The Big Rush

 creativity  Comments Off
Feb 172014
 

imagesThis past week we did a lot of rushing in my family. From piano to birthday celebrations, from haircut to dinner to middle school tour, from futsal to more birthday celebrations…it was a whirlwind.

As we rushed from activity to activity, I also did some rushing in my work life. And it got me thinking about how compressed our schedules have become in the last few years. What used to be a six week process of strategy-research-outline-draft-refine-review-perfect-mail has, too often, become a mad dash from outline to draft to review to mail — with no time to strategize, thoroughly research, refine or perfect anything.

I see it all the time in news reporting. It’s almost impossible to read a news article today without finding at least one typo. Even larger news outlets have become so quick to publish that they do their fact-checking after the story’s out.

I am not a technophobe, and I don’t hate progress. I do not want to go back to the days of stinky blueline proofs and camera-ready copy. I love being able to type, copy and paste my way through drafting and editing.

But I do wonder if we’ve hit the limit of how fast we can go.

Now, I know computers can and will do things faster. They’ll continue to advance, and my children or grandchildren will likely wonder how we managed to get by with such clunky interfaces as keyboards and mice.

But true creativity and excellent, thoughtful work still take time.

Before I write a word, I like to take time to absorb the information and notice what bits and pieces stand out for me. If I do my research and then step away, my brain helps me out by sifting through things and organizing it all, so that when I do sit down to write, the words flow more easily.

And the same principle works once the copy’s written. My best direct mail letters need rest before they’re ready for the world. I have to step away for at least a day — ideally for three or four days — so that I can see clearly what needs work.

Yes, I can — and often do — turn things around on a dime. I’ve written, directed design and sent to the printer direct mail packages in the course of one business day. (With a lot of help from clients, graphic designers and printers!) And many of those packages were successful.

Some of them were not.

The truth is, my best, most enduring packages have been those that I was allowed to spend weeks on.

As you rush to meet deadlines, consider if there might be a value to slowing down. I’m a firm believer that done is better than perfect, but that doesn’t mean I don’t try to be as perfect as I can be — and sometimes that means taking an extra day or two.

Sometimes, the best way to beat the rush is to slow down and let it pass you by.

Oct 212013
 

freeGiftThe last Direct Mail Myth I want to bust is the one that is the most true: Premiums always boost response. Of course, nothing is guaranteed, but adding a premium to an acquisition package very often will boost your response rate. And while I have less experience with premiums in house mail, it’s certainly true that a well-chosen premium can increase both your average gift and your percent response.

But premiums in direct mail come with a host of complex issues, and the truth is they don’t always work.

Here are three things to consider when you’re looking at premiums:

How much do they cost? And I’m not just talking about the cost of the actual premium. What will your costs be to fulfill the premium? If it’s an up-front gift — a magnet, notecards or address labels, say — will the added weight up your postage, or will the item itself distract from the real purpose of your package, which is, of course, to get a gift? If the premium is something you’re sending out once people donate, how much will it cost to mail it to them? Some seemingly cheap premiums have hidden shipping costs that make the item prohibitive.

Is the added cost worth it? If you get a boost in response — either in larger average gifts, or more donors — you need to do the work to see if that pencils out against the cost of the premium and fulfillment. And how do those donors renew? Are they joining just to get the premium, then dropping like flies? Or are they sticking around, ensuring that the added costs are made up by their years of giving?

– And most importantly: How does the premium fit with your mission? An environmental organization that sends address labels may acquire more donors, but that extra paper is sending a subtle, unintended message that they may not be quite as green as they claim. On the other hand, an environmental that promises a tote bag is putting their money where their mouth is — and getting more effective advertising when donors carry the bags in public. Carefully consider what your chosen premium says about your organization: is that a message you want to send to your potential donors?

To me the biggest question to ask yourself about premiums, encompassing all the things I discussed above, is this: Do you want donors who support you because you shower them with gifts, or because they believe in the importance of your mission?

