The only time I think much about death is when I lovingly write an obit for one of our long-time colleagues. Sadly, an incidence of increasing frequency.
Kevin’s post Is Your Direct Mail Funnel All Bookends did however bring forth some thoughts on preparing for death. More accurately, some direct mail insights gathered while implementing a death preparation process.
Lest you fear I’m about to wax theological, or spill forth lamentations on life, neither of relevance to fundraising nor meeting your numbers this year, fear not.
But, let me explain a bit.
Within the semi-organized landfill that’s our basement is a section of shelves filled with boxes and boxes and boxes of 35mm slides containing samples of great (and some not so great) direct mail packages and campaigns accumulated over my 60 years in this trade.
Why all those slides? Because in the years before 1997, about the time Microsoft ‘s PowerPoint could be easily created and displayed using the revolutionary new and easily available laptop computers, presentations were far more difficult to create and display. 35mm slides had to be prepared, sent out for film processing, and were then displayed through a projector. Thus, this layer of career-related landfill in the basement.
But I digress.
Some time ago, around my 82nd birthday, my partner Janice suggested since I’m still functional it might be a good idea to start whittling, distilling, tossing and otherwise bringing reduced but better order to my detritus in the basement. She shared some links to articles and videos on what’s popularly called “Swedish Death Cleaning”.
“Death cleaning’ is not about dusting or mopping up. It’s about a form of organizing. A process touted as making life in the here-and-now run more smoothly. But mostly it’s billed as especially helpful in sparing surviving spouses and kids the burden, trouble, and supposed guilt of going through and throwing out all the“ stuff” after my death.
Enter Kevin’s post. I was about halfway through death cleaning the direct mail slide pile when his piece arrived with its observations on Open and Keep Rates , some research findings and a bit of conjecture about the key and not-so-key elements for creation of packages, specifically guidance on having the recipient open ‘em and then hold on to them long enough to presumptively take some action So, with the hope I could add some observations to Kevin’s post, I spent the weekend looking through 60 years of successful packages I know worked very well because I both worked on their creation and saw the results.
My observations are drawn from a range of advocacy issues and organizations, fundraising offers, and variables like length, size, tone, etc. many or most of which were outlined in Kevin’s piece.
Among the many examples and types of packages reviewed.
- The launch of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s highly successful Sustainer Program offer as part thank you and part new offer to newly acquired direct mail donors. It involves a tw0-step series of thanks, recognition of the donor’s wisdom in helping the Center and an invitation to become a Sustainer –the first letter from a judge inserted in an envelope with a Probate Court indicia . The second, containing the invitation to become a Sustainer from Morris Dees, SPLC’s Founder.
- A series of upgrading and on-going appeals packages created for the ACLU in the ’80s aimed at attracting and continuing to appeal to Mid-Level and Major Gift Created out of necessity in a time the organization had limited staffing for fundraising but needed to attract bigger money. Those packages are notable for the depth of their content and length highly personal letters and “insider” memos – ranging from 9 to 21 pages.
- A winning advocacy campaign package aimed at attracting both money and massive numbers of petitioners demanding the French government release its patent for RU486 (mifepristone), known today as “the abortion pill”. Hundreds of thousands signed the Petition delivered in a truck load of boxes in Paris and in person by the Feminist Majority’s founder, Ellie Smeal. The French government released the patent for U.S. use and following more lobbying of a similar nature the FDA approved the drug’s use and distribution.
- The shortest political fundraising letter in my stack. A cold prospect piece from the Chair of the Democratic National Committee. “Dear Friend: There are two reasons I need your check and need it today: Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. Sincerely, Lawrence F. O’Brien, Chairman.”
OUTER ENVELOPES. Going to Kevin’s check list of features that impact Open Rate: Most were produced using monarch (#9) or regular (#10 ) size outer envelopes; the French petition package flew by 6 X 9 carrier , the weighty 9 to 21 personalized page ACLU packages were mailed in 8 X 10 outers. Except for the Probate Court indicia none employed a teaser. All the rest were designed using only the organizations’ logos on the outer envelope printed only in black or blue. All except the ACLU were metered, with the ACLU’s outer sporting a string of live postage stamps.
KEEP RATE FEATURES. All these packages were highly successful by the standards of the time they were mailed. But back to Kevin’s checklist on Keep Rate these were the positive impact of the packages I’ve described above. All except SPLC’s letter from the Probate Court judge and Larry O’Brien’s DNC letter (Judge was 2 pages; O’Brien’s ½ a page of copy floating in a letter-sized piece of 8 ½ X 11” stationery) were at least four pages long ranging from 4 to 21 pages.
None except the ACLU and SPLC packages were personalized. All except the DNC letter used donor or volunteer or expert testimonials. None required the recipient to fill in a response form. All but the DNC letter included a postscript, all except the Probate judge’s letter included the organization’s logo on the letter. All mailings used postage-paid reply envelopes with the live stamped reply limited to the ACLU mid-level, major donor mailings.
So, in the samples reviewed in my pile the packages met most of the criteria for Open and Keep Rates listed by Kevin and the research he reported on. In my case I benefited from the knowledge that the Keep Rate did lead to successful mailings.
Some General Observations from the Death Cleaning & My Working Experience
The details and techniques behind these general observations are much the same as those in Kevin’s post.
- Direct mail is a truly participatory art form. The package appears unannounced in your pile of postal mail. You have the option of opening or tossing it; keeping and acting on it –or not.
- Almost always it contains a letter, and sometimes other stuff along with a form or device by which to respond.
- Seldom do successful direct mail fundraising packages contain highly styled or artsy graphics. The top performing letters are usually 4 pages or more and easy to read because they’re broken up in readable bite-sized sometimes bold faced, sometimes underlined bits occasionally given emphasis with a handwritten note in the margins. In the words of Denny Hatch, “clutter invites”
- And it has enough clutter yet clarity to keep the reader moving along ‘til she reaches the reply form –or sets the piece aside which likely she’ll not return to.
- “I” copy tells the reader what the organization has done for drives me as an activist, a donor, or a volunteer. “You” copy aims to trigger the reader’s personal values that come from caring and giving. “It” copy if focused to much on organizational ego or statistics will do little to nothing and if not used sparingly and in tandem with “you” copy.
- All of this is why it’s wise to do everything possible to either employ or follow the advice of a proven direct mail creative professional. Because in the words of David Ogilvy “If it doesn’t sell, it’s not creative.”
You can learn or find (in much more detail) great advice on creating successful fundraising direct mail Tom Ahern’s books and his must-read newsletter packed with fundraising tips…or Jeff Brooks’ books and his Future Fundraising Now blog or the treasure trove of great direct mail copywriting contained in Denny Hatch’s latest edition of Method Marketing or his classic tome Million Dollar Mailings plus his rare and unique treat of wisdom and experience in his free marketing blog.
All these personal references in no way are intended to overlook the terrific, proven group of other veteran fundraising copywriters and designers like Barry Cox and Kathy Swayze among the cadre of both great creative practitioners and frequent Agitator readers.
Now, back to the Death Cleaning.
P.S. Once I’m done sorting I hope to have some of these great packages digitized to easily share with interested readers. Meanwhile, for some additional examples check out Ken Burnett’s “The essence of Campaigning Fundraising in 52 exhibits and 199 web links. “ on SOFII.