Direct Mail or Email? Win Over Donors With Both Channels
The other night I found myself drawn into a conversation about whether email was a better channel for fundraising than direct mail. It was quite the heated discussion and voices were being raised.
It’s surprising to me how often this argument still crops up. The truth is that there is no “versus” between direct mail and email. Each is an indispensable partner to the other because each has strengths the other doesn’t as well as weaknesses for which the other can compensate.
This means that when you’re writing copy, you need to approach them differently.
As we copywriters like to say, let me explain.
Direct Mail Copywriting
As it has been since at least the 1960s, direct mail still brings in the lion’s share of revenue for most organizations. It has proven its dominance and isn’t going away anytime soon because it has advantages no other format can touch.
One of the most basic differences is real estate. With anywhere from one to six pages, or even more, you have all the room you need to tell a comprehensive story full of revealing details and dramatic scenes that pull readers deep into your narrative and take control of their thoughts and feelings.
Write like this: Build your letter around an emotionally compelling story. Then, let your story determine the length of your letter. An effective fundraising letter should be exactly as long as it needs to be. Not one word more, not one word less. Yes, there are always realities to consider, like production and postage costs, but it’s better to give up an insert, switch envelope sizes or make other cost-cutting moves than to compromise the emotional power of your message.
Many Decades of Refinement
Almost as soon as the charitable gift arrived by mail, people began perusing, analyzing, studying, testing and second-guessing what made one package more successful than another. And the process has never stopped. All that navel-gazing has helped direct mail writers and designers build a wealth of knowledge about what works and what doesn’t.
Write like this: More than with any other channel, you must familiarize yourself with the history, principles and best-practices of direct mail fundraising. That doesn’t mean there’s any simple formula that’s guaranteed to make a package successful, but it does mean that there’s a surfeit of information out there that can make your direct mail messaging as strong as effective as possible.
Another huge asset direct mail brings to the table is a universe of experts and mentors. Having plenty of space to tell your story, and the long history of deep knowledge about what works are two huge benefits of the mail. But they also carry the risk of making costly mistakes if writers don’t know what they’re doing.
Write (or don’t) like this: Hire a pro. The fundraising highway is littered with the remains of organizations that thought they could save a few bucks by writing their own letter copy. Direct mail isn’t cheap and trying to dash off a letter when you don’t have a lot of knowledge and experience can do serious damage to your response rates and gift amounts.
Email is faster to create and far less costly to deploy, which means you can send out many more emails than you can DM letters. That’s a good thing, since email is so much more limited in scope and application.
Compared to a direct mail letter, email is a telegram. A haiku. A love note passed in a high school class. It’s designed to be brief, simple and heartfelt. As a writer, you must draw a sketch, and guide the reader in filling in the details. The whole of an email has to be greater than the sum of its parts. Every line has to do a lot of heavy lifting.
Write like this: You’ll create many types of emails, but a critical one is the one that follows up your direct mail package. You can only do a brief recap of what’s in the letter, so focus only on the letter’s core elements. If your outer envelope has a teaser, consider adapting it to be your subject line. Review your letter carefully and cut relentlessly to eliminate every word that’s not essential to evoking an emotional response from the reader. Favor stories over statistics. Then use that copy to craft your email.
Here's an example: A recent appeal told the story of a man who had a horrific series of health emergencies. First, he got hit by a train. Then he caught COVID-19 in the hospital. Then he got bedsores. When the staff tried to lance the bedsores, they pierced an artery and he almost bled to death. Somewhere in the middle of all that he contracted MRSA, too. It was a powerful narrative and readers were moved enough to give generously.
But when it came to the email, only the train was mentioned. The whole story was too complicated to tell and still keep the emotions raw. Too many disasters in such a small space would have just been a list of miseries and left readers numb instead of motivated. Because it was trimmed down to its bare essentials, the email performed extremely well, too.
Find the Right Balance
Find the right balance between keeping your name in front of readers and annoying them with too many touches. The more loyal the donor, the more they’ll want to hear from you, but — even for the most committed supporter — hearing from you every day or more can become a pain. And nothing sabotages your bottom line like a donor who’s sick of hearing from you. So keep an eagle-eye on open rates, click-throughs and unsubscribes, and test often to learn how to keep readers engaged without becoming an email irritant.
Write like this: Surprise and delight your readers so they’ll want to keep opening your emails. Tell different types of stories, including:
- Urgent-need stories that remind donors you still depend on them.
- Success stories that show how their gifts have changed lives.
- Cultivation emails that don’t ask for a gift. Keep them updated on your organization so they’ll feel like part of your team.
- And always, in every communication, express your deep gratitude for their support. Never let them forget that you couldn’t get along without them.
Empower Your Team
One great thing about email is you can use it to empower your team. As with direct mail, it’s wise to leave the copywriting to the professionals, but email offers plenty of opportunities for people in the field, program managers and other stakeholders to enjoy the feeling of contributing.
Ask staff to send in photos, anecdotes, important news or anything else that might interest your supporters. You can build a bank of images and stories to use when an opportune time comes along.
Social Media Copywriting
The benefit of giving power to your people is even stronger in social media, which you probably noticed, has been glaringly absent from this discussion. That’s because for most nonprofits Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, TikTok, Snapchat and the like are tertiary channels at best when it comes to fundraising.
Each social channel has a potential role to play in extending your brand, cultivating followers, spreading the good news about your mission and so on. But few organizations have found them to be important revenue sources. So to think of them that way can be an unnecessary drain on your time, energy and resources if you’re not careful.
Among the social channels, Twitter stands in its own universe as a sort-of-secondary fundraising channel. Thanks to the micro lifespan of a tweet, not many organizations have been able to use it as a reliable fundraising source, but there are a handful who have. There’s no real downside to seeing how it will work for you and just about anything you put in an email can be reduced to a tweet.
Willis Turner believes great writing has the power to change minds, save lives, and make people want to dance and sing. Willis is the creative director at Huntsinger & Jeffer. He worked as a lead writer and creative director in the traditional advertising world for more than 15 years before making the switch to fundraising 20 years ago. In his work with nonprofit organizations and associations, he has written thousands of appeals, renewals and acquisition communications for every medium. He creates direct-response campaigns, and collateral communications materials that get attention, tell powerful stories and persuade people to take action or make a donation.