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Direct Mail Insights for Smarter Appeals in 2021

father holding infant son while collecting mail from a community mailbox

To help you plan, create and distribute effective donor outreach materials, we’ve interviewed subject matter experts in creative, analytics, and direct mail strategy. 

In part three of our interview series, we talk to Tim Pietrini and Nancy Maleska  —  two strategists with over 50 years of combined direct marketing experience at RRD — about smart direct mail trends generating wins in the charitable giving space.

What modifications to mail plans have you been recommending to clients?

Nancy Maleska (NM): In light of the pandemic, we’re cautioning customers not to overcorrect due to unknowns in the marketplace and to continue to mail their control. Stay the course, if you will. Some have limited testing for a couple reasons. One, they’re not sure how they will read the results due to market impact. And two, it’s one less investment they need to make beyond mailing their control. 

Tim Pietrini (TP): They’re also reducing their volumes and mailing more selectively — in some cases, suppressing high risk groups altogether. But Nancy’s right; our clients who have stayed the course this year are seeing solid response rates. 

What is the biggest mistake most organizations make when it comes to direct mail campaigns like this? 

TP: Too often organizations try to save themselves into prosperity. They’ll say, “We can’t mail a package that costs any more than our current control.” The reality is our very successful charities understand package cost is irrelevant. They recognize net dollars is what's relevant. The biggest mistake so many organizations make is limiting themselves in terms of what they'll test by not adding something that costs more than their control to the mix.

This is a constant conversation we have. It’s so important to just test it. If the more expensive option works, then next year, ask for additional budget dollars based on the test result and the ROI associated with it. If it works and they still can't get the budget dollars, we’ll suggest mailing that costlier, stronger package to fewer names — your best names.

For organizations facing budget restrictions, what can they do in 2021 to mail smarter? 

NM: It’s not uncommon for clients to say, “I can't afford to increase my budget,” “My budget has been beaten up,” “I'm going to mail my least expensive package.” When budgets get tight, some will instinctively want to mail a less expensive, poorer performing package to all file segments. We recommend mailing their more expensive, better performing package, but only to their top deciles. These top people are likely to respond at an even higher rate to the more expensive package, which will deliver a higher net contribution.

TP: Another way to look at this is that we’re simply dropping the poorest performing deciles. For example, what happens when you have an average 3% response rate? That means the top donors have a 5% response rate, and those in the bottom deciles have a 1% response rate. By mailing top segments, we’re lopping off those 1% responding deciles, so that in itself will raise the response rates.

To stand out in the stack, what are you finding resonates with donors?   

NM: There is a renewed focus on reciprocal relationships. Donors seek a reciprocal relationship with the causes they contribute to and want to feel their contributions are appreciated and make a difference. We’ve seen donor acknowledgement range from “Certificates of Recognition” to “Special Reports” that contain information specific to accomplishments the donor’s contributions helped achieve.

TP: This holds true especially for the higher-dollar donors. They want to be recognized, but also understand how their last contribution was spent and where their next one will be spent. 

NM: We've worked with a large nonprofit academic medical center for many years. This client knows, somewhat intuitively, that their biggest donors expect direct communication (through giving officers) and want to be recognized, sometimes in a big way, like naming a new building after them. But when it comes to their $50, $100, $200 donors, they don't always consider the same need exists.

TP: A special report is a perfect example of a very effective technique for these folks, because they look like they’re prepared for an individual donor and include content (e.g., news, research, updates, human interest stories) around specific areas of interest.

What themes should fundraisers keep top of mind as they work to fine-tune their appeals program?

NM: Donors relate to personal stories that focus on an individual. These stories include a person’s conflict and how the organization provided a solution that made a difference. We’ve found telling one story in detail resonates with donors more than telling three or four brief stories. These stories are relatable and bring the institute’s work to a personal, one-to-one level with the reader.  

Another approach that works well is to designate the name of the program (e.g., “2021 Annual Appeal”) on your outer envelope and at the top of the letter. This signifies to the reader this is a special campaign. For people who only give one time each year, this lets them know this is the most important campaign of the year.

TP: The other thing this does is opens up multi-touch opportunities across multiple channels. As part of the big appeal, follow-up mailings, emails, and phone calls can reinforce to the donor how much you’re counting on them this year. From our experience, with this technique, follow-up mailings may even net more dollars than the initial mailing.

NM: That's an important point Tim just touched on. As much as an organization will call it an annual appeal mailing, for example, they might not be unifying under that theme. A lot of times, we will actually create a logo for the campaign itself. Then the entire campaign becomes branded and shares a common look no matter where you see it. From a mailer to an email to the website, the campaign logo helps tie everything together. 

 

Bio: Tim Pietrini and Nancy Maleska combined have over 50 years of direct marketing experience. At RRD, Tim is the Vice President of Strategic Development and Nancy is a Strategist. They have a strong record of winning programs using disciplined direct mail techniques in a number of markets, including healthcare, nonprofit, and insurance. Their philosophy: Analytical thinking creates a focus on the results; discipline delivers winning programs that stand the test of time. 

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