Words to Live By
In today’s high-tech fundraising world, why wade into an old-fashioned topic like carrier-envelope design?
The reasons actually are quite simple. First, direct mail is still the medium of choice for most large and small direct-response fundraisers. These days it’s fashionable to discuss the Internet and other alternative media, but the fact is that direct mail generates vastly more gifts than any of them. So improving direct-mail performance can have a huge effect on a whole donations program. And, experts I polled agree that the design of the simple outside carrier envelope can dramatically affect response rates.
So for the moment, I’ll leave new, cutting-edge media for others to ponder. Let’s look at what could be the most important component of a direct-mail package — the lowly carrier envelope.
I asked a number of top direct-mail fundraisers for their insights on design techniques that result in the greatest response. Not the prettiest, not the one to win a design award. Rather the ones that make the package perform the best.
To dress for success, keep it simple
Harry Lynch, CEO of New York City-based nonprofit marketing services provider Sanky Perlowin Associates, agreed with most of his peers: “In modern direct mail, the outside envelope now represents the very best opportunity to blow a campaign — and in a very big way. While DM specialists understandably want to show off their creativity with graphics, photos and clever teasers, these have consistently and sharply suppressed results in a high majority of our tests.”
Veteran creative guru Jerry Huntsinger is more blunt: “The purpose of the carrier envelope is to get opened. Nothing more. Clients who don’t test put too much pressure on the carrier. The only reason I ever use a teaser is because clients who don’t test think it’s necessary.”
Helen Kennedy, CFRE and partner at Lewis Kennedy Associates, a Portland, Ore.-based provider of fundraising, research and planning services to community-based nonprofit organizations, agrees: “We often find that less is better for all kinds of philanthropy. No teasers, no photos. However, mentioning a deadline can help if it’s for a real reason — like matching a Kresge grant.”
Still others take the minimalist approach to the extreme. Bryan Terpstra, senior account director, client services, at Holliston, Mass.-based L.W. Robbins and Associates, a full-service direct marketing agency that works exclusively with nonprofits, suggests printing nothing at all on the outer envelope: “For reactivation efforts, blind envelopes — and I mean blind, so no logos or anything — have really helped to boost response rates, especially combined with a size that is not a typical No. 10.”
Terpstra was quick to point out there are USPS rules for blind envelopes by adding, “You can mail blind outers at the nonprofit postage rate, but you must use a nonprofit meter that has a ZIP of origin. And you can mail blind if you use First Class postage.” However, he adds, “if you presort First Class and use First Class presorted stamps, you must have a return address on the piece. It’s best to check with the local post office.”
If going cold turkey seems a bit too extreme, you might consider saving the front of the envelope for just the name of the organization and moving the address to the back flap.
“I like to leave the corner card for the logo and to make the envelope look as if it is from someone, preferably the president, and not just an organization,” according to Washington, D.C.-area copywriter and consultant Linda Lapp. “Older donors grew up respecting authority figures. If I can use this on the corner card I almost always do.”
Still, Lynch points out two types of envelope “teasers” that do still work: “The first are those that ‘notify’ — e.g., ‘Your Annual Renewal Is Enclosed.’ The second are those that ‘clarify.’ For example, a nonprofit named after an obscure and virtually unheard of disease affecting children would likely benefit from a teaser along the lines of ‘Healing Sick Children Across America.’”
Kennedy adds, “The big exception to the no picture/teaser rule is prospecting to attendance-driven membership organizations like zoos and museums where you are using direct-mail buyer lists rather than donor lists. [Pictures are] a must.”
Do live stamps matter?
“A live stamp is a great investment,” Lapp reports: “I’ve seen a full-blown package with personalization and full-color components get beaten by a simple, scaled-back package with a live stamp.”
Huntsinger agrees: “From what I’ve seen in the past few years, live stamps, First Class or nonprofit, test out strong.”
But not every direct-mail planner agrees. Mal Warwick, president of Berkeley, Calif.-based direct-marketing fundraising agency Mal Warwick Associates, says, “In years past, I routinely saw live stamps — especially, live First Class stamps — dramatically improve response. In later years, I saw that approach work rarely with outgoing postage and only on reply envelopes. More recently, I have seen much less evidence that live stamps make a difference.”
Live stamps convey a degree of importance, but cost is a factor. While nonprofit stamps are attractive, there is the time and cost associated with affixing them. Terpstra suggests stamped mail be reserved for use in campaigns targeted to high-end active and lapsed donors.
Use your two seconds wisely
It only takes two seconds for your prospect to decide if she’ll read your fundraising letter. Clutter the carrier envelope with promises of benefits, cute art and catchy headlines, and you might miss the opportunity to win a new friend and contributor. Leave these techniques for commercial marketers with products to sell. You’re asking donors to share your passion and support your mission. When your message arrives at her door, be sure it’s properly dressed.
Tom Hurley is president of the not-for-profit division of full-service direct-response advertising agency DMW Worldwide. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.