Jan 032012
 

One of the joys of working with a large nonprofit is the ability to test — from how you visually present your message, to who you choose to mail to, and what special offers you make, when you’re mailing for the big guys, you have the chance to really hone in on what works best for your audience.

But what if you’re a small shop with a small list and a smaller pool of resources to devote to direct mail? How can you test and refine your mailings until you know you’re getting the most bang for your buck?

You may not be able to do a split test on any one mailing, but if you’re clever and creative, there are still ways you can tell what’s working and what’s not in your direct mail.

Use Your Swipes

Those of us who work in direct mail are obsessive about checking our own mailboxes because that is one of the best places you can go to get ideas about what’s working in today’s direct mail.

And I’m not just talking about keeping an eye on the nonprofit organizations you give to. For profit companies — from banks and financial institutions, to magazines and catalogs — mail millions of pieces of direct mail each year and have budgets for testing that most nonprofits only dream about. And sure, you might not be able to include a handful of inserts, but can you crib a few ideas about what works from them and apply them to your own packages?

Bonus tip: if you’re not on the lists of other organizations in your sector, sign up! A small donation gets you a fine sample of renewals, special appeals and cultivation mailings that can give you a really great picture of what’s hot in your niche.

Cheap and Easy Tests

If you can divide your list but don’t have a lot of money to spend, there are a few things you can test with little-to-no up front investment.

  • Try a lasered upgrade message test on the reply form. You’re already lasering donors’ names and addresses (and if you’re a very small shop, you might be printing everything on your desktop printer!) so it shouldn’t cost you much, if anything, to test two different lasered messages.
  • Play with color. Too many organizations get stuck in a color rut, which can be great for sending a strong branding message…but might get you ignored in direct mail. Try substituting a different color for black — dark blue or dark green, maybe. If you absolutely have to limit yourself to approved logo colors, try using them in unique ways — a graphic band at the top of a page, highlight specific words in the text with color, or use screens to create a layered look.
  • Along those same lines, use graphic elements to call attention to your pieces. Give your designer freer reign within the same cost parameters. Bands of color (or black), reversed out headlines, handwriting and other specialty fonts, and color screens don’t generally cost any more than more straightforward design, as long as you’re not bleeding off the edges or adding colors.

The Long Haul

If you’ve got a small list but a little money for testing, try testing the same thing over several mailings. That way you can get a more statistically significant pool of results than you can on one small mailing that might include a surprisingly large gift, or have its results impacted by things outside your control.

Bonus tip: if you’re testing something on a component that doesn’t need to change from one mailing to the next — say, a colored stock reply envelope — you can print ahead for the second mailing, which will save you money due to economies of scale.

Bottom line: money’s tight for everyone. Even the big organizations are cutting back. But you can still find ways to be innovative and creative and continue testing, even on the most constrained budget.

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