Focus On: Personalization: Dear Mr. Sample
Not so long ago, direct mail personalization meant slapping a donor’s name and address on a form letter and calling it a day. It was a statement: The more personal information an organization presented in a solicitation to Mr. Sample, the greater his significance. How times have changed — sort of.
With the advent of database-management software and digital printing technology, direct mail personalization has emerged as a sophisticated marketing practice, both easy and seemingly cost effective to employ. (By now, nearly every organization has sent its contributors a sheet of colorful address labels.) Yet many nonprofits still are not speaking to their constituents with personal relevance.
“Personalization means being able to talk to [donors] in a way that recognizes the support they have given to your organization,” says Michael D. Nelson, president of Minneapolis-based Digital Marketing, a full-service provider of data-driven marketing and customer communications. “When you talk to people rather than at them, you build more loyalty and a stronger relationship over time, and you will also find higher response rates for the long term.”
Despite his optimism, Nelson is quick to point out the fundamental barrier that nonprofit organizations face when personalizing direct mail: data.
Arguably the most vital aspect of direct marketing, data provides a sound guideline for upgrading a donor’s charitable giving.
“The first problem that most nonprofits have is not having a data structure that allows both consolidation of data and easy cross-reference to data,” Nelson asserts, citing a list of common quagmires such as lack of data integrity, multiple people within an organization not sharing data on the same donor, and data housed in different locations.
To him, the issue is simple. When nonprofits lament about data-hygiene and personalization costs, Nelson invariably booms: “Stop mailing to everyone on your file. Pick your mark and spend an additional dollar on them. Make them feel like you know who they are and what their contribution has been. Make them stakeholders.”
Fundraising professionals should ask themselves: What do we know about our direct mail donors, and how can we use that information to initiate a more meaningful conversation?
Know your donors
On an information-saturated playing field where donors receive myriad offers and solicitations, personalization in-creasingly becomes a necessary strategy. For Bill Rehm, vice president of Mal Warwick & Asso-ciates and a fundraising veteran of more than 20 years, personalization is about making tactful and creative use of the data.
“Our success has been to look at the donor file as carefully as we can, and not just personalize the effort with the donor’s name and address, but to look at [their] history — how many contributions they’ve made over their lifetime, when they first became a member, their highest previous gift, their most recent gift — and to use that information, selectively, in the appeal,” says Rehm, who works with clients such as AIDS Project Los Angeles and San Francisco AIDS Foundation.
Mal Warwick & Associates uses this technique expressly for its clients’ renewal-membership series to show donors that their support is valued. One recent APLA direct mail retention effort (shown above) included a brief recap of contributors’ giving histories: “To continue serving our clients, APLA needs the support of core individual donors — donors like you who have been with us since 1999 and who have given so generously to APLA over the years. Your gift of $100 in 2002 was so extraordinarily helpful.”
The information was seamlessly inserted into the fifth paragraph of the letter, appearing as if it was prepared especially for Mr. Sample on Executive Director Craig E. Thompson’s typewriter. The appeal package also contained a membership-preference survey that asked questions such as: “Do you wish to receive occasional e-mail updates from APLA?” and “The number of mailings I receive from APLA each year is: too few; too many; or just right.”
While APLA clearly knows its donors, the organization takes steps to learn more about each individual — in the hopes of making for more relevant communication in the future.
“The longer someone has been involved with an organization, the less likely they are to let their membership lapse,” Rehm says. “Therefore we want to let donors know that we know that they have been with the organization for seven years or 17 years, and that they are appreciated.”
A simple game of high-low
Despite the charm and intimacy of direct mail personalization, certain donor constituencies might not always welcome the special attention with open arms. Willis Turner, senior writer at Richmond, VA-based direct marketing firm Huntsinger & Jeffer, has observed some stark differences in how high-dollar and low-dollar audiences respond to personalization.
“Low-dollar donors tend to be more skeptical about you having their personal information,” Turner says, citing a report conducted by Huntsinger & Jeffer. “Some are used to a certain level of anonymity in direct mail, and when it seems like you know too much about them, it gives them reason to be skeptical.”
