The person you ask to sign your appeal may well wonder... "Why does professional direct mail sound so weird, mate?" The short answer is: it's got a bloody job to do!
The doctor I interviewed for the hospital's next appeal was great.
[BTW: Chris Davenport has a new tiny-but-deep book on interviewing techniques. You'll want it handy if you're gathering stories for direct mail. I have four decades of interview experience, and I assumed I was pretty good at the subtle art ... until I read Chris' book. Turns out I had a LOT to learn. This is a survival guide. It costs $7.95.]
The doc and I got into this geeky discussion of recent neuroscience and how it bends behavior. He uses neuroscientific tactics with his patients, to keep them on their meds. I use similar tactics with donor prospects, to gently guide them to give.
Still, my doc's no direct mail expert.
He can fix my broken heart, using video-assisted, minimally-invasive thoracic surgery. That's his training.
Can he raise money via correspondence?
That is NOT his training. Yet I need him to sign MY letter, a letter I wrote, to be sent out over HIS signature.
Is there room for misunderstanding? Yeah.
Direct mail appeals are unlike any other writing on earth. So, to prepare him, I listed some of their "strange but true" aspects in the brief below.
Maybe you'll find it helpful the next time a letter signer looks at your draft appeal and exclaims, "Yikes! That doesn't sound like me!"
Here are some of the odd things that make direct mail function well:
- Direct mail appeals are not brochures,with lots of details about the charity and its programs. Insiders care about that stuff. Outsiders don't. "Nobody is interested in what you do," Stephen Pidgeon, FInstF, insists in his essential book, How to Love Your Donors (To Death). "Fundraisers love to describe their charity's wonderful work, the detail of what happens in the field or laboratory, what my small gift will buy if I donate, how their staff colleagues are organized to deliver the work, and so on. Nobody is interested in any of it; nobody is interested in what the charity does." Why listen? Stephen built a major direct mail firm in the UK and ultimately sold it for a very handsome penny. He truly knows his stuff.
- Good direct mail appeals have a few standard components. They always have "entertainment value" (often a story, or intimacy: "Let me take you into my world."); that's what keeps people reading. They have multiple requests for a gift (inertia is a BIG problem, so you beat readers over the head with "asks"). They have a conversational voice: the letter signer talks directly to the letter recipient. The pronouns "I" and "you" are common. The pronoun "we" is rare.
- Neuroscientists have observed in the lab that making a gift to charity lights up a pleasure center in the human brain. A good direct mail letter, therefore, "models" that act for the reader, by suggesting it repeatedly. The reader begins to envision the gift, and in envisioning starts to feel the pleasure.
- "You" is the most important word. It is classed among the top 20 or so "power words" in advertising because of its magical ability to raise more money.
- Effective direct mail appeals aren't really about how wonderful the charity is. They are, instead, about how wonderful donors are. Making donors feel important is Job #1. It's called "donor-centricity."
- Neuroscience has discovered a very useful thing about our brains: "Even when people perceive that flattery is insincere, that flattery can still leave a lasting and positive impression of the flatterer." In other words, you cannot overdo donor love.
- You wear your heart on your sleeve. Sounding corporate or technical will not raise faintly as much money as sounding warm and welcoming. Read Jeff Brooks's brand new book to get the drift. You'll have no real defense against your overbearing boss unless you read somebody like Jeff.
- Or Dr. Adrian Sargeant. Researchers like Adrian, who did his tests with National Public Radio, have found that so-called "social information" - such as how much others have given - leads to bigger and more gifts from average donors. Who knows that from the seat of their pants? No one.
- Direct mail deeply respects reader convenience. Good direct mail is highly "skimmable": short words, short sentences, short paragraphs.
- Professional direct mail - littered as it is with sentence fragments, ellipses (...) and grammatical no-no's such as sentences that start with a conjunction - would earn an "F" in 10th-grade English class. But the teacher-approved products of a 10th-grade English class fail miserably in the mailbox. I write my direct mail appeals at the 6th-7th grade level, as scored in Microsoft Word on the Flesch-Kincaid scale. It's not "dumbing down." It's "speeding up." The lower the grade level, the faster the read.
- People tend to skim the underlines first, eye-motion studies show. So we underline key messages. You should be able to read JUST the underlines and kind of get what's being asked of you. Corollary: you don't have to underline the entire phrase you wish to emphasize. Since the eye sees "word clumps," the NON-underlined words to the right and left of the underlined words will also be read.
- For the same reason, direct mail letters use devices like bullet lists and ultra-short paragraphs ... because they make it easier to skim.
- There are two types of letters: "renewal" and "acquisition." Renewal letters are sent to people who have given previously. Acquisition letters are sent to people who have not. Those who have given before are likely to give again, often without even reading the letter. But it is very difficult to acquire new donors.From a mailing of 200 professionally-written appeals, maybe 10% will open the envelope. And from that 10%, only one gift will come in ... for a one-half of one percent return. (And yet the math works, if you retain that new donor for awhile. The real money comes in subsequent years. The biggest gift a donor ever makes is usually around the 6th-8th gift, says Harvey McKinnon, the da of monthly giving.)
- Certain phrases, like "tax-deductible" (which reminds readers that you're a true charity), are repeated often, so they won't be missed.
- We write (and review) these letters at a slower-than-1 mph pace, blood dripping from our pens. Readers, though, read at 100 mph. Zoom! Things that are said just once tend to be overlooked. When you read direct mail at 1 mph (listen up, reviewers!), it can sound choppy. That choppiness disappears at 100 mph.
It's not an echo in your head, faithful readers. A version of this article appeared last year about this time, to help with the year-end appeal panic. There's a good chance a similar update will appear in 2016.