A Real Direct-mail Mystery
What to do? A legend in direct marketing comes up with an idea for your nonprofit, an idea that would increase donations dramatically. But it’s an idea that goes against the very core of your mission.
If you’re Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, you reject it. You send direct marketing guru Jerry Huntsinger away and quietly hope he’ll come back.
That’s what happened when Huntsinger put his promotional prowess to work for CU in 2001. He had an idea for a direct mail campaign to improve on the already successful $25,000 raffle that CU had been using for nearly two decades. According to Cary Castle, director of fundraising, the raffle had been “unbeatable in CU’s donor acquisition program.”
They say if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But Huntsinger apparently isn’t one to live life on the advice of sappy sayings. His idea was to replace the cash raffle with one that offered a top-rated CU test car as the grand prize.
Consumer Reports tests products and services — everything from DVDs to SUVs, cat food to Cadillacs. What many people don’t know is that it avoids influence from manufacturers and service providers by purchasing everything in actual stores at retail prices. CU focus-group testing has shown that more than half of Consumer Reports subscribers aren’t aware that CU needs to raise money to support all that testing, which is done in labs in New York and Connecticut.
A sexier campaign
But back to Huntsinger’s idea. The consensus was that is was brilliant. A shiny, new car with juicy options no doubt would make for a sexier campaign than a cash prize.
But there was a fly in the ointment from the get-go. Castle and company rejected the idea because they feared that showing the car could be construed as a product endorsement, which is exactly what CU absolutely could not allow.
So Huntsinger took his idea and went home. But he came back last year with a new idea. The grand prize would still be a test car, but the campaign would promote it as a mystery car. The mailing wouldn’t show the car or contain any information other than that it was one of CU’s top-rated family sedans. The execs loved the idea since it offered a fun take on direct mail campaigns while reinforcing the organization’s credo: objectivity at all costs.
As it turned out, the mystery remained intact, since the winner of the raffle opted for the cash equivalent and the name of the car was never revealed.
The car-raffle package was to be tested in March 2002 against the control cash raffle, then rolled out in the fall. But CU Executive Vice President Joel Gurin was so enamored with the idea that he used the car raffle in selected audience segments (while still testing it in other segments). The car beat the cash by an average of 20 percent across all audience segments. The January 2003 mailing, which featured the mystery-car raffle, was the best fundraising mailing in CU’s history, Castle says, explaining that it brought in 45 percent more revenue and 60 percent more donors than last year. It also brought in 20 percent more revenue and 44 percent more donors than in January 2001.
CU has tested several variations of the mystery raffle, such as a “dream living room” with a TV, home theater system, DVD player, etc., and a “dream kitchen.” In those tests, the living room beat the kitchen and both beat the cash, but neither was anywhere near as successful as the car raffle, Castle says.