Why Does Good Direct Mail Sound So Weird?

The following article by direct mail expert Tom Ahern is published here with his explicit permission.

The doctor I interviewed for the September appeal was great. We got into this geeky discussion of recent neuroscience and how it can shape behavior. He uses it with patients, to keep them on their meds. I use it with prospects, to gently guide them to give.

Still, he’s no direct mail expert. And he’ll be getting a letter to review, a letter I wrote, to be sent out over his signature. Is there room for misunderstanding? Oh, 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 signatory 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.
  • 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 copiously present.
  • 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.” It’s exactly like “customer- 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 as much money as sounding warm and welcoming.
  • Researchers in fundraising, like Dr. Adrian Sargeant, 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.
  • 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 products of 10th-grade English class would fail miserably in the mailbox.
  • 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: those sent to people who have given previously, and those 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 one Canadian expert.)
  • 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 1 mph. Readers, though, read at 100 mph. 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.

More Insights from Dunham+Company: The IMPERATIVE of an Integrated Communications Strategy

 Find out how to effectively build online relationships that result in giving, as Jennifer Abohosh, Chief Strategist, explains the ins and outs of connecting on social media – Watch ‘Using Social Media for Growth, Engagement, and Donor Support’ from the Dunham Institute.