Busting Direct Mail Myth #3

I spend a lot of time reading up on the latest "musts" of direct mail and talking to fundraisers about their programs, and I've noticed quite a few direct mail myths that just won't die. You can read my earlier posts debunking the first two big myths here and here. Today, I want to talk about the third common myth: Direct Mail is too old-fashioned for our donors. Pie might be old-fashioned...but it's still darn tasty!

Believe me, I understand where this one is coming from. We all want to think that our donors are different. They're special, more sophisticated than the average donor. They don't need all those underlines and bold and emotional language.


A few years ago, I wrote a letter for an organization run by a very respected, very intelligent scientist. He was widely published in prominent scientific journals and national newspapers and magazines. He was a great writer, and he hated the letter I wrote for them. Ripped it to shreds. He deplored the overly emotional tone and the use of 2nd person point-of-view. He was adamant that his donors would see through such a hackneyed ask and leave the organization in droves.

Naturally, I was upset. I had worked extremely hard getting the complex technical details in the appeal right and melding those with the kind of impassioned, personal plea I know works in direct mail.

The development staff and I sat down and discussed how to proceed, and eventually, we convinced the executive director to test his approach vs. my approach. The results were definitive in my favor.

Now, this guy was a Ph.D. He had a couple of decades of experience in writing about his subject on me. But he didn’t — at that time — know direct mail at all.

He took one look at my appeal letter and saw all the things a good academic writer is trained to avoid like the plague: hyperbole, simplified language, lots of “you”, too much bold and underlines.

But those things work.

Which isn't to say you can't inject some sophistication into your direct mail. Many of my clients routinely fundraise for incredibly complex and technical issues, and they get great results. But they use tried and true direct mail techniques, as well.

Remember, your primary goal is to get your direct mail opened and responded to, so make it easy for people to understand what you want them to do. That means bold important passages, underline key points, bullet your arguments, and include an emotional P.S.

And yes, dome of your donors will be put off by direct mail. It's important to remember that a large percentage of the population is not direct mail-responsive (including me!). Which is why it's critical to have many channels and opportunities for your donors to give.

Next week, I'll bust Myth #4 -- so stay tuned!