From the Ashes
There’s a lot to be said about failure. Mainly that it stinks. No, seriously — failure helps you appreciate success a little more, right? And on a less existential level, it can teach you a lot about what not to do next time around.
That’s no more apparent than in the world of direct-mail fundraising efforts. And from what we hear, it happens to the best of them. So to prove you’re not alone when one of your ideas isn’t as all-fire successful as you had hoped, here are a few failure stories from fundraising pros.
Hear Ye, Hear Ye … Don’t Traumatize Your Donors!
Submitted by Lynn Edmonds, L.W. Robbins Associates
The Campaign: The organization was a human-rights advocacy group. The mailing was a lapsed-membership renewal campaign targeting those members whose last donation was 13 months to 36 months prior. The strategy was to get the package opened by using a closed-face envelope with a provocative teaser (“stress-inducing” is probably a better way to describe it): Official Business SUMMONS.
The teaser’s formal, legal-style typeface was similar to what the court system uses for an official summons. The organization’s name was not included anywhere on the outer envelope. Only its address was included on the back of the outer envelope.
To play off the “summons” theme, the reply-card headline read, “I’ll stand by XYZ organization’s side in courts across America.”
The short letter also referred to the summons theme, stating, “This is the last time I can write to ask you to make your 200X membership contribution to XYZ organization. I’m hoping that perhaps just recently you sent in your check, and, if so, I am deeply grateful. But if you’ve been delayed in responding, please let me serve you, in honor and friendship, with this final ‘Summons.’…”
The Flop: The provocative/stress-inducing teaser did, indeed, get lapsed members to open the letter — probably frantically, right in front of their mailboxes, with their hearts pounding!
But when they opened the letter and realized it wasn’t an official summons, they felt duped and were furious! The organization’s headquarters was nearly overwhelmed by phone calls from angry members, and the mailing did not reach its financial goals. Even L.W. Robbins Associates staff members who were seeded on the client’s file were “aghast” when they received this mailing at their homes. They truly thought they were being summoned by a court.
Since the strategy was to get the members’ attention, but not create a public-relations disaster for the organization, we sent an apology letter (without asking for a donation!) to the entire audience.
Important Fundraising Lesson Learned: Put yourself in the members’ shoes! How would you respond to this communication? Getting a court summons can be nerve-racking. Why would you want to create this type of emotional response among your supporters?
Oops! We Did It Again!
Submitted by Kathryn Conway, Merkle
[A member of our fundraising team] had a situation many, many years ago (pre-Merkle) when they were doing a personalized letter for a political organization and inadvertently addressed all of the letters “Dear Friend.” At the lettershop, after all the letters were printed — and it was a lot — they hired people to cross out the “Dear Friend” and handwrite in the actual personalized salutation, which, of course, they had to pay for. The result was such a dramatic increase in response and revenue that they did it again the following year — this time on purpose.
Do as Donors Do, Not as They Say
Submitted by Sue Woodward, Virilion
DMA Nonprofit Federation, DMAW and AFP conferences are always exciting and full of new marketing and fundraising strategies and tactics that you immediately want to run back to your office and try. I mean, they’re working for everybody else — so why not you?
More than 12 years ago when I worked as director of development for an environmental nonprofit, I had just attended such a conference and came back to the office full of the joys of the next “big idea” to create a sustainer program! My team was excited; we contacted our direct-response agency, and off we all went to create the perfect campaign.
I mean, really, how could any true environmentalist refuse this unique and simple way of providing ongoing support to our organization and be able to “go green” at the same time — with reduced mailings? We had just seen how effective using an alternative paper type had been on our supporters — when we went out with our “straw paper” it was the most successful mailing to date. So why not this great idea?
We carefully selected a name for the group, created a distinctive invitation package look, even offered back-end premiums for signing up at various gift levels, including a partnership with American Airlines where donors could earn miles for every dollar donated. Not only did we offer a credit card option, but also an automatic deduction from a checking account or monthly billing. (Remember this is 12 years ago, when deductions from checking accounts — even though common in Europe — were still just getting started in the U.S.)
