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.
It’s the same with direct mail. The intermediate steps aren’t measurable, but by applying some imagination, you get a picture of what happens to direct mail on its way to nonresponse. And that can suggest some smart tactics that will improve response.
It’s a long and winding road between the bulk mail center and the donor’s checkbook. Let’s take a look at what can go wrong and when.
Not every piece of mail you send gets to its intended recipient. If you’re mailing bulk rate, somewhere between 10 percent and 20 percent of your pieces lose their way. Good data hygiene improves that number. But to really drive down your nondelivery rate, use First Class postage. The only problem is the cost — it might be too much to be worth the boost it will create. I’ve found that the breaking point is with donors who give around $100 a year. Above that, First Class postage is worth it; below that, it’s not. But test that for yourself.
This is probably the largest category of nonresponse. It has a lot to do with how much other mail is in the mailbox, the relative importance of your mail and how your donor is feeling that day. I’m afraid the numbers are not on your side in this category; there’s just a lot going on in everybody’s mailbox all the time. I’m guessing that 50 percent to 70 percent of your mail gets ignored.
You can improve your chances of being noticed with superb creativity. Duh, right? The trick is, all that creativity has to be on the carrier envelope. Nothing else really matters at this point.
We usually think this is entirely a question of copy and design, but if you stop there, you’re missing opportunities: color, texture and size. These all can help an envelope stand out in the crowd and improve response.
Let’s climb out of the mailbox and into the donor’s hands, where there’s some conscious interaction with the piece of mail. This is the most harrowing part of the journey. It most often happens with the recipient standing over a trash can, making instant judgments, and dropping many pieces to their sad and untimely ends. This is the dread …
Instant death rate
It’s the saddest moment in fundraising: your earnest efforts to change the world getting trashed without a second thought. It might be that the wrong recipient is making the decision. Or the right recipient at the wrong time. Maybe she’s annoyed with your organization. Maybe she’s annoyed with a different organization and taking it out on you.
I’m guessing that at least half the pieces that survive the nondelivery and ignore rates fall here.
And there’s not a lot you can do about it. An excellent carrier envelope will help. A track record of being relevant with your donors will help. Superb customer service and flawless data will help.
Pieces that survive instant death have a chance at success. But they still have to get past some near-miss situations.
Sometimes a donor gets your appeal, pays attention to it, agrees with it, thinks well of it, but chooses not to give for reasons of her own. Her checking account balance is low. She just gave to someone else. She’s worried about her budget.
Some donors end up on the fence about giving to your appeal. They might be favorably inclined, but they put it aside to consider it later. Too bad: A gift delayed is usually a gift not made.
So many things can go wrong between the time a donor decides to give and when she actually gets a gift mailed. Maybe she can’t find the checkbook. Or a pen. Maybe the phone rings. Or a giant meteor hits her house. Your defense against these things:
- Make it easy to understand and respond.
- Communicate with utter clarity.
- Be meaningfully urgent throughout.
Finally, an elite few of your appeals make it past every barrier. Here’s where it comes down to the binary yes-no decision, where a donor looks at your mail and says one of these things:
- Yes, I want to give, and I’ll give right now.
- No, I don’t want to give. I’ve considered your appeal, know what you said, and I still say “no.”
The good news: I believe the deck is stacked in your favor at this stage. If a message gets that far, you probably have a good alignment with this particular donor.
I admit that this exercise has been unscientific and unverifiable. But stepping outside the yes-or-no framework that response rates suggest can help you think about fundraising more realistically. FS