segment, also consider the following: What types of appeals have been most successful in the past, and why? Have you done any offer, creative, list, or segmentation testing? If so, what have you learned and how can you leverage those learnings in your upcoming campaign? Oftentimes if we’re engaging with a new client for the first time, they’ll be really excited to share with us all the testing that they’ve done.

There’s so much that they want to share. And sometimes geek out over that and we love when they get going over that stuff. But then when we say, Oh, this is great look, you tested this tactic. That’s terrific. And it made an improvement. And then, where did you do that in the next year? Did you roll that out? Too many times, the answer is no.  Folks fall in love with the idea of testing.  Left to their own devices, sometimes they even forget to read the results. And then sometimes if they have read the results, they forget to incorporate those learnings into the future campaigns, which is the whole point of testing in the first place.

So again, what’s your training plan? Our final essential question is What’s the pace? Campaigns can often get off track because folks don’t leave enough time in the planning stages. Everything always takes more time than you think it will. People you need to get approvals from will never adhere to your schedule.

I hope you’re all laughing, but plan for this. Don’t be surprised because it’s true a hundred percent of the time. Develop a campaign schedule with key milestone dates. When we develop our internal schedules, we always start from our initial mail or email deployment date and work backwards.

Share your schedule with all stakeholders in advance. And I think this is an important tip, as you work through your next campaign, track the actual completion dates versus the original due date. This will be really important information as you plan future campaigns. You’ll have a record of where things took longer than you expected.

And with that information, you’ll be able to make adjustments to future schedules. To review, I wish I had asked these essential questions before I embarked on my first 20-mile walk for hunger. If you ask these same questions before embarking on your next fundraising campaign, you’ll avoid surprises and have a better outcome.

And at the end of the day, isn’t really that what we all want. Thank you again. Now get to it. If you have any questions, please type them in the box on your screen. Okay. So seeing no questions, I want to thank you all for your time again this afternoon, and good luck in your next campaign. Thank you.