What a flop! What went wrong? There could be several explanations. We went to the entire mail file instead of going to newly acquired donors and striking while the fire was still burning; we didn’t test specific file segments; we only did a mail campaign (no phone campaign); monthly giving was still fairly new; our Web site didn’t have the capability to offer this option (no organization at this time could boast of having large numbers of online donors); and as it turns out, we simply misread our donors’ likes and dislikes.
Even though we were an environmental group and focused on consumption issues, among others, our donors at the time enjoyed receiving all that mail. They wanted the tangible opportunity to hold, feel and touch what we mailed. I guess that’s the higher perceived value we all talk about in direct mail. In the end, we learned a lot about our donors and how not to test a sustainer campaign.
We have certainly come a long way in the industry, as sustainer programs are some of the most cost-effective and efficient direct-response programs both on- and offline. Habitat for Humanity is a great example, given how it got on the phones after Hurricane Katrina and invited donors to become monthly givers. There are telemarketing firms and direct-response agencies, along with interactive firms, that can now provide tried-and-true tactics and strategies to grow your file. Would I give it a try again? Armed with what I know now, you better believe it!
Imitating Postal Markings = Copyright Infringement
Submitted by Cheryl Keedy, Production Solutions
The client in this case was actually a consortium of environmental clients. The mail quantity was 500,000 names. The time frame was April 2000 through October 2000.
The carrier was 6 inches by 9 inches and flood-tinted with purple ink; the teaser copy read: Priority Mail URGENT Please Rush! The “Priority Mail” teaser copy appeared again on the back of the outer envelope; all teaser copy was printed yellow and white. The postage was First Class presorted indicia. There had been no concern from a production or marketing perspective regarding the design or that the teaser copy might have been a copyright infringement of the Priority Mail service offered by the U.S. Postal Service.
But when the mail was presented to the USPS, we were told that it could not be mailed at First Class presort rates. Instead, the mail would be treated as Priority Mail and handled as such — with a cost of more than $3 a piece to mail, which would have resulted in postage costs of more than $1.5 million!
Needless to say, we withdrew the mailing and researched why we were in violation. Although we knew we could file an appeal with the USPS if we thought the ruling was erroneous, that would delay the mailing even further while we waited for a response to our appeal. Or we could go forward with the mailing, pay more than $1 million in postage and get a refund if the USPS ruling was later found to be incorrect. Neither of those options were acceptable, and so we focused on getting back on track with the mail date without having to reprint the envelopes, outsert the contents from the “bad” package and then re-insert — at a cost of more than $30,000.
After consulting with the client, we decided to overprint the outer envelope word “Priority” with black ink. Although we still had the challenge of outsorting the contents of the mailing in order to edit the carriers, our cost to correct the error was cut in half — to $15,000 — with a delay in mailing of just one week. The next time we mailed in October of 2000, the teaser was changed to read “Urgent Gram — Please Rush.”
Important Fundraising Lesson Learned: When in doubt regarding the “legality” of your mail-piece design, be sure to reference the Domestic Mail Manual, which is the USPS guidebook and available online at http://pe.usps.gov, or contact your local USPS business Mailpiece Design Analyst. To find the closest Design Analyst to you, contact the USPS National Customer Support Center at 800.238.3150. That entity will review your mail-piece design at no cost and provide feedback on any concerns within just a day or two.
Had we contacted our Mailpiece Design Analyst in advance of printing the “Priority Mail” carrier, we could have avoided the cost of correction and the delayed mailing. It goes without saying that any mail-date delay has the potential to negatively affect the projected fundraising goals for a direct-mail campaign.
In summary, if the wording, color, location or numbering of your mail-piece design too closely resembles the markings of a copyright design of the USPS, the package might not be mailable. If an average postal clerk, after viewing your outside envelope, thinks the mailer has requested and paid for a special service such as Priority Mail, then expect it will be treated as such. You might owe a lot more postage than you had planned.