Oct 142013
 
Smaller donors can work as a team to support your efforts

Smaller donors can work as a team to support your efforts

I’ve worked with many organizations whose development directors desperately wanted to move them toward a more member-supported structure, rather than relying exclusively on grants, foundations or one or two heavy-hitter donors. And one of the biggest stumbling blocks they’ve faced has been trying to convince reluctant board members and executives that $25 direct mail donors are worth pursuing.

It’s one of the most persistent myths of direct mail: that the “small-time” donors will never amount to anything significant for the organization.

Direct Mail Donors Have Hidden Depths

Sure, they may start out giving only $25, but treat your donors right, and they may just grow with you. Many of the largest organizations’ major donor lists are made up primarily of people who started out giving small amounts — people who tested out the organization with a $25 or $50 gift, then gradually gave more as they liked what they saw.

And who hasn’t heard a story about a nonprofit receiving a massive bequest from a donor who’d never given more than $30 a year while alive?

When you show your donors you know who they are, you appreciate your support, and you’re using their money wisely, they reward you by continuing to give — and perhaps even increasing their donations.

Direct Mail is a Volume Business

One $25 donor might not ever give you the same amount as one good foundation grant. But many $25 dollar donors will. And not only that, these are the people who can create a groundswell of support for your cause, who will tell their friends and family and neighbors about the good work you do, and who will — if taken care of properly — be your most loyal and vocal public advocates.

Of course, that means you must invest in your outreach to these “small-time” donors so you can collect and retain a large enough number of them to support your work.

Embrace Your Smaller Donors — and Bust Those Myths!

For more busted direct mail myths, check out my earlier posts here and here. And stop back next week when I bust the 5th and final direct mail myth!

Oct 072013
 

I spend a lot of time reading up on the latest “musts” of direct mail and talking to fundraisers about their programs, and I’ve noticed quite a few direct mail myths that just won’t die. You can read my earlier posts debunking the first two big myths here and here. Today, I want to talk about the third common myth: Direct Mail is too old-fashioned for our donors.

Pie might be old-fashioned...but it's still darn tasty!

Pie might be old-fashioned…but it’s still darn tasty!

Believe me, I understand where this one is coming from. We all want to think that our donors are different. They’re special, more sophisticated than the average donor. They don’t need all those underlines and bold and emotional language.

Wrong.

A few years ago, I wrote a letter for an organization run by a very respected, very intelligent scientist. He was widely published in prominent scientific journals and national newspapers and magazines. He was a great writer, and he hated the letter I wrote for them. Ripped it to shreds. He deplored the overly emotional tone and the use of 2nd person point-of-view. He was adamant that his donors would see through such a hackneyed ask and leave the organization in droves.

Naturally, I was upset. I had worked extremely hard getting the complex technical details in the appeal right and melding those with the kind of impassioned, personal plea I know works in direct mail.

The development staff and I sat down and discussed how to proceed, and eventually, we convinced the executive director to test his approach vs. my approach. The results were definitive in my favor.

Now, this guy was a Ph.D. He had a couple of decades of experience in writing about his subject on me. But he didn’t — at that time — know direct mail at all.

He took one look at my appeal letter and saw all the things a good academic writer is trained to avoid like the plague: hyperbole, simplified language, lots of “you”, too much bold and underlines.

But those things work.

Which isn’t to say you can’t inject some sophistication into your direct mail. Many of my clients routinely fundraise for incredibly complex and technical issues, and they get great results. But they use tried and true direct mail techniques, as well.

Remember, your primary goal is to get your direct mail opened and responded to, so make it easy for people to understand what you want them to do. That means bold important passages, underline key points, bullet your arguments, and include an emotional P.S.

And yes, dome of your donors will be put off by direct mail. It’s important to remember that a large percentage of the population is not direct mail-responsive (including me!). Which is why it’s critical to have many channels and opportunities for your donors to give.

Next week, I’ll bust Myth #4 — so stay tuned!

Sep 302013
 

Continuing my post from last week talking about 5 myths of direct mail, today I’m going to talk about a myth I really wish were true for my clients.

