Don't Suffocate Your Readers
Not long ago, I was shopping at Whole Foods when I realized with a jolt that I was just an appliquéed theme sweater away from turning into my mother.
There I was, squinting helplessly at a product label I couldn’t read. Hoping to auto focus my eyes like a telephoto lens, I stretched the item out as far as my hand would reach and brought it back again to within an inch of my face. No luck.
Frustrated, but a determined problem-solver, I went to a nearby kiosk with a dazzling array of reading glasses. Zebra stripes, polka-dots, Jackson Pollock prints — wild and wicked fashion eyewear galore, but nary a plain frame in sight. My mother would have bought one of each to coordinate with her various theme wear. The epiphany hit as I selected a black and neon lime-green pair.
So what does this have to do with fundraising letters, you ask?
Simply this: I get it now. I feel the frustration of not being able to read
comfortably. And while I’m not yet in the typical donor age demographic, I know what it’s like to have difficulty deciphering print.
Be easy on the eyes
If you love your donors, treat them well by mailing letters they can read easily. Please, I implore you.
There’s a disturbing trend I notice in the mail these days, as more copy gets crammed onto fewer, and smaller, pieces of paper. Increasing paper costs probably are driving the shrinky-dink formatting and design. And with postage increases piled on to boot, the tendency to try whittling away at the cost per thousand any way you can is understandable.
Vacuum-packing your copy is dangerous. The donor who’ll work to read your letter is one in a million. With so many friendlier pieces of mail vying for her attention the same day she receives your letter, it’s too easy for her to set yours aside, because even her strongest reading glasses aren’t enough to see what you have to say.
I hate it when bad mail happens to good causes, but it does.
One recent fundraising letter I received has a monster-long list of officers and board members printed down the left side of the page. Not a killing offense in and of itself, I know. But the letter copy is entirely left justified (no indents or tabs) and aligned about a quarter of an inch to the right of the laundry list.
What happens to the poor donor confronted with a letter laid out like that?
Naturally, she tries to read from left to right and jump from the end of one line back to the left again to continue reading the next line. But she keeps getting lost and, basically, her eye tracks like a gutter ball at a bowling alley, traveling straight down the left margin of the page without taking in much of anything.
Try it, and you’ll see what I mean. It’s exhausting, with or without glasses. And it’s more disappointing than a gutter ball, for both you and your donor.
Then there’s another piece that came in a 5.5-inch-by-7.75-inch carrier envelope. The letter measures 6.25 inches by 9 inches and is printed with a 3/8-inch border design on all four sides. Copy runs to within 3/8 of an inch inside the fancy border design (top, bottom, left, right — the whole enchilada) and is lasered in 9-point Times Roman.
And why, oh why, are people sending out letters with teensy copy all smushed onto the front of the page when the back is blank and just waiting, begging to be useful and give donors a reprieve with nice, big, readable type?
(Please don’t let anyone convince you that it’s because of personalization, and they don’t want to spend more to duplex laser the letter — there’s always a way to get the ask on the first page and continue with your case for support on the next.)
So let me share with you something — a fabulous vision a little voice inside my head (that of Jerry Huntsinger, the dean of direct-mail fundraising himself) pestered me with back when I was 30 …
Let your letters breathe
White space is a lovely thing; it’s like oxygen for the eyes.
Don’t be afraid to set your margins for 1.25 inches. Be bold. Draft a letter in 13-point Courier. Indent here and there. Go for a series of tabbed
paragraphs separated with ellipsis.
Let one line be its own paragraph.
More than once.
When you’ve aired out your copy, print it out. This doesn’t work staring at a computer screen. Holding a printout of your oxygenated letter, you’ll know where to make the type boldface and where to add underlining.
Your goal: to lead your donor’s grateful eyes through your letter and capture his attention in the right spots.
Otherwise, you risk sabotaging even the best offer, the most
compelling story and the most carefully crafted argument.
Because if he can’t read it, he can’t get welled up with empathy or outrage, and you’ve missed the precious opportunity to bond with him over a shared concern, whether he sends a check this time or not. Tragic. (And doubly so, because your outer envelope did its job and got opened!)
But, good news! This tragedy is easy to prevent. Just remember to breathe!
Kimberly Seville is a freelance copywriter. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.