An Overly Spear-ited Effort
Submitted by Jeff Brooks, Merkle
The Campaign: It takes some doing to actually lose money in a direct-mail piece to current donors. You’re pretty much going to come out ahead no matter how bad your work is. But I once managed to lose money in this situation.
It was for a religious organization, one that was known mainly for its work in Communist and former Communist nations, though it worked all over the world, including among “newly discovered” tribal groups in places like the Amazon and New Guinea.
The organization wanted to raise funds for this latter part of its work. At first I was skeptical about something so different from what it usually talked to its donors about, but when I got the material about one of the tribes it worked with, I began to change my mind. It was dramatic, exciting stuff.
This particular tribe (let’s call them the Kavira Tribe) recently had transformed from hostile and warlike to peaceful and seeking spiritual help. It was an irresistible story. I even remember my opening sentence: “Three years ago, if you’d visited the Kavira Tribe, they would have greeted you with a quick spear-thrust through your neck.”
It was a great direct-mail package: good writing, great design and a cool fundraising offer.
The Flop: The piece lost money. Quite a bit of it.
Important Fundraising Lesson Learned: When you try to raise funds for something your donors don’t associate you with, they just flat-out don’t give. No matter how cool your work is.
Straw Not Quite a Draw
Submitted by Steve Maggio, DaVinci Direct
The Campaign: “The Straw Package.”
The Client: A national health care charity.
The Offer: Support the client’s world-class programs of research and treatment for asthma to help save the lives of kids suffering serious asthma attacks.
The Background: First, I met with the client. We strategized how this particular mailing would fit into its overall program plan, and I did the requisite research to find out how many people suffer from asthma, what the strengths of the client’s program were, what kind of asthma research it needed funding for, the “unique selling points” of its particular treatments for severe asthma cases, etc. I had good info to work with, but I was looking for a breakthrough idea.
So I asked my wife what to do. Not just because she’s a smart and creative person, but because she’s a nurse at a prestigious hospital with more than 15 years of experience in the pediatric intensive care unit. She’d dealt with many severe — as in life-threatening — asthma cases. “What was it like from the perspective of the patient and the patient’s family?” I asked.
She explained how the airway, in response to certain “triggers,” becomes constricted, inflamed and lined with excessive amounts of mucus. In essence, what starts as shortness of breath and wheezing can become life-threatening as the airway gets smaller and smaller. “It’s like trying to breathe through a tiny straw,” she said, “and sometimes the straw can become completely closed. The kid can’t breathe, the parents freak out and it gets very serious.”
The Big Idea: Eureka! I had my “hook.” We’d go “outside the box.” I’d create a visual analogy in the package, using one of those skinny coffee-stirrer straws.
The Execution: On the outer envelope, the teaser was something like “Inside: Take this breathing test.” Inside was a card insert with a coffee straw glued to it. It was a lumpy package that would stand out in the mail. The letter told the dramatic story of a serious asthma attack and asked the reader to “try breathing through this straw to see how difficult it is … imagine the child gasping for air, the family in panic, our medical team coming to the rescue, etc.”
The client loved it. Agency staff loved it. I loved it. Maybe a bit too much.
The Results: We were so sure this idea was a winner, I’m not even certain if we mailed it against an established control to mitigate our risk. How could people not respond to it? Could there be a more dramatic, visceral way to simulate an asthma attack?
Apparently, yes. The package bombed. We had a heck of a time sourcing the straws and finding a vendor that could affix them, and it became expensive.
Why It Bombed: The teaser didn’t really demand attention or tie in with a key benefit. You really had to read the whole story to see how the straw related to what the client did. It didn’t focus enough on the core offer — the uniqueness of its world-class research and medical treatment. It was all sizzle and no steak.
Important Fundraising Lesson Learned: When everybody loves the package, it’s probably going to fail. Never go “outside the box” without first testing a small cell, and make sure an established winner carries the fundraising load. Take calculated risks. Think through all the production headaches your concept could cause.
But of course, don’t stop pushing the limits. You have to learn from your mistakes. And if you never bomb, you’re probably not pushing hard enough. FS