Myth #2

oesA closed-face Outer Envelope always beats a Window Outer Envelope.

I have heard this myth time and again, and I really do want to believe it. Honestly! If this would prove true for even one of my clients, I would be forever grateful because I hate writing teasers.

But time and again, I have urged clients to test this to no avail. The Window Envelope with teaser wins every time — with both a higher percentage response and a lower investment per donor.

Now, I know other organizations have tested this and found the opposite results, so please, please, please don’t take my word for it. Test it for yourself. Because remember, it’s not a rule until you test it yourself.

But don’t become wed to one way of sending out your packages. Instead, remember the function of the Outer Envelope: to get opened. If it doesn’t get opened, you don’t get a gift. It’s that simple.

So if the personal touch — a closed envelope, the signer’s name in the cornercard, maybe even a handwritten font for the donor’s name and address — is getting your direct mail opened, then keep using it.

But if your response rates aren’t what you’d like, try mailing a Window Outer Envelope with a teaser. But make it a good one. A great teaser can do a lot of heavy-lifting by setting up your letter — and your ask — all in a handful of well-chosen words.

Your teaser and envelope graphics can also do double-duty by drawing donors’ attention to their own names. We’re all self-centered creatures, and even the most moving teaser probably won’t thrill us quite so much as the site of our own names. Many of my clients find that a small teaser above the window that leads the eye to the address block gets their envelopes opened — and boosts response

As with the first myth, the key to busting Myth #2 is to test, test, test.

Check in next week for more Myth-busting. And until then, leave comments below!

 

Sep 232013
 

How long should your letter be?

I’ve written before about the direct mail “rules” people like to toss about. The truth is, every one of these “rules” will fail to garner the response you expect at some point along the way. And accompanying these “rules” are some persistent myths about direct mail.

I often hear versions of these myths when I’m working with a client for the first time. And like most myths, these are stories that have been passed down through the organization so long that people don’t even question them anymore.

5 Direct Mail Myths I Hear Again and Again

1. People don’t have time to read long letters, so we should keep it to one page.

2. A closed-face Outer Envelope always beats a Window Envelope with a teaser.

3. Direct Mail is too old-fashioned looking/sounding for our donors.

4. Direct Mail only generates “small-time” donors.

5. A Premium always boosts response.

Let’s Bust that First Myth

A lot of organizations, especially those starting out in Direct Mail, will listen to board members, staff, or their own guts when it comes to letter length. And that is exactly the wrong approach. Because most of us would say that we’d prefer a short letter that gets straight to the point, but when it comes time to respond to direct mail, we rarely act as we say we will.

That’s why most Direct Mail consultants will recommend trying a 4-page letter for most direct mail. It’s a pretty standard recommendation, and it comes with a mountain of data behind it. The fact is, even though we say we want shorter letters, for most organizations, longer proves better.

But not all organizations…and maybe not yours.

Direct Mail Fundraising expert Mal Warwick says that a Direct Mail letter should be “as long as it needs to be to make your case for giving.” That means that you have to look at why you’re writing the letter — is it an acquisition? A special appeal? A renewal? — and jot down a list of what you’re trying to accomplish with that letter.

Need to squeeze in a story, a couple of asks, a strategy and your history of success on the issue? Then you’re probably going to need four pages.

But if you just want to remind your donors why the gave in the first place and  of the importance of giving every year to support your work, one or two pages will probably suffice.

But even with those guidelines, you still don’t really know how long your letter should be until you test.

Your letters should be exactly as long as your donors tell you they want them. And they tell you not with their words, but with their actions. When you get the most donors to respond to your letters, you’ll know your letters are the right length, whether their two, four, six or some other number of pages.

Questions about letter length? Post them in the comment section. And be sure to check in next week as I bust Myth #2!

Aug 262013
 
Who doesn't love to inject a little creativity into their day?

Who doesn’t love to inject a little creativity into their day?

