Direct Mail Fundraising

Donor retention: a tale of two cold mailings

This post is my submission for February 's non-profit blog carnival. This month it is being hosted by Marc Pitman at Fundraising Coach. Marc wants to know "How do you keep your donors wanting to come back?"

There has been a huge number of blog posts and articles on retention at the start of 2013 from a variety of respected authors. It's a crucial topic and fundamental to our profession, but what I haven't seen is too many real life examples and results. That's why I wanted to share some of my own recent findings.

A tale of two cold mailings

A couple of months before starting my current role my charity undertook a cold mailing. It did ok, but the donors were put straight into our established mailing programme.

Ten months later we used the same list for another cold mailing. This time we put in place a simple and structured donor journey for the first few communications. 

The aim of this was to:

  • Identify the best prospects to become long term supporters
  • Secure regular gifts
  • Decrease the number of donors only giving once
  • Identify donors who will only ever give once  - an important but often overlooked part of fundraising as it reduces your costs going forward

The results show the importance of having a welcome process and donor journey planned for any recruitment you do.

Cold Mailing - no welcome process - 15 months later

  • 64% of donors have given once
  • Average income per month, per donor is £1.12
  • Average income per month, per active donor is £3.08
  • No donors have a regular gift.

Cold Mailing - welcome process - 5 months later

  • 73% of donors have given once - I predict after 15 months this will be close to 50%
  • Average income per month, per donor is £1.20 (6% higher)
  • Average income per month, per active donor is £4.49 (46% higher)
  • Eight per cent of donors have a regular gift - so far we have had no attrition

There is a caveat that these results are based on a small numbers of donors and are not statistically significant. However, they show that big improvements are possible by implementing a simple process. 

Our simple welcome process

Simple donor journey
Room for improvement

The above is by no means perfect.

We can, and should, make better use of the phone and e-mail and we left it longer than I would like between some of the steps. We can also think about what else we can do for the non-responders to boost response.

The long term impact

As we did it in-house then this process is quite labour intensive and it does increase costs in the short term. However,  by my calculations the donors who have had the welcome process will have donated double the amount of the other donors by the end of year two. A huge difference that more than justifies the initial effort.


Does a personalised approach make a difference? Results from two tests

I wanted to share the results of two small experiments I've conducted in the last couple of months regarding personalised thank yous and appeals. 

I hope you'll find them of interest, though I need to say upfront that the sample sizes were (very) small and so the results aren't statistically significant.

Does a handwritten thank you card increase response to the next appeal?

For the first experiment we randomly split the responders to a previous appeal in two.  One half received our normal personalised thank you letter, the other half also received a hand written thank you card, which referenced their previous giving.

As well as being a nice thing to do for donors, I was also interested to see if those who received the extra thank you would also be more likely to give to the next appeal.

The results were as follows:

Normal Thank You: 28.1% gave to the next appeal.

Extra Thank You: 29.2% gave to the next appeal.

Interestingly, the normal thank yous gave more collectively than the previous appeal, whereas the extra thank yous gave slightly less!

So it appears not to have made any difference in the short term.  If I had the resources then I would love to monitor the long term effect on doing this to the lifetime value of a donor.

Does a personalised Christmas appeal increase response?

In the next test, we decided to send a personalised version of our Christmas appeal to our top 400 donors (they'd all given over £50 gifts in the past). 

We included a handwritten Christmas card featuring a poem from a beneficiary - you can read this lovely poem online.

Last year the response rate across all segments of the appeal was about the same.

So far the response rate is over 25% higher for the high value donors than all other donors.

With responses still coming in (I'd expect we have around 66-75% of responses now) then the top segment has responded at 13.2% compared with 11.7% last year, so by the end of the appeal I'd expect to see a 30-40% increase in response to sending the handwritten Christmas card to the top donors.

A pleasing result and one that we can look to utilise for future appeals as well...




How many donors do you REALLY have?

I've recently stopped writing to around 3000 'donors' and somehow managed to raise more net income from my latest appeal.

Am I a miracle worker? No.  It is just the fact that they weren't really donors in the first place...

It can some times be hard to let go of people on your database and stop writing to them, but you have to do it.

My charity is probably an extreme case, as once you had given to us you were classed as a 'donor' and received every mailing until you told us to stop or (as was usually the case) died. 

The worst example I've found is someone who gave £5.00 in 1995 and has since received 73 mailings without giving again.  Mark eloquently explains the problems with this approach in his 'Tragedy of the Commons' post.

Using the excuse that they might give again or they could be legacy prospects isn't good enough.  When I did some analysis on these past donors and the response rates then we'd been losing money for years by continually mailing them and would never re-coup that investment.

What I did for the latest appeal is to simply split the file into three segments.

  1. People who had given after 2010
  2. People who gave in 2008 and 2009.
  3. People who had given at least five times, but whose last gift was before 2008.  

