It’s sad but true — direct-mail acquisition usually nets negative dollars. But when organic growth, online efforts and requests for referrals aren’t producing enough new donors to propel your nonprofit to the level you want to be (let alone replace donors lost to attrition), direct-mail acquisition may be critical for long-term survival.
Newly acquired donors should “pay back” your initial loss and future investment in a matter of months. But since nonprofit boards don’t like losing money (even short term), stacking the acquisition deck in your favor is essential.
Not to oversimplify, but your basic costs for a direct-mail acquisition package are copywriting, design, printing and mailing, postage, and the rental of a name. Mailing to deeply lapsed donors and non-giving prospects is a great way to acquire new names, but you eventually need to look outside your database if your goal is significant growth.
These days, there are a lot of restrictions on renting names. Some nonprofits don’t do it, no matter what. Others only exchange — “you can use our list if we can use yours.” Still other nonprofits rent frequently and have a constant source of income from using their lists in this fashion.
You most likely contact a list broker to acquire names — a company that may manage some lists (being the exclusive source for renting those names), but also has solid knowledge of the universe of lists available from other list brokers, how they are performing, who else is renting them, if they are showing signs of decline in terms of productivity, etc. Working with a list broker can be the best “cure” for a lackluster direct-mail acquisition program if you choose the right partner for your project.
Information about YOU is key
Your list broker is not psychic; give him or her as much information as you can about your letter copy, your offer, your mission, your acquisition history, your current donors and your goals for the mailing.
“The more I know about the message of each package, the type of package, copy points, premiums or freemiums, and the ask level, the better I can tailor my list recommendations and selects,” says Donna Packer, president of Packer List Inc.
Why? Because some lists respond better to premiums, others are great for offers under $10, some work best for liberal causes and so on. Your broker needs to have an insatiable hunger for information about you, and that hunger must turn into creative list recommendations that the broker is prepared to defend.
It’s a competition, but you want to win
You expect a list broker to bring value to the table. But you still want to give him or her past results from lists you’ve previously rented. A broker studies these to identify trends, see what kinds of lists worked best for different offers, spot untapped or underutilized categories of lists that look promising — in short, give you recommendations for lists to rent that can improve your bottom line. Even looking at your historic results, it’s doubtful any two brokers will come back with identical selections. But without that history, their recommendations won’t be the best they can be.
Don’t let price be your main criteria
There is a wide range of pricing when renting lists. Some lists have a low cost per 1,000 names, while others may be twice as expensive. Don’t just select the lowest-cost option; these are often compiled lists that may not perform as well for you as a more niche list. A list of “extremely concerned and frequent contributors to all types of charitable and political organizations, including people who are passionate about veterans, liberal causes, animal welfare, education, hunger, homelessness, adherence to the Bill of Rights, wildlife management, recycling, health-related issues and euthanasia” is clearly less focused than “Donors to XYZ Charity in the Last 24 Months.”
This doesn’t mean you should reject a compiled list. Ask your list broker why he or she recommended each list. Why is this one worth more money than others? How will the low-cost option perform compared to the higher-cost ones? A good broker gives you a thoughtful recommendation backed up with facts (and a bit of intuition that comes from experience). After all, he or she wants to have a long relationship with your nonprofit, and a sloppy list recommendation that doesn’t produce new donors sabotages that goal.
'Measure twice, cut once'
If a list totally bombs — and it is one you and your list broker really believed in — test it again. It could be a victim of seasonality, your mailing coming on the heels of a big push by the list owner for its own cause or any number of other factors that you can’t control. But if it fails twice, drop it. Don’t hang on to a poor-performing list just because you or your broker thinks it should work.
An experienced list broker can be one of your best partners in a direct-mail acquisition effort. Because list brokers have knowledge of the marketplace that you may not have, they will ask questions like these, according to Packer:
- What is the message of your mailing?
- Is your message sellable?
- Is the emotion in the message?
- Why should donors respond to your message?
- Have you given them a compelling reason to believe that making a donation is a smart choice?
Give your broker the information he or she needs to make good list recommendations and ask tough questions — and you’ll give your direct-mail acquisition a better chance of acquiring donors for your cause. And that’s a win!
Pamela Barden is the creative juice and the copywriting machine behind PJBarden Inc., a consulting firm focusing on helping small to midsized nonprofits see big results in fundraising. You can follow Pamela on Twitter @pjbarden.