What Goes On in the Mailbox?
When I was new to fundraising, one thing about direct mail really bugged me: response rates. I’d look at the 5 percent to 8 percent response rates that are common and think, “That’s fine, but what about the 92 percent to 95 percent failure rate?”
The way I figured it, responses were “yes” votes and nonresponses were “no” votes. Even a very strong performance — say 15 percent — seemed to me like a landslide loss of 85 percent. According to my “voting” logic, any response rate below 50 percent was a failure.
I wasn’t completely ignorant: I knew that you can bring in a lot of revenue at a great ROI with a response rate of 5 percent or lower. But I thought if we got our act together, we should at least get a majority of donors to say yes! We could revolutionize fundraising! Etc!
When you’re young and inexperienced, if you say things like that with a certain level of conviction, you can get some cred as a “visionary.” At least for a while.
Fortunately, after a few years of railing against the massive failure I saw in direct-response fundraising, I started to take a more realistic and nuanced view of what happens between response and nonresponse: It’s not binary.
In fact, if you think about it, only a tiny percentage of responses are real yes or no votes. A lot of them fall somewhere in between. Even more never rise to the level of being consciously considered.
E-mail marketing shows you how to think this way. It gives you some measurable, intermediate steps before response: bounce rate, open rate, clickthrough rate, abandon rate. You know whether a message got delivered, when it got opened but not acted on, when the recipient went to the response page but didn’t fill it out, etc. That information helps you fix what’s actually broken about your fundraising rather than just calling the whole thing a failure or a success.