Lessons From 30 Years in Direct Mail — Part I

[fa icon="calendar"] Aug 25, 2017 11:05:00 AM / by E. Michael Lawrence

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You remember 1987: the year of “Black Monday,” when the stock market lost over 22% of its value in a few hours ... Prozac went on sale in the U.S. ... we all became aware of televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Baker ... Robert Bork was Borked by a cabal of Senatorial midgets led by Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden ... and Lawrence Direct Marketing, Inc. was born.

Every cloud has a silver lining, right?

In this brief reflection on LDMI’s 30th Anniversary, I want to call your attention to a few things that have changed in the world of direct mail since 1987 — and to a couple of things that have not changed at all.

First, let me assure you, though, that if I tend to focus on the creative dimension of direct mail — copy, mostly — that’s not to say that design and art, lists, competitively-priced production, testing strategies and analysis of test results aren’t important. They are as important today as they were in 1987.

And though my focus here, and my preoccupation professionally, is on fundraising for nonprofits, that’s not to say the lessons to be drawn from these 30 years of direct mail don’t apply to commercial mailers.

Almost all of them do, and you know what? LDMI has quietly had a lot of success over the last three decades creating mailings for corporate marketers by following the same rules we’ve learned in the nonprofit sector.

First, what’s DIFFERENT today in the world of direct mail, compared to 1987?

Lots of things. Here are just a few that seem to me significant.

Costs

Direct mail used to be an excellent, reasonably inexpensive, medium for testing the viability of a new product or a new nonprofit organization. A new company or organization possessing some entrepreneurial spark could “bootstrap” the costs of a test that would accurately forecast long-term success or failure.

Not so much in 2017. The effectiveness of direct mail as a testing medium is undiminished, but costs have risen dramatically. First Class postage today is more than double what it was in 1987. The cost of what we used to call “Bulk Rate” postage has followed a similar trajectory (though presorting and commingling opportunities can somewhat ease the pain), as have printing and mailing services and list rentals.

If you want to do a direct mail launch in 2017, you don’t necessarily need resources as deep as a Buffett’s or a Trump’s, but you do need at least a pair of pants equipped with pockets.

“Doubling date”

If you were in this business in 1987, you probably remember that about 14 to 18 days after you dropped a “Bulk rate” mailing, you could count on having received about half of what would eventually be your total response. Today, it’s more like 30 days.

So what, you ask? What’s the harm in waiting a few more weeks? Well, in 1987, with much faster delivery of your outgoing mail and speedier delivery of responses, you could hope to do a test, first round of continuations, and maybe two rollouts in a year. That is, four waves of drops.

In 2017, it’s very difficult to squeeze out three waves in a year, and four is nearly, though not absolutely, impossible. If you pull it off, that’s a tribute to your or your agency’s very skillful mail schedule management.

And this means, of course, that it takes significantly more time now than it did in 1987 to recoup costs and build a database of customers or donors large enough to fund at least the minimum level of new donor/customer prospecting you need to survive.

So the slothful pace of today’s USPS is indeed a very big issue.

Donor availability

Here’s a final thought about the difference between 1987 and 2017 that looms large in our work here at LDMI:

The donor universe is shrinking. At least in the markets where we can claim expertise — politically conservative donors and “traditionalist” Christian (mainly Catholic) donors.

Back in ’87, people whose knowledge I respected used to say that there were some six million conservative direct mail donors “out there.” My educated guess is that today that number is more like two or three million.

I’m not quite sure how many Catholic direct mail donors were accessible on available lists in 1987, but I’m quite sure the number today is no larger, and I think probably a lot smaller.

And of course, you know this means the competition for those donors’ generosity is far tougher today. That makes a deep, detailed knowledge of the world of available mailing lists and their performance profiles — and sharply imaginative thinking about uncovering your donors’ profiles in “non-traditional” universes — essential qualities to bring to the complex task of managing a direct mail fund raising program.

In a subsequent post here, I’ll discuss a couple of things in the direct mail world that, to me, look pretty much the same in 2017 as they did in 1987 . . . and why that’s a good thing.

 

Topics: Direct Mail

E. Michael Lawrence

Written by E. Michael Lawrence

E. Michael Lawrence is the founder and president of LDMI. Mike has been professionally active in the direct response field since 1966, when he helped to launch Triumph magazine, a monthly journal of Catholic thought, through direct mail circulation promotion and fundraising. In 1976, Mike Lawrence joined Wiland Services, Inc., (WSI) a direct mail database management and data processing services company. He left WSI 11 years later as Executive Vice President - Operations, and a member of the company's Board of Directors, to form LDMI.

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