Just Slightly Contrarian: Oh, Woe to the Wimpy Reply Device
It’s a frustrating nuisance — that pesky reply device. The sorry, little stepchild of the fundraising package. Underutilized. Misunderstood. Occasionally ignored. Treated with faint disdain.
Tradition has it that the reply form was invented around 1924 and evolved via two genetic streams. For commercial mail, it became a dynamic ingredient of the mail package.
But for nonprofits, it became a wimpy slip, designed primarily to fly the package through a window in the envelope.
However, writers who make a living creating nonprofit packages love the reply form. It’s their “edge” when competing against amateurs who see it only as a necessary evil.
After I’ve nailed down the offer and appeal, I create the reply device — before I even write the letter. It becomes a stand-alone mini-appeal and a benchmark for the rest of the package. I do this because my entire creative focus while I’m writing the package must be to “sell” the reply form — the offer, the premium, the financial challenge … whatever.
Why this approach?
Many donors are quite clever in the way they read their fundraising mail. They’ve read more appeals than most of us have written.
When a donor first looks at a piece of mail, he starts scanning. And he often reads the reply device to find out what the appeal is all about. Then he goes through the package and reads the letter and, if your appeal captures his imagination, he becomes motivated enough to send a gift.
But wait. After making that decision, the donor might put the reply device and envelope in a little pile of other bills to be paid. Then he finds it when he goes back to the pile — perhaps many days later.
By then there might not be such an emotional connection — no letter, no graphics. Just a tiny, naked and often ugly slip of a paper. What comes next? The trash can. On to other bills to be paid.
That’s why the reply form, all by itself, must be strong enough to rekindle that enthusiasm and re-ignite the passionate fires of emotion.
Ideally, you want the donor to make out the check immediately upon receiving the letter. If your reply device is so compelling that he can’t resist dropping everything and writing a check the moment he reads it, then you’ve achieved your purpose.
But get real
The vast majority of gifts are written during a bill-paying session. So let’s stop the world and consider the Basic Ingredients of the Reply Form. They are:
1) The name and mailing address of your organization and exactly how the checks are to be made out.
2) Statements concerning the tax deductibility and financial reputation of the organization.
3) A re-statement of the appeal in headline form. For example, if you’re raising funds for a new ambulance, the reply device might have the headline: “A Mercy Ambulance.” Whatever characterized your mailing package should be repeated on the reply form. Then you can have some statement that more fully details the nature of the appeal, such as, “Here’s my gift for the Mercy Ambulance and for all the other emergency needs facing our rescue squad.”
4) If you’re sending a premium, you might add a sentence saying, “Please send me one of your lifesaving posters on what to do when disaster strikes.”
Many times a reply slip will contain a picture of an individual who needs assistance, often the same picture that appears elsewhere in the package. Or the illustration can be that of the premium or, in the case of the rescue-squad appeal, a picture of EMTs in action at the site of a disaster.
5) The name and address of the donor.
6) If you’ve requested a specific dollar amount in the letter, this dollar amount must appear once again on the reply slip, along with an indication of the possibility of sending more than the requested amount.
7) If you haven’t used a specific dollar amount, you might still use dollar amounts with a box by each, such as $10, $25, $50, etc. The dollar string is a bore but an absolute necessity.
As often as possible, list a dollar amount that represents the amount the donor is most apt to give, plus a provision for a bigger gift. You would never put a dollar amount of $10 or $25 for your $100 donors, or $5 or $10 for your $25 donors.
And don’t do stupid things, such as reversing the order of the dollar string. People think from the lowest to the highest, not vice versa.
8) Along with the dollar amount, there should be a box indicating an “other amount.” This gives the donor a chance to make a larger — or, alas, smaller — gift, but it allows him some flexibility in the final decision.
9) To asterisk or not to asterisk? A good rule is to just always asterisk. Put the asterisk on the dollar amount that is higher than what you’re asking. Then place the other asterisk to the side or below, with handwritten text, such as: We urgently need folks like you to take a giant step forward and give this amount right now.
Make both asterisks big and bold. Put the handwritten text in a colored ink. Make it all pop out.
Making it grab attention
The reply device is a separate physical piece from all other parts of the mailing package. Use a contrasting color of stock and ink to make it stand out. Maybe put a black-dot border all the way around it. Come on — this is mail order. The purpose is fundraising, but the techniques are driven by commercial mail.
And the size? Traditionally, it comfortably slips neatly into a reply envelope.
Forget that tradition. Forget about those dinky little slips. Forget about neatness. What is the fetish against folding?
Let’s say you’re mailing in a No. 9 carrier, and the reply form must fit (or so you think) into a reply envelope, flat, and the piece will be about 8 inches by 31⁄2 inches.
“Gee whiz and golly,” you think to yourself, “how do I get all that copy onto that diminutive slip of paper?”
Your solution is simple: You use an eight-point typeface and eliminate all the margins and white space. Basically, you create a black hole.
And why? Simply because you have a pathological aversion to folding a piece of paper — or asking your donors to fold it. You need therapy.
I’m seeing reply forms these days that are 81⁄2 inches by 11 inches! And, sure, the nice folks in the mailroom will send a petition to the executive director. But what’s the purpose of the package? To keep the mailroom staff happy or to raise money?
* The basic question you must ask yourself before you design the reply device is this: “Exactly what do I want the donor to do?” And once you have the answer to that question, your reply device must carry it out. It isn’t simply a matter that you want the donor to send money, but you want the donor to send a certain amount of money, for a certain project, for a certain reason, for a certain premium, to reach a certain goal. For example, the following statement meets the basic requirements:
“I agree that Ashland must have an emergency ‘Mercy Ambulance.’ Please use my gift to help purchase the ambulance and support the other projects of the Ashland Rescue Squad. I understand that in appreciation for my gift, you will send me your poster, ‘Life Saving Techniques for the Home.’”
* Try using a numbered reply device. This gives a feeling of exclusiveness to the appeal.
* Avoid legal phrases. Even though the reply device can be worded in the terms of a contract, the phrases must not be written as though they were created by a Philadelphia lawyer.
* Upgrading and renewals: Slant your copy directly to an inactive donor — for example: “We miss you! We really do!” — for a renewal effort, or use it to pat major donors on the back or stroke others into major-donor territory.
* Use a bold graphic — a person, a scene, a symbol. Perhaps something that ties in with the letter.
* Put the donor name and address in a large font, and give the area around it plenty of breathing room.
* If you’re using a response premium, re-sell the attributes of the premium. Illustrate it. Puff it.
* And finally: The problem with some fundraisers is that they think their message is so sacred that it can’t be delivered in mail-order style. Get over it.
Your next assignment is to collect 100 reply devices from packages that sell products or services. Study them. Report back.
Jerry Huntsinger is experimenting with telepathy to offset rising postage costs. Until he works it out, he continues to work as a freelancer and as senior creative consultant at Craver, Mathews, Smith & Co. You can e-mail him at email@example.com.