A Look Inside the Outside
Sure, e-philanthropy is hot, but most nonprofit organizations still rely on direct mail as their fundraising workhorses. And the outer envelope is the wrapper for your all-important ask. It’s the first thing recipients see, feel and interact with.
As such, it requires a well-reasoned strategy that depends a lot on an organization’s mission, target audience and competition in the mail. Something that works for an advocacy group might not be right for a health organization. One thing that worked 10 years ago might still fly, while another favorite tactic could flop. It’s a testing game for each organization.
Following is a round-up of strategies and techniques to show you what’s working in the industry, and what might work best for your organization.
One size doesn’t fit all
The envelope still dominates nonprofit direct mail, according to Paul Bobnak, director of the Who’s Mailing What! Archive. But the size carrier an organization uses often can be a toss up.
“I’m seeing a lot of regular, plain No. 10 white envelopes,” says Vicki Lester, president of Richmond, Va.-based direct-marketing firm Huntsinger & Jeffer.
Many high-dollar campaigns employ No. 10 packages that are positioned to look like personal stationery from a nonprofit president’s desk, says Lester Zaiontz, vice president of creative strategy and development for Concord, N.H.-based printers Concord Litho.
However, Keary Kinch, principal and senior vice president with Arlington, Va.-based direct-response agency Adams Hussey & Associates, says nonprofit mailers who can’t get out of the habit of using white, No. 10 envelopes are missing the variety of offerings now available. Lately, many clients she represents have found success using No. 11 and No. 12 sizes. As more people start to use these larger formats, prices are going down.
“I think when you take your stack of mail from the mailbox, a No. 11 [or] No. 12 puts your corner card up above everybody’s No. 10, and so it sticks out a little bit,” Kinch says, adding that one format she’s never seen work in a cold mailing, acquisition environment is a 6-inch-by-9-inch mailer, most likely because it’s too easily lost in the fray.
Options exist in terms of color and texture as well. Many printers offer “faux-textured” envelopes that look and feel more substantial, like linen, but are reasonably priced. Kinch says the texture of the paper speaks to donors, but its importance often is overlooked by mailers.
“I always tell people to feel their paper samples, as silly as it sounds,” Kinch says. “When you’re holding a piece of mail, it has texture; there’s reality to it. A lot of times we’re just thinking about the words on the page or the design … We’re not always thinking about how it’s actually going to feel.”
To tease or not to tease
That’s the question, and one with no hard-and-fast answer.
“If you’ve got something inside that’s worth promoting, promote it,” Kinch says, but do it in a simple way that doesn’t shout at donors. “Pithy … sky-is-falling teasers” characterized by over-the-top language that “screams fundraising at you,” she adds, are on the decline.
“There’s a generation of donors that [these teasers] worked really well for. But those people are in the planned-giving world now or they’ve passed on,” Kinch says, adding that they have been replaced by a donor base that is less emotional about giving, perhaps because of current social and economic unrest, charity scandals and fundraising abuses they’ve witnessed.
“Some of those things have made them more aware that even if it seems like a good cause doesn’t mean it is,” Kinch says.
Lester and Zaiontz agree that teasers often can give away too much by broadcasting the ask.
“I think it’s better to create curiosity with our carrier teasers,” Zaiontz says.
Kinch adds that one of the most provocative carriers she’s ever seen was sent by an animal-protection organization. The mailing’s outer said, “Elephant enclosed,” humorously referring to elephant postcards packed inside.
In general, teasers tend to work better for organizations that deal with urgent aid and/or high-impact, time-sensitive issues rather than ongoing social services.
Other familiar organizations such as the American Red Cross or American Heart Association have more success with plainer, more institutional outer envelope treatments because their mailings can ride on their reputations, and they don’t have to jump through hoops to get attention.
Kinch says she sees over-the-top teasers being replaced by more reserved ones.