High-dollar donors are just the opposite. According to Turner, who scribes appeals for The Ocean Conservancy and the American Red Cross, many affluent contributors want organizations to recognize them personally as “the ones who gave the big gift.” Therefore, it behooves an organization to mention their highest previous gift in an appeal: “We value your most recent contribution of $500, Mr. Sample.”
“High-dollar donors prefer to be acknowledged in that way, so personalization works very well. The response rate will most likely overcome the costs involved, as well,” he says.
Even though personalization is now more affordable, Turner says some nonprofits still have trouble allocating extra dollars for low-dollar appeals.
“Since the volume is so great at the lower level, we don’t want to commit as much financial resources on those folks to personalize,” shares Julie Kraus, director of membership for The Ocean Conservancy, an organization dedicated to protecting ocean ecosystems and marine wildlife. “We would want to put the effort into the area … we feel can make the biggest fundraising impact. Obviously, we are going to spend a little more time personalizing for the high-dollar folk.”
For a certain cross-section of its membership, The Ocean Conservancy sends out customized appeals that include different salutations based on who’s signing the letter. For example, several years ago the organization acquired a new president. Since he wasn’t yet acquainted with The Ocean Conservancy’s long-term major donors, the new exec couldn’t greet John Sample in a letter by his first name; the donor software was careful in addressing him instead as “Mr. Sample.”
Whether personalization works for high-dollar or low-dollar contributors ultimately depends on how the organization delivers its appeals. But one thing can be said on behalf of most donor groups: Keep it local.
“Donors respond very well to appeals that reference a local chapter or local affiliate, project or community,” Turner says. “There are no privacy issues involved, but it tells them directly and indirectly that the organization is tied to their community, and that their gift will most likely stay in their community.”
By localizing appeals, nonprofits bring their missions to donors’ backyards. There’s nothing more personal than that.
Down-home direct mail
A fitting example of direct mail localization can be found in the current acquisition effort of tree-planting environmental organization The National Arbor Day Foundation (shown on Page 57). The 81⁄2-inch-by-91⁄2-inch carrier-envelope package gets personal in a hurry. Teaser copy on the outer roars:
“CONGRATULATIONS … NANCY! We have 10 FREE Flowering trees reserved for you! … 2 American Rosebuds; 2 White Dogwoods; 2 Flowering Crabapples; 2 Washington Hawthorns; and 2 Kousa Dogwoods … You’re sure to enjoy these beautiful trees selected for growing in your hardiness zone in Kentucky.”
With just a small chunk of text, the organization builds a personal alliance with the prospective donor before she even opens the envelope. Inside, NADF provides a temporary membership card — glued to the letter — fit with her full name and the date of Kentucky’s Arbor Day. The letter addresses her by name, as well, and includes a variable field on the first page where NADF has inserted localized information about her free tree package.
According to Gary Brienzo, a spokesman for NADF, the organization currently offers 22 basic tree packages suitable for the diverse geographic regions in the United States. The foundation began distributing its tree packages in 1977, just five years after it was formed. That first year, the offer included six trees and generated 3,000 new memberships.
“With giving people free membership trees, and reaching a national audience, we must be sure the trees will thrive in specific areas,” Brienzo says. “We are also sensitive to regional concerns and don’t send trees considered invasive in any area.”
One of NADF’s many challenges — aside from monitoring climatic and agricultural trends — is keeping its database clean and organized. With so many personalized fields throughout the package to account for, errors could be magnified, as with any effort employing personalization. But NADF to date has distributed nearly 8.7 million trees, and can boast of 1 million members.
“We often receive pictures of members with their trees at various stages of growth — sometimes of a child pictured next to the tree, over many years,” Brienzo shares.
The proof is in the data
Anyone engaged in direct mail personalization most likely has a horror story or two to share. Wrong salutations. Misspellings. Presenting a donor’s giving history inaccurately.
Simply put, if you lack confidence in the accuracy of your database or you don’t know your donors, personalization will not work.
That’s something that anybody in the direct mail world yearns for — to know who the donor is — because no matter how many production bells and whistles are at a fundraiser’s fingertips, there’s still something special about an appeal that starts off, “Dear Mr. Sample, … Your gift of $200 last spring enabled us to help people in need in your community, and we value your long-standing support of seven years. Please find it in your heart to help us again this spring.”