Fact or myth – 5 conventional wisdom’s of Direct mail demystified
You know the scene. The direct marketing ‘guru’ stands up at the conference or training session and delivers her or himself of their best kept dm secrets. Its VITAL you do X. Its ESSENTIAL that the letter opens with Y. Its CRITICAL that the reply envelope is Z.
So lets’ examine some of those old shibboleths and see what’s behind them. Here goes starting with what the prospective donor sees first – the outer envelope:
1.The outer envelope must always carry teaser messages or images. The idea here is that the reader’s interest is captured before he or she can decide whether to throw it away or not. And to ‘prime’ the reader for the goodies ahead as the envelope is being opened. Well, the jury is well and truly out on this one. Obviously, if a few words or a telling image on the outer envelope actually do engage the reader’s interest, this is a good start. But it’s a big gamble. What if the message or image puts him or her off (which it certainly will do unless the message/image is very, VERY good)? It prevents the reader from getting inside where one or several of the items may stand a much better chance of catching the eye. So, rather than a hard and fast rule, a better approach here might be to say ” if in doubt, do nothing”. And at all costs, avoid something that is just too clever for its own good or is so cryptic that readers can’t immediately tell what it means.
2. The letter must always have a PS at the end. If your CEO or Chair of Trustees is the signatory, you’re likely to have plenty of discussion about this old chestnut. It seems so artificial and worse, badly organised. Adding an afterthought at the end of a letter dates from the days of the quill pen when re-writing the letter to include the afterthought was not a great option. But it’s so easy to correct a letter these days, surely the PS is just old hat and crass. Well..I must admit to being in the PS camp. Research has demonstrated that a PS is one of the earliest parts of a letter to be read – readers scan the page to see their name, the identity of the sender and the signatory, then go back to read from the beginning. While checking out the name of the signatory, they tend to take in the PS message. For this reason, experienced dm writers make sure the PS states the main proposition of the mailing ( a gift of just £x will achieve y ) and is absolutely NOT just an afterthought.
3. The letter must not be longer than 2 sides of A4. I came across a great example of adherence to this ‘golden rule’ the other day. So much copy was crammed onto 2 sides of A4 it would have comfortably covered at least 5 pages if properly spaced out in a font size that didn’t need a magnifying glass to read. Actually, some of the most successful letters in fundraising have been 4 full sides of text without pictures or images of any kind. I think the key point here is that if the story is strong enough and well written enough to carry the reader’s interest for 4 pages (or more) then 4 pages is what is needed. After all, 4 pages gives more time for the reader to gain a sense of trust in the author. But, if in doubt, its probably best not to risk a weak, badly written 4 pager.
4. The mailing must be supported by a leaflet or other visual representation. Well, if the charity is paying an agency creative fee of £10,000 (or whatever the going rate in London is right now), I suppose that kind of money is hard to justify for 2 sides of an A4 letter! But the key point is this: what do you have to do to project into the reader’s mind a clear, single vision of the moment their money made a difference. If this can be done in words alone, then this is all that’s needed. If not, then some visual back-up is required. But if you plan to use a visual element, a leaflet or info sheet for example, make sure it re-states in visual form all the claims made in the letter. It’s amazing how many leaflets I see where the letter tells one story and the leaflet a totally different one.
5. The letter should look as ‘natural’ as possible. The notion has been around for years that a fundraising letter should look as much as possible as if it was written by two elderly lady volunteers late at night, hacking away at a manual typewriter that is even older than they are. Today this ‘rule’ all too often translates itself to a shoddy piece of boring mono ( i.e. black and white ) print in a modern office typeface. The result is usually a complete failure to capture any authenticity of any kind – neither the ‘old volunteer’ look and feel, nor the ‘efficient, cost-conscious CEO’ feel either. It needs to be remembered that the job in hand is not to convince the reader that the letter has come from a charity – they can surely see this for themselves. No, the job is to ENGAGE the reader and PERSUADE her or him that the matter in hand is URGENT and can be addressed or resolved by a DONATION TODAY. For my money, its much more important that the reader can see immediately what the whole letter is about and what you ( the charity) want her/him to do about it than it is to fake some outdated notion of authenticity.