Closing the window
Closed-face carriers, envelopes without poly windows, have pulled greater response rates but historically are much more expensive than standard envelopes. However, they’re becoming more economical, to the point of quickly paying for themselves, and are more personal.
“To me, direct mail works because it sounds like it’s from me to you, not from me to a million people,” Kinch says. “One of the ways I can do that is have it look like I actually wrote this letter to you.”
The Sierra Club tested a gray No. 10 with “Immediate Action Required To Preserve Endangered Species Act. Petitions Enclosed” copy on the outer against its three-year control: a closed-face, gray-wove No. 12. The closed face, Kinch says, won and it remains unbeaten.
The gifts that closed-face mailings reel in also can be higher. One of Kinch’s clients mails a closed-face carrier in acquisition that says only, “See what we can do,” on the outer.
“It struggles to get 1 percent, but it’s getting a $42 average gift. [It’s] bringing in donors for $8, $9, that are worth $400 in the first two years,” Kinch says. Lester says she’s seen closed-face outers work well with mid- to high-dollar donors.
Like teasers, outer-envelope graphics don’t work for every organization. Graphics are key for some advocacy organizations, such as environmental groups, because a lot of what they’re trying to communicate is visual, Lester says.
The Center for Jewish History, a New York City-based repository for Jewish cultural and historical artifacts, finds success using graphics on its envelopes. The center incorporates copy and images of some of the historical documents it houses — old posters from the Yiddish theater, for example — on the outer envelope for its membership mailing. Highlighting these images in its direct mail makes sense for the organization, says Tamar Copeland, director of the center’s annual campaign.
“The center is a facility that houses millions of archival documents, many of which have great visual impact and whose purpose in history was to have a visual impact. So it seems very appropriate that we represent that visually for our donors,” Copeland says.
With openability the biggest hurdle in direct mail, graphics can differentiate an organization’s envelope in the ever-increasing mail pile, communicate a mission and resonate more strongly with recipients, and drive more prospects inside.
Kinch reminds nonprofits interested in creating graphic-heavy mailings that the donor base they’re targeting is older.
“We’re not our donors’ ages yet,” she says. “What looks old or tired to us is probably nostalgic for them.”
Bells and whistles
There’s no doubt live stamps on an envelope add a personal touch. According to Kinch, about three-quarters of the time in testing, live stamps beat meters and indicias, which are in fact faster. For Sierra Club, her firm came up with a tactic that merges the two.
“What we’ve done a couple times is to use the indicia or the meter, but then … affix these beautiful faux stamps that may be tied to the organization’s mission … and that raised response rates,” she says.
Similarly, Lester says she’s seen organizations using personalized meter strips, the city name replaced by the organization’s name.
Another strategy that Crystal Uppercue, marketing manager for Rockville, Md.-based full-service printing and mailing company EU Services, sees is the use of multiple stamps that add up to full postage.
“The thought behind that is somebody’s actually put all of those stamps on that envelope,” she says, making it more personal and adding value.
Lester also sees First Class stamps used in mid- to high-dollar donor mailings. For this target group, a First Class stamp pulls such good results it outweighs the extra costs.
Another response booster is the Post-it note. New York PBS station Thirteen/WNET has been using a Post-it on the outer of its year-end pledge drive mailing since 2001, with much success. On the note is a simple message: “Dear Thirteen Supporter, if you haven’t sent your Year-End Pledge Drive contribution, please do so now! Thank you.” Revenue for the mailing consistently has exceeded costs, says James Boyle, associate director of basic membership.
Post-its are expensive, Kinch says, but when a client could afford to use them, they’ve worked well.
“The Post-it note looks a little more like a real person touched it, sent it, was involved in it. It conveys this intangible value that a human being has been somewhere near the [package] recently,” she explains.
Uppercue’s firm also affixed a personalized Post-it note to the outer of a mailing it created for the Association of Fundraising Professionals. The foundation’s president signed the note, which said, “I need to hear from you.” The message made such an impact that a donor called the president, saying he received the mailing, saw the note and called as soon as he could.