Direct-Mail Writing That Raises Funds, Part 2
Last week I promised to provide practical tips on writing direct mail. For some of you, writing direct mail is something you enjoy, and for others, it’s something you just have to do. But I think we can all agree on one thing: the direct-mail letter that doesn’t get read (or at least scanned) is unlikely to raise much income. People need to read the words we’ve carefully chosen to convey the need and our solution, but we can’t demand that of anyone.
So how do we write a direct-mail letter that screams, “Read me!”? Here are some tips based on what I’ve learned over the years. Caveat: I try to be very judicious about saying “always” or “never” because someone can always find the one exception. However, to avoid having to wrap everything in disclaimers, please know that these are suggestions based on best practices and if you search long and hard enough, you may find an exception—but the majority of the time, these will be true.
First impressions matter. If you wait until the last minute to figure out what to say on your outer envelope (the “carrier”) or just use the standard office No. 10 window envelope, you are most likely reducing your potential results. Flip though a stack of mail that came to your office or home mailbox. Does some of it just scream, “Throw me out!”? Does some immediately catch your eye and make you curious?
The promotional copy on the envelope is called the “teaser,” but some teasers don’t tease—they tell too much and the reader makes a decision about reading it or not before he or she even opens the envelope. If you are putting copy on the envelope, make sure it is intriguing and increasing an average person’s desire to open the envelope. The same is true for photos; they need to make a person want to look inside, not scare them away.
You can always go with the combination that feels personal and intriguing: hand-addressed, no return address and a real, live first-class stamp. If that’s over-budget, go for closed-face (no window) and computer-addressed, the return address on the back flap (and maybe the letter signer’s signature in the upper left corner of the front) and a live, nonprofit-rate stamp. Nothing says “junk mail” like a printed indicia or a meter (exception: when it’s on an oversized envelope that is intriguing just by being big).
Start off with the reader, not the organization. OK, now we have them in the envelope, so what’s next? We need to immediately let them know that the letter is for them, not just about us (the nonprofit). “This is a busy time of year here at XYZ Organization, and we are all working hard” may be true, but it doesn’t say to the reader, “Hey! Pay attention! This matters to you.”
Instead, talk about the reader. For example, “No doubt, you are busy getting ready for the upcoming holidays, just as we are here at XYZ Organization. In fact, we’re planning to serve more than 250 people this Thanksgiving season. That’s going to be a lot of turkey!”
Avoid opening with a question that the reader can’t answer or an assumption that they may not share. “Do you know how much turkey to buy for 250 guests?” is one of those questions. You don’t want to make the reader feel stupid, but you also don’t want to send him or her elsewhere to look up the answer. Assumptions can backfire, as well: “I know you are very concerned about the . . . .” If they are not (or are not yet because they haven’t read your letter), you may lose them before they get past the first paragraph.
Remember, your job in the opening paragraph or two is to say, “Keep reading; this is interesting and it matters to you!”
Pamela Barden is an independent fundraising consultant focused on direct response. You can read more of her fundraising columns here.