I used some extra personalisation to customise the asks, but essentially that was it.

The results?

I spent 33% less.

Net Income was about 20% up.

The first segment responded at 30%, the second at just over 5% and the bottom at 2% (still losing money overall).  I'm convinced we can improve these figures even further in the future by amending the bottom segment and reducing the number and type of mailings to them.

Now, before you get too excited with the 30% response rate read Jeff's post on donor retention.  He describes perfectly the problem we have:

"One of the hallmarks of a dying donor file is amazing retention rates, superb campaign response, and other excellent loyalty measurements. These numbers all get better and better as the file atrophies. When you aren't getting new donors, those who stay with you longest are your elite, the real believers."

So, my next challenge is how to attract new supporters to the charity!


The price of clarity is the risk of insult

I was annoyed to recently receive a bland piece of direct mail from an unamed charity that is undergoing a rebrand.

Their normal warm and friendly tone approach has been replaced by dull, insipid copy that appears to have been written by committee.

They deal with some serious issues but have done everything in their power not to use the words that describe exactly what they do.  Instead they've decided to use flowery, wishy-washy and vague language instead.

The result: boredom, lack of emotion and a letter that went straight in the bin.

After I had a rant to my girlfriend, I forgot about it until I re-read this quote from Roy H. Williams in his Wizard of Ads series of books:

"The price of clarity is the risk of insult."

Now I'm not advocating that you go out your way to upset people, but if you are going to get a response then you need to write in a way that people can connect to, and engage with, on an emotional level.

This means that every now and again you're going to upset someone.  For example, the subject might be too close to a supporter's personal experience and so brings back bad memories.

However, when this happens there should be a little part of you that is secretly, though slightly ashamed to be, pleased.  It shows that your words have created an emotional impact and that others will also have been moved to think and act.

I always remember a bereavement counsellor I worked with at a hospice.  She used to get really annoyed when people avoided saying 'dead' or 'died'.  She taught me (though others may disagree) that using euphemisms like 'passed away', 'called home'  and 'departed' could prolong the grieving process by allowing people to avoid facing up to their loss.

So next time you are worried that your copy might upset someone take a second and consider whether that is a bad thing?  The wizard suggests that it ain't necessarily so...

5 questions to ask your supporters

I'm a big fan of getting donor feedback and I've recently sent a survey to all our direct mail donors.

The front side had a few admin questions, but the second page had five free-text questions (avoiding tickboxes - thanks Aline) and the results have been fascinating and really helped me identify what's important to our donors.

The five questions I asked were:

1. Why did you decide to support our cause?

2. Do you, or anyone you know, have any personal stories or experiences of being blind or partially sighted?

3. In your opinion, what is the greatest contribution we can make to improve the lives of blind and visually impaired people?

4. Please let us know if would like more information on a particular type of blindness or information on services in your local area.

5. Do you have any suggestions on how we could communicate with you better or any ideas for future mailings?

These questions won't be suitable for every charity, so what questions would you ask your supporters and why?

p.s you can read some of the stories and quotes from the survey and I'd like to say a big thank you to @alo365 who volunteered to help put together the survey.



Response Form Design: More Important Than You Think?

I’m currently preparing my first direct mail appeal and I’ve been making some tweaks to various elements, including the response form.

Response forms are often overlooked or are an afterthought, but they are absolutely vital.  They need to embody the marketing concept of your appeal, as often it might be the first thing a donor looks at.  A badly designed one could seriously harm your results.

I’ve been trawling the net for advice on putting together a response form and most of the advice seemed to come from a guy called Alan Sharpe.  Alan seems to be a bit of an expert on them! You can read his free advice or check out his e-book on the subject.

I also had a question about number of prompt boxes.  We’ve always used five boxes and a ‘choose your own amount’ space and I wasn't sure if this was too many choices or if we could improve this.  I asked the question on Twitter and got the following great advice - thanks everyone:

Response form-Twitter

Following on from that I decided to change the headline we use on our response form, turn it into more of a narrative, laser in some different (and slightly higher) donation amounts into the body of the appeal and remove the prompt boxes completely.

I’ll let you know how I get on - fingers crossed it has the positive impact on average gifts that I hope.

*UPDATE* I completely forgot that I'd commented on this post over at Queer Ideas last year.  I should've just posted that, as it contains loads of useful tips and advice - including my own comments.  Luckily I've followed my own advice and included a comments box!

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it: what should you do when your direct mail breaks all the rules but still gets results?

That’s the question I’m currently facing in my new job and I’m torn.

Our current appeals break nearly every rule that you’ll see in a fundraising direct mail book.  In fact, I’m fairly certain Mal Warwick or Tom Ahernwould hold up the appeals as good examples of how not to do fundraising direct mail.