One of the things I love about my job is the chance to be creative. People often complain that direct mail letters are formulaic, and yes, there is certainly a well-tested format for them that can easily make them feel stale. But like a sonnet, within that strict formula, your letter can range as far and wide as your imagination will take you.

But there are two things you must have in your fundraising copy — the two “U”s of fundraising.

YOU

I’ve talked about this before, but a direct mail letter is a personal letter from one person at your organization to one donor. Ideally, it’s the opening (acquisition) or continuation (renewal or special appeal) of a critical conversation about your organization and your cause.

And when you’re having a conversation with someone, you use “you” a lot.

In fact, it’s the most important word in your letter (unless you’re personalizing, and then the most important word is the donor’s name)! It tells your donors that you know who they are, that you’re talking directly to them and that you care about their thoughts and opinions. It makes them feel important.

Use your “YOU”s!

Urgency

urgentLife is busy. This week, in fact, two of my children start soccer practice, all three children have piano lessons, my husband starts a new job, and I have five conference calls, two playdates, school supplies and soccer cleats to buy, and a kid’s bedroom to finish painting. And all that is on top of working, grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, exercising and spending quality time with my family.

Your donors have full lives, so you need to give them a reason not to set that fundraising piece down on the “I’ll get to this later” pile.

Make your asks urgent. Tell your donors you need their help NOW. Better yet, give them a deadline by which to act. And make it sooner rather than later. Plaster that deadline on the outer envelope, on the reply form, in the letter and on the reply envelope. Explain to them why it’s so important that they act fast.

If they’re anything like me, your donors’ “I’ll get to this later” piles probably morph pretty quickly into the “Let’s just recycle all of this” piles. Use urgency to get them to act immediately, and you’ll receive more gifts.

Use your “U”s!

Using you and urgency will give you better results in your fundraising letters — and make your creativity in the rest of the letter pay bigger dividends.

 

Aug 122013
 

heroLast week, John Lepp at Agents of Good and FundraiserGrrl Rory Green, inspired by FundraisingYoda, got together and posted a Direct Mail 101, walking readers through some of their go-to suggestions for creating a great direct mail fundraising package — all with a funny Star Wars theme. Awesome.

The piece was so fun and charming and terrifically clever that I feel terrible objecting to any of it…but in my experience, some of their advice came from the dark side of the Force.

Let me repeat the key part of that last sentence: in my experience.

You see, all direct mail advice should be taken with one of those giant blocks of Himalayan pink salt. What works for your donors may be like sending the Death Star to visit mine. The only way you’ll know if you’ve found the fundraising Force for your donors is to test.

That means, of course, that you have to have data you can read — more on that next week! — and a big enough pool of people (or a few months worth of mailing the test). It means you might have to do twice as much work on a few mailings. But that will be worth it when you discover what really works for YOUR donors…not just what works according to experts like me.

So, what was the Direct Mail 101 advice you’d never catch me giving?

On the Outer Envelope

- Should be almost anything other than a white, #10 envelope with a window (or whatever the standard size that 99% of charities are using in your country). This is a 9″ x 6″.

Not in my experience. Several of my clients have tested 9×6 envelopes…all have failed spectacularly. Nearly all of my clients have tested colored outers…which performed no better or worse than a standard white envelope. I’ve had far bigger boosts from testing various teasers and design treatments than stock colors.

Now, to be totally honest, a 9×12 envelope did routinely beat a #10 for one of my clients, but the cost became so prohibitive that it negated the improved results.

Standing out in the mail is a noble goal and could possibly bump up your revenue and response. But it might not.

Bottom line: if 99% of charities are doing something…it’s probably working for a lot of them.

- No window usually beats having a window on your envelope. Windows subconsciously say “bill”.

Again, a couple of my clients have tested this over and over again, convinced that the conventional wisdom that says a closed OE will out-perform a window must be true for them, too. And while a few of those tests have fallen in favor of the closed OE, the tepid results simply couldn’t compensate for the increased costs. And most of the tests were decided in the window OE’s favor.

