Have You Tested These 5 Assumptions Lately?
Testing is about the most basic best practice we have in direct marketing. It’s how we measure what works and what doesn’t. How we capitalize on success and avoid repeating mistakes.
In fundraising, it’s critical because if there’s one lesson we’ve all learned over and over, it’s that direct mail is counterintuitive. Logic and common sense do not apply. Except when they do.
Fundraising is different because we ask people to give us money in return for nothing more than a good feeling that won’t last. In our transactional society, that makes giving an irrational act.
But fundraisers are human beings. And it’s our nature to want things to make sense. So, despite all evidence to the contrary, we keep using our logical, rational brains to try and predict when and how people will make an irrational decision. Where’s the logic in that?
This is why we test. We can’t depend on our own feelings and perceptions to know what donors are likely to do.
For example, ever since 1235 A.D., when the Buddhist sage Eihei Dogen wrote a letter to raise money for a monk’s training center in Japan, fundraisers have known that a simple person-to-person letter is one of the most effective ways to generate revenue for an important cause.
And for almost that long, people have been tinkering with this simple, elegant format. Again, it’s human nature to want to take a good thing and make it better.
So, someone decides to throw in a photo. Or some little trinket. Or an infographic that doesn’t relate directly to what the letter is asking. Or they decide the copy needs to be rewritten so the grammar perfectly conforms to the Chicago Manual of Style.
This is all great in principle. Of course, we want appeals to perform better. The problem is that every little “enhancement” takes the package one step farther away from being a simple, person-to-person letter.
To add to the confusion, there are many “improvements” that have become so entrenched in our creative practices we just assume they will always increase response rates, or raise gift amounts, or both.
But, just like in a relationship, it's the things we take for granted that come back to bite us when we least expect it. Here are five creative tactics we tend to throw into packages willy-nilly – but how long has it been since you actually tested them to be sure they still make sense for your particular organization?
1. Lift Notes
Yes, they probably are lifting your response rate. But are they lifting it enough to overcome the cost of the note? And are they raising the response but lowering your average gift?
As with lift notes, they're probably lifting the response, but at what cost? Do you find premium donors have less loyalty and are harder to renew? At the end of the year, did they cost you more than you gained?
3. Photos Embedded in the Letter
Sure, a picture is worth a thousand words, But sticking one right there next to the body copy makes your letter look less like a personal communiqué and more like an advertising piece that a committee produced.
4. Faux Handwritten Margin Notes
The emotional power of a letter depends heavily on appearance. If the “handwritten” comments in your margins look like Comic Sans or some other font everybody has on their computers, will your reader really think your letter signer scrawled it there on a sudden impulse?
5. Attached Reply Devices
When you print your letter on an 8.5x14” form, with a perfed reply flying the package through a window envelope, you can save a bundle in production costs. But no one is going to confuse that package with a one-to-one letter from the signer to the reader, no matter how much you personalize it.
To be clear, each of these tactics, and dozens of others, all work great for many organizations in certain circumstances. There's not a thing wrong with any of them. But to simply assume that they are a good idea — because they worked for you 15 years ago or everybody else is using them — is risky.
And these days, as every fundraising dollar becomes more precious, does it really qualify as due diligence?
Willis Turner believes great writing has the power to change minds, save lives, and make people want to dance and sing. Willis is the creative director at Huntsinger & Jeffer. He worked as a lead writer and creative director in the traditional advertising world for more than 15 years before making the switch to fundraising 20 years ago. In his work with nonprofit organizations and associations, he has written thousands of appeals, renewals and acquisition communications for every medium. He creates direct-response campaigns, and collateral communications materials that get attention, tell powerful stories and persuade people to take action or make a donation.