Is Personalizing Direct Mail Really Worth It?

End of year is the best time to wage donor renewal and retention campaigns and is the absolute best time for donor acquisition appeals.

Every year, it is the same drill. You wrack your brains (or hire someone else to wrack theirs) to produce the "mother" of all appeals, one that will generate unparalleled income for your agency and make your Board beam with approval.Personalize-300x295

It happens. I'm not kidding. It could happen to you!

My experience, in working with over 200 charities, has taught me some valuable lessons.

    • Personalization - Always personalize donor renewal and retention letters and envelopes. If it is not financially feasible to personalize each acquisition appeal letter, personalize the envelopes. Avoid mailing labels and window envelopes.
The critical ingredient (missing from many appeals) is urgency, a real reason to act now, not a feigned 'cry wolf.'
  • Photography - Always include pictures.
  • Postage - Affix "live" postage stamps at all times. Reserve postal permits for newsletters, postcards, and fliers.
  • Postal Automation - If you must, print bar codes below mailing addresses. Avoid printing any ancillary postal endorsements such as CRRT-SORT (carrier-route sort) et. al.

Donor Renewal and Retention

Personalized donor letters always outperform generic "Dear Friend" appeals. Donors deserve "special" treatment and appeals should reinforce the positive relationship you've already established. The extra expense for personalization is always rewarded with higher response rates and greater revenues.

Laser printing envelopes as well as affixing live postage stamps enhances open rates over inkjet addressing, postal imprints, and metering. Although bar-coding or carrier-route sorting envelopes reduce postage a few cents per letter, the increased processed "look" diminishes overall response.

Don't manufacture a reason to give . . . your agency and its clientele are the reason. The critical ingredient (missing from many appeals) is urgency, a real reason to act now, not a feigned 'cry wolf.'

List segmentation is a valuable way to target constituents with distinctive messages. Common segments might be previous donors, lapsed donors, in-kind contributors, board prospects, or vendors. Here, personalization is a matter of voice -- the intonation of the appeal letter itself. Although the "body" of the letter may be similar for all groups, opening paragraphs and request (the "ask") are altogether different. Recognizing their differences is a critical step in the right direction.

Donor Acquisition Campaigns

Donor acquisition campaigns are very challenging. Time of year is critical to their success. Our most rewarding appeals have been waged during the holidays, as one might expect. We have mailed many donor acquisition campaigns in the spring and summer for a variety of non-profit organizations (some well established, others just fledgling). The results are always the same whether we personalize letters or mail generic "Dear Friend" appeals. Response rates range below 1% . . . average gift amounts are less than $50.

For donor acquisition campaigns, it is not financially practical to personalize everything (the letter, the envelope, and the remittance form). But, at the very least, personalize the envelope and affix non-profit postage stamps. The envelope is key to your open rate, hence, your response. Avoid window envelopes, postal imprints, and metering. Don't over process the envelope with postal endorsements, i.e. bar codes, carrier route sort, etc. Every departure from the "look" of personalization on the envelope will negatively impact the response you ultimately receive.

If there is a personal picture-- we have a priest and pictures of our inner city kids at our school-- it adds warmth. The personal note is in the margin from the priest. I know we might be a little different because of the meaning to the donors of the priest, but most of the research I came across showed a personal picture made a difference.

Prospecting for affluent donors, in my opinion, is not a direct mail campaign. Wealthy individuals give for many reasons, but respond better to face-to-face solicitations (in response to a relationship) than to appeal letters. You can purchase "high-donor" lists, but you will fare better greeting them in person or inviting them to attend a special event than "cold-calling" with an appeal letter.

Mailing Lists for Donor Acquisition

In this information age, there is a plethora of mailing lists to use for prospecting. In prospecting it is extremely important to choose a list that might have affinity for your cause.

The most basic selection criteria for ordering mailing lists is by zip code or SCF (the first 3-digits of a zip code). This is the most rudimentary form of marketing that gives little thought to who your likely contributors are.

The characteristics of your existing donors can help you develop a profile for purchasing a mailing list. In other words, your donors may have common traits that will help you identify potential donors that "look" just like them. Zip code coupled with the overlay of demographic data such as age, income, net worth, or presence of children will help you pinpoint prospective donors more effectively.

With "list enhancement" (adding more information to a list through the overlay of informaiton from other sources) your existing database can help you build a donor profile for prospecting. You can use the demographics of your donors such as age, income, net worth, presence of children, and length of residency in addition to zip code to specify which mailing list to purchase. Don't rush out and purchase a mailing list without giving this great thought.

Through list enhancement, you may also discover "holes" in your support base. You may find that your donors are skewed "senior" or "upper-income" and that middle income families are entirely missing from your most ardent supporters.

In direct mail you only get to manipulate the audience, the message and the media. Personalization, the ability to match the message to the audience, takes on greater meaning if your consider this axiom.

To insure that you receive good data, follow these rules religiously when purchasing mailing lists:

  • Don't purchase names with unknown gender coding (Male/Female)
  • Don't purchase names with unknown title coding (Mr., Mrs., Ms. Etc.)
  • Don't purchase names with initials as the "first name" (H.H. Paley, etc.)
  • If you want mail to married couples, purchase marital status codes.

This information will help you compile personal greetings and address your envelopes properly. Remember personalization is key to open rates. Nothing is more irritating than "misspelling" someone's name or compiling the wrong salutation, ie. "Ms. Howard Paley." Shouldn't the salutation be, "Ms. Paley" anyway?

Telemarketing vis-a-vis Personalization

Telemarketing and direct mail can be a very powerful combination when properly executed. However, it can be a double-edged sword if done poorly or if you are overly aggressive. The key is to role-play, to "coach" each caller to ensure you deliver a consistent message. If your donors are "connected" to your agency either as family, friends, or associates of Board Members, let each Board member call his/her constituency. This will greatly enhance the level of personalization and will increase your chance for success.

I've seen telemarketing done both before and after a direct mail. My preference is to call the day the letters are actually mailed. I would rather reach people before they had the chance to throw it away.

The Message

Last but certainly not least, is the message - the letter, the card . . .whatever, itself! Direct mail gurus will forever argue whether one-page letters outperform two-page letters . . . and so it goes. The truth is, nothing generates greater response than good copy and graphics. Most important is to articulate a real reason to give now.

Writing effective direct mail copy is truly an art. The objective talent of a professional copywriter is often the exact dose of medicine needed to transform your annual appeal into a revenue producer. Don't be ashamed to ask for help.



Direct Mail Personalization: Tech Tips for Basic

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Howard Paley

Howard Paley

Howard Paley is the founder and president of AcuComm, Inc. in Tuscon, Arizona, a company that specializes in comprehensive fundraising and marketing communications programs. His pro-bono contributions to the Arizona 4-H Youth Foundation resulted in the most successful annual fund direct mail program in the United States.


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