Direct Mail is Alive and Thriving in the 2020’s: How to Do It Well

Guest Expert - Ben Johnson • Nov 03, 2020
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Perhaps the most frequent, and alarming, question I get as a direct marketing leader is about the impending demise of direct mail. It’s expensive after all, they say. Didn’t we all hear about massive deficits at the post office? Donors complain and say it isn’t necessary to mail them; they were going to give anyway. 

And, while it’s understandable to think direct mail is on the decline, its demise is premature. The same can be said both of McDonald’s or CocaCola with the rise of healthier alternatives. Mature industries like these ones have found their peak, but there’s still a long and profitable future. 

There’s a few things to consider here. One is the product life cycle, another is some basics around society, and the third is the rise of good marketers. 

This morning on my way home from voting, my daughter and I ordered Starbucks hot chocolates. That company was founded in 1971. I used my MasterCard. That company was born in 1966. We were wearing our Nike’s (1964). Today she’ll be doing her homework on a Texas Instruments calculator (1951). If you bought stock in any of these organizations over the last couple decades you’ve enjoyed fantastic returns. 

That’s because mature industries tend to be stable and profitable. As this chart from Investopedia indicates, just because an industry is mature, or even declining, doesn’t mean it’s not lucrative. In fact, the early stages of industry are often the least attractive.

Direct mail has one major advantage over its cousin email: it interacts with our physical presence.

Something I’ve been saying since falling in love with email marketing in the late 2000s is that we’ll always have a physical presence. That is to say, we won’t always have our social media accounts and email. Sending something into my home is a power that can’t be matched through digital marketing. 

Not only does direct mail have the advantage of being tactile, it’s also trusted and stable. The digital industry is more than likely going to undergo increasing scrutiny and an eventual shakeup. If your organization had any events that were cancelled due to the pandemic, imagine if a new challenger emerged breaking up one or more of the digital titans or reduced your ability to mass email. 

What’s often forgotten in the story of direct mail is the power of good marketers. Millennials like myself are taking on the industry and engaging with it in an increasingly technical manner. The best practices that began in the Mad Men era of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce are now being optimized by a more diverse and educated workforce. 

Just think, socks and underwear used to be pretty basic. Now you can order $40 undies with micro modal fabric or even join a monthly subscription to have your fancy socks delivered to you. In the product life cycle, this is described as a life cycle extension. 

What I’ve noticed is that direct mail remains a big business – all of our clients that are doing direct mail are growing year over year – and that there’s ample opportunity for innovation. Here are a few tactics to take away that we’ve seen prove useful. 

1. Master your outer envelop

From our perspective, you generally just need two colours. It says money and you can still make your visuals pop. Just be mindful that folks like me might be colour blind so you’ll do best to ask your designer to use an app to spot any issues. 

Make sure to make use of the back lip on the envelope too. We often put a message like “You can inspire/save/help kids like Ben!” and include address info. 

2. Master your metrics

Donors are problem solvers and their gift is the solution. You as the charity are the articulate narrator to this story of their heroism (more on the next point), and we want that donor to successfully solve the problem at hand. Imagine the donor reading your letter asking, “how much is needed to solve today’s problem?” and what you need to say is something like:

  •  $31 provides 10 meals to the folks we both want to help, or
  •  $42 provides a lesson to that kid you teared up reading about, or
  •  $53 ensures another family gets a night of rest we both agree they deserve.

Obviously don’t write it quite like that, but please don’t list out an array of numbers with no specific language or tangibility.

The price should feel like an easily solvable problem. The verb, that tangible action of a gift, can be an opportunity, an outcome, or an event. There also needs to be a person, human or animal, or place and cannot be the charity. It must be simple, clear, and definitive. 

Secondly, do your best to have multiple tiers of metrics. $3 might provide a meal, but what does $300, $3,000 or $30,000 do? Mid-level and major donors still deserve mail, but they’ve grown beyond the smaller problem solving opportunities. 

We use an algorithm to suggest amounts to donors based on their recent history. Try to nudge donors towards a little more than they gave and you should see good retention and some upgrades. 

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3. Master narrative

One of my beliefs, and that of many direct mail leaders, is that donor fatigue is a myth, it’s just fundraiser fatigue that causes a drop in giving. We humans get bored and tired but we’re also excitable and enjoy the addictive feeling of giving and being part of something greater than ourselves. 

When you write a fundraising letter, it’s important to remember that this fundraising copy needs to be personal and involving. The best source I’ve ever read on the topic is from The Agitator. Any marketer knows to use the word you in their messaging, but you also can use the first or third person, eg “I couldn’t believe what she said”. 

Be sure to tell an engaging story with amplifiers too. You absolutely need to hear this completely true story of utterly meaningful content. Imagine you’re by the campfire telling a story, instead of a university thesis. 

The story you’re telling needs to have a narrative flow to it. Every hero’s journey needs a problem, and ideally there’s a backstory to that problem. Every good movie takes you through a problem, not just showing you the moment the problem is solved. You need to take the donor through the problem, to the present day. 

He didn’t have a job, he didn’t even know fundraising existed as a way to earn money for his family. Then one day Ben came to see me, and learned what direct mail is and how it can help him earn enough to make a living. He’s here with me and the crew and we’re ready to provide job training – right now. Will you help pay for Ben’s education?

Consider writing the letter from the perspective of the folks being served. It’s often easier for writers to get into the ideal storytelling mode and we’ve seen it raises more money too. 

I didn’t know what to do. Then I met with the team at Frontier. They told me about all the jobs I could have as a fundraiser in the direct mail world. I sat down, in tears, when I heard how it could provide for my family. Will you step in to provide the resources I need to succeed?

The hard work is understanding the journey that your organization is on and how the donor sees it as a story arc. Where is the conflict, crisis and climax? And how does a gift create resolution?

It’s not easy to do direct mail. In fact, one of the reasons I’ve advocated that it’s not dying is because it’s under increasing technical innovation to adapt and grow. But don’t be afraid of it, and withhold your organization out of the millions of generous donations they could be receiving. 

Direct mail has become more science than art. In the same way that cartoons took a leap forward in the 90’s with the introduction of computer animation and the rise of Pixar, your organization can be taking a leap forward in growing its revenue by embracing the challenge of mastering its best practices. 

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Ben Johnson Frontier Marketing

About the author:  

Ben Johnson is the Lead Strategist and Founder of Frontier Marketing, a fundraising agency based in Victoria, BC.