There are some nuances here, and my two biggest clients continue to test variations on this, hoping to discover when it’s worth the added expense of a closed outer, and when a window with a screaming teaser is the best option. I’ll let you know if we discover anything definitive.

One last thought: what’s so bad about looking like a bill? I don’t know about you, but I don’t open all of my mail…but I do open all of my bills.

On the Letter

- Font: courier. As big as possible – 13 point here. Courier is likely one of the most – if not THE most effective font in direct mail. It works! I can practically hear the letter writer sitting in the dark quickly hammering this out on her typewriter. 

Again, been there, tested that. Courier and Times New Roman performed equally well every single time, over multiple tests. (We just couldn’t believe the results, so this test was repeated several times!) I will say that font size did make a difference for one of my clients whose list runs older than most. But even though we thought Courier would be a hit with those older folks, it didn’t make a lick of difference.

Elsewhere in the Package

No mention of the reply envelope.

UPDATED: the reply envelope was added in after I read the post with spot-on fantastic advice!

This was one component they left off their tutorial completely — and although it’s tempting to treat the reply envelope as an afterthought, I’d urge you not to. Whenever I can, I try to include a message on the RE — usually in the upper lefthand corner, depending on postal regs — that reiterates both the urgency and the contents of the ask. (RUSH: Petitions Enclosed is a favorite with my activist clients.)

If you can, address the RE to a person at the organization. If you’re using a BRE that won’t be possible, but with an RE you can include your letter signer’s name above the address, which makes your donor feel more like they’re communicating with a person and not an institution.

When you’re using a BRE, a “Your stamp saves us money” message really can save you money on postage costs — and just might up response, as well.

NOTE: John tells me that there’s been substantial testing refuting this, and I trust that. I have a client who has had success with it, but I prefer to use the space for a more ask-oriented message anyway. 

Trust the Force.

I’m being nit-picky here. Most of the advice John and Rory compiled was stellar and matches my experience. And delivered in a fun, friendly, fantastic way. Plus, YODA! Honestly, I loved it.

And while my experience might have diverged from theirs in those few specific areas that I cited, that doesn’t mean that yours will. In fact, I urge you to try all of their suggestions — and you can bet that I’ll be recommending that a few of my clients revisit these ideas down the road. As lists, tastes and fashions evolve, it’s important to keep evaluating what works best.

No matter what advice you’re getting, the most important thing is to make sure that it works for YOUR unique set of donors. Test, test, test. Even with a tight budget, pay attention to what YOUR donors want, and keep the rest of the advice in your back pocket. Then you will truly be using the Fundraising Force.

 

Jul 292013
 

CrimeI’ve posted a lot of advice in this space, and I read a lot of fantastic advice from my colleagues and mentor-types around the world. I really believe that if you want to excel at copywriting for nonprofits, now is the best time to be working — there’s simply never been so much easy access to top-notch educational resources as there is today.

But what happens when you’re not allowed to implement all this world-class free advice?

There are a lot of obstacles to doing your best work. Organizations hire me to help them do their best work, and even I face huge hurdles in implementing the changes I know are necessary to push my clients’ efforts into the stratosphere. I know you know what I’m talking about:

  • Board Members who think their corporate expertise translates to fundraising.
  • Program staff who don’t understand that fundraising is as important as what they’re doing in the field.
  • Databases and antiquated computer systems that are virtually unusable.
  • Executives who are unwilling to invest in best-practice acquisition and retention.
  • A basic lack — of EVERYTHING! Not enough staff, crumbling infrastructure, too few resources…the list goes on.

I do love Tina Fey’s advice to go “Over! Under! Through!” the things or people standing in your way. But for non-profits, sometimes, unfortunately, these obstacles prove insurmountable. So what’s a savvy fundraiser to do?

Focus on what you CAN do.

So you can’t segment your list properly, or your CEO refuses to give you staff to make thank you calls. Instead of moaning about what you can’t do, try coming up with ways to work with what you do have.

