Tip: Photos in Direct Mail

The other day, a client asked what I thought about using photos in direct mail. I sat down to shoot off a couple-sentence answer and ended up writing several paragraphs about my experience with photos -- the good, the bad and the complicated.

The next day, I stumbled across this article from Jeff Brooks at Future Fundraising Now, which could have saved me a lot of trouble if I'd found it earlier! I agree with his advice to test, test, test...but here are some other thoughts I shared with my client about photos.

The Good

When you find a photo that tells your story, use it. The story should be clear at a glance, or easily understood with minimal text. Color is best, but black and white or sepia can be effective for some photos. People and animals work better than things.

The Outer Envelope, the Letter and Inserts are the best places for photos. But if you're going for an image on the envelope, it needs to be particularly strong. Remember, your number one goal with the outer envelope is to get it opened, so any photo you use has to be intriguing and compelling. And you need to follow up on that intrigue in your letter copy, or the people who open the envelope are going to feel cheated.

Offering a free gift? Include a photo of the gift. Inserts are great for this, and you see many organizations put the premium photo on the OE. But be careful that you're not over-selling the premium to the detriment of the organization and your cause.

MercyCorps is one organization that uses photos well, as is NRDC -- check them out.

The Bad

I have been involved in testing photos on OEs, letters, inserts and replies. Results were generally either even with no photos, or unimpressive, with a couple of exceptions like those noted above. It would be easy to assume that photos just don't work, but the real story is this: BAD photos don't work.

Photos of people standing around -- even important people -- are ineffective in direct mail. Got a photo of your executive director shaking hands with President Obama? Great! But please don't put it in your direct mail. Landscapes often make beautiful photos, but they're a difficult sell in direct mail...unless they tell that compelling story.

And even the best photos are no good if you have to run them so small that it's hard to tell what's in them.

Bottom line: if your photo isn't going to entice a donor to give, then you're better off without it.

The Complicated

If you're running the photo in color, that will mean additional printing costs. Be sure to check to see if you need permission to reprint it, and what kind of attribution you need to supply. Using more photos means less room for copy, so if you have a wordy copywriter or an organizational tendency to include a lot of information in your letters, you'll have to remember to cut.

I really do like using photos in direct mail. When done well, they can boost response and give your donors a great sense of what your organization is all about. But it's important to choose the right photo, put it in the right place, and test, test, test!


Tip O' the Moment

Reversed Out Type It's tempting to use reversed out type (white type within a block of color or black) on your marketing and fundraising pieces. It's popular with designers, and you see it on websites all the time. Saturating a page with color is eye-catching...and that's what you need, right? You want to stand out?

Um...not if I can't read the message. Lots of reversed out type is exhausting! Too much is too hard to read, particularly for eyes of a certain age (and those are the eyes that are most likely to respond to direct mail). Save reversed-out type for headlines, sidebars and other small bits of important text.

Your donors will thank you by actually reading what you send them...and perhaps they'll even reward you by responding.

Tip O' the Moment

Serif vs. Sans Serif Clients and the designers love sans serif*. And I love it too. I do. It’s what you see on the web, it’s what Tweets show up in, it’s sleek and sophisticated and modern.

But in a direct mail letter, it doesn’t work.

Sans serif is impersonal

Direct mail is supposed to look like (and read like) a personal letter. Nothing says IM-personal quite like blog-friendly sans serif type faces.

Sans serif is hard to read

Particularly for older eyes – the bulk of your direct mail audience – large blocks of sans serif copy are hard to decipher. If you want people to read your fantastic prose, go with a serif font.

Sans serif loses in testing

Admittedly, it’s been a while since I’ve conducted a serif vs. sans letter test…because the results were so decisive. It wasn't even close. Serif on letters works.

Save the sans serif for headers and fine print, and use a nice, readable Times New Roman or Courier for your letters. And make it 12pt. while you’re at it. Your donors’ eyes will thank you.

And if you’ve done a recent serif vs. sans test, I want to hear about it! Especially if it proves me wrong!

*Serif fonts have small finishing strokes on the ends of the letters (Times, Courier and Century are common serif fonts). Sans serif fonts lack flourishes (Futura, Arial and Verdana are common sans serif fonts).