Our appeal letters to current supporters are wordy, hard to read, use complicated language, bury the ask (if they ask at all), don’t have a p.s., don’t use underlining, italics or bold to emphasise points and break just about every rule you could name. 

However, the results look pretty good: over the last five years response rates have never dropped below 10% and average gifts have increased year on year.

My big worry is that supporters have got used to our style and if I change too much, too quickly then they won’t recognise it is from us and will stop giving.  On the other hand, by making some changes it might be possible to increase response rates to over 20%.

Ultimately it will come down to testing and tweaking the appeals to maximise income, but it just goes to show that you can break the rules and still have some success...

I’ll report back on the changes I make and the effect they have on results. 

In the meantime if you have any ideas or suggestions then let me know.

Don't leave it too long to ask for a second date...

I’m a big fan of analogies between romance, love, dating and fundraising.  If a lot of charities treated their loved ones like they treated their donors then they would soon find themselves out the door!

Recent research by direct marketing agency DMS got me thinking of another analogy.

As reported in Third Sector, they found that the chances of a one off donor signing up for a regular gift halved if you left it longer than 60 days to ask.

Often charities are worried about asking too soon after a person gives for a first time.

However, imagine if you’d been on a really great date and were waiting for the phone to ring to be asked again.  If the person left it too long to get in touch then you’d think they weren’t interested and you might start looking elsewhere.

This research seems to suggest the same goes for donors and you needn’t be shy about asking them to give again relatively soon after their first gift.  You don’t want to be too pushy (which is why I wouldn’t recommend asking for a gift in a thank you letter) and too persistent if they say no (you’ll quickly spend more on mailing/phoning them than they originally gave), but similarly don’t leave it too long to ask for a second date!

Other articles on love & fundraising:

Love you audienceby Scribbly Bark

All is fair in love and supporter relationships by Amanda Santer

What love letter would you write... by Stephen George

How do you love your donors? by Jeff Brooks

Are your donors feeling the love? by Sandy Rees

Beware the dangers of fundraising 'puffery'!

A fascinating report over at Harvard Business Review on a great piece of consumer  behaviour research by Alison Jing Xu.

PhD student Xu was looking at the impact of puffery (an American legal term to describe overblown marketing promises made in adverts) on consumer behaviour and came up with some interesting findings.

In areas where people believe they have reasonable knowledge of a product then they see through such language and are liable to rate such a product as inferior to rivals, but the opposite happens when a person doesn't have such knowledge. 

Xu commented:

"What I saw coming through was that puffery seemed to influence people who are not major consumers of your type of product, but it turns away consumers who are experts or have relatively higher knowledge."

This has an impact for fundraising and direct marketing.

If you are targeting an audience who are used to receiving charity appeals then you need to make sure you keep the puffery to a minimum, as potential donors will see straight through it and are unlikely to respond.

In fact the article goes on to say that "research has shown that when people communicate positive and negative information, rather than just positive information in, say, job interviews, they gain higher trust."

If this is true for marketing, then it will go a long way to explaining the success of this CRUK appeal I talked about a few months ago, which kept the puffery to a bare minimum and got some fantastic results.

Latest Direct Mail Innovations

A couple of recent direct mail pieces have caught my eye and I thought I'd share them with you.

  1. Mail Media Centre

I received what looked like a book from Amazon through the post the other day and opened it up to see this:

Direct Mail cover


Lovely I thought.  Someone has sent me a free book. 

Direct Mail Inside


I then opened it up and it was a hollowed out book promoting their website

My first impression was that this was an expensive and wasteful way to promote a website, however it got me talking about it and I showed a number of my colleagues the book. 

The fact that i've spent so much time talking about the mailing and then blogged about it shows that even if I thought it was slightly wasteful, it was effective and got me to visit their website.  

The website is worth a visit and contains a number of good charity direct mail examples.

2. Pepsi & CBS Magazine Video

A recent article on DM innovation in Marketing Week reminded me about the Pepsi and CBS video ad  that appeared in an American magazine last Autumn.

The two inch screen showed clips of upcoming shows and advertised Pepsi within the magazine.  It uses similar technology to that used in birthday cards to play  music. The website of Americhip, the company behind the technology, is worth checking out for some great examples of multi-sensory communication.

Personally I think this is really exciting for fundraising and could revolutionise direct mail.  Imagine being able to send a short video clip with your appeal?  It would be really powerful, engaging and would boost response rates.

The technology may be prohibitively expensive for now, but the costs will come down and it may be within touching distance for a high value appeal sooner than you think.

3. Cardboard Record Player

Finally, I'm not sure of the fundraising applications of this package, but I thought it was really cool.

Cardboard Record Player

It transforms from a cardboard mailing package into an LP player.  It was targeted at creative directors at record companies and was relevant, interesting and a great talking piece.  I'm sure it will have been highly successful.