What about hand-selecting 100 (or another doable number) of your most loyal donors for more personalization than your database can offer? Can you write a script for volunteers and put them on the phone with your donors?

There are usually several different ways to come at a problem. Venture outside your comfort zone and see if you can find one of them. And if you still can’t solve your problem, then focus on doing the best job you can with the resources you have while continuing to…

Educate everyone at your organization.

Let them know what is possible. Remind program staff that you are on their side — working tirelessly to get them the money to fund the amazing and selfless work that they do every day. Paint a picture for your leadership of what your organization could accomplish with the right equipment, experts, or staff. Provide your Board with information about fundraising best practices and show them your plan for bringing your organization up to that level.

Just as you keep your donors informed about the work your organization is doing, you should keep everyone at your nonprofit informed about what your department is doing. Open the lines of communication on your end. Be an example of how things could be.

Keep doing your best work.

I have worked with people and organizations that did not want my advice. I’ve also worked with groups that wanted me to swoop in and save their direct mail creative, while doing everything they could to tie my hands. It’s not fun.

But regardless of the dysfunction around you, the absolute best thing you can do for yourself and your organization is to do the best work that you can do. It may become clear that you need to part ways, but until then, take advantage of all the wonderful free advice that’s out there and do your best to excel.

Because really, the only thing you can control is your effort.

 

Jul 222013
 

I stumbled into the world of nonprofit copywriting by happy accident. I needed a job, any job, and a “Nonprofit Marketing Firm” in my town was hiring a receptionist. My six-month stint answering phones at an answering service gave me a leg up in any receptionist job, so I applied.

In the course of the interview with the owner of the company, I mentioned my love of writing. They hired me as a copy editor, and a career was born.

A few weeks later, I had my first solo writing assignment. I was terrified as I handed my boss the piece. She had a reputation for wielding her red pen with wild abandon, and I was so, so green.

She glanced at it long enough to read two-thirds of the first sentence, crossed out the entire page, and said, “Make it more conversational.”conversation

Making your copywriting conversational is one of the biggest challenges for every copywriter. We all talk to people every day, so why is writing like we talk so darn challenging?

Here are three sure-fire ways to make your copywriting sound conversational:

1. You, you, you.

When you’re having a conversation with someone, there’s none of that stilted “When one brushes one’s teeth, it is critical to reach every tooth” business.

Contrast that with something more like this:

You and I both know how to brush teeth. You make sure you get every tooth.

Which one sounds friendlier, more personal? And which one sounds like an expert handing down dictums from on high? Now, you’re probably not writing a whole lot about tooth brushing, but the principle applies regardless.

And if this makes it easier to use “you”, remember, even if your letter or ad will be viewed by thousands of people, you should aim to write as though you’re talking to ONE person. 

2. Read Your Copy Aloud

This is probably the most re-hashed and basic advice that any writer receives. And you’d be shocked at how few writers heed it. (Confession: I have been known to skip this step myself…and I always regret it later!)

Even when you think you’re doing a bang-up job writing readable, conversational copy, I guarantee that you will have a few passages that sound awkward when read aloud.

So lock yourself away in an office and read it like it’s a bedtime story you’re reading to a 6-year-old. Any sentence or phrase or word that trips you up — go back and fix it. You’ll have more conversational copy in moments.

3. Axe the Jargon

Please tell me you’re going on jargon patrol each and every time you write copy! If not, you need to add this step to your revision process right now. I don’t care if you use terms like capacity-building, participatory action, leveraging stakeholders or value proposition in your conversations at work (though your colleagues might), but please don’t use them in your copywriting.

Donors want to hear what you’re accomplishing with their donations. They’ve invested their time, attention, resources and passion with you, and they want to know you’re worth it. They can’t know that if you’re holding them at arm’s length with insider language they don’t understand.

Use one of your revision passes to replace any words or phrases that would be more at home in a conference room with those that would be heard in a donor’s dining room.

I used those three steps to revise that first piece of copy. My boss still tore it up with her red pen, but on the second time around, she read the whole thing.