Lessons From 30 Years in Direct Mail — Part II

[fa icon="calendar"] Sep 7, 2017 11:05:00 AM / by E. Michael Lawrence

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In a previous post here, I discussed a few things in our direct mail world that have changed very significantly since I founded LDMI in 1987. Now I want to address two dimensions of the profession we share that look pretty much the same in 2017 as they did in 1987. And I suspect you’ll agree with me about the importance of these hardy perennials.

When I think about what’s the SAME in direct mail today as it was when I founded LDMI in 1987, I think about two things.

1. What makes good direct mail copy?

And my answer is pretty much the same as it would have been in 1987: Your copy needs to talk far more about “you” (the donor) — or one of the variants your, yours, you’re — than about “I” and “we.” 

Look at some of the direct mail copy you’ve produced, or a writer has produced recently for your nonprofit, and give yourself a report card.

Look at the first paragraph of the letter.

Does “you” or one of its variants appear in that first paragraph?

If the answer is, “YES, in fact it’s the very first word in the letter after the salutation,” give yourself an “A+.” Congratulations!

If the answer is, “YES, it’s not the first word but it’s in the first sentence,” well done. Give yourself a grade of “B.”

If you answer, “YES, it’s not the first word, and it’s not in the first sentence, but it’s at least in the first paragraph,” well, okay, it’s nothing to write home to your Mama about, but you pass. Give yourself a grade of “C.”

But if “you” (or “your” or “yours” or “you’re” . . . or even “y’all”) is nowhere to be found in the first paragraph of your letter, you FLUNK! Put an big fat “F” on your direct mail creative report card.

2. Direct mail donors are OLD.

(It’s OK for me to say this, because I’m old.)

You may not believe this, but if so, well, you’re wrong. Sorry.

Donors ARE old. The median age on many very productive donor lists is 65, 70 even higher.

Though you may feel compelled to admit that’s a fact, you may just HATE the fact, and you want to change it. You want to figure out how to move your donors’ median age down to, say, 55, or better yet, 45.

And if that’s what you’re thinking, I have some hard-won experience working with fundraising managers just like you who have felt this urge and asked me to help them accomplish this seemingly-simple task of moving the slider on their donor lists’ median age down a decade or so. Here’s some advice based on that experience:

— Be prepared to spend a lot of money. Mailing to lists of median age 55 (let alone 45) will be very hard to find and very expensive. Your cost of acquisition of a new donor will head skyward like a Bryce Harper home run heading for the upper deck. (And your Board will lament that fact, count on it.)

— You will fail. Count on this, too. Any nonprofit that’s got a big enough budget to build a median age 55 donor list (and by now you know the drill — let alone 45!) doesn’t need direct mail. They can just set fire to piles of money on their Board room conference table. 

And I’m quite sure your Board will grievously lament this conflagration, and will wonder why you lit the match.

You may be asking how I can be so sure of this, and I’ll tell you. The answer is confoundingly simple, once you decide to look at the issue unemotionally, with a cold eye for the facts.

Mailing lists of donors are old, because the population of people with disposable income sufficient to allow them the luxury of making free-will donations to good causes they approve of is demographically centered among old people. 

That is, donors are old because it’s old people who have the money.

They’re people who are blessed to be retired, living off their 401(K)s or other investments. Generally speaking, if the stock market is healthy, that’s when you want to be talking to them, because that’s when they’ll be receptive to you. 

And a lot more of them are going to be 65, 70, 75 or older, than 55, 45 or younger.

Fact of life. 

If you’d like to talk about this admittedly somewhat depressing fact — or about any of the other 1987 vs. 2017 comparisons I’ve touched on — please give me or Jim Lawrence a call, or drop us an email.

Thanks for reading. 

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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