Case Study: 50 things (at least!) not to do in your direct mail appeal

This is one of those blog posts where Jen says “You’re really going to post this?“. And I nod.

Now, my goal is to be helpful. Take a look at your own direct mail pack and see how it compares. Do you see some similarities? If you aren’t sure about something you are considering or have designed – comment and ask! Email me! Tweet me! I would be more than happy to make sure you don’t make ANY of these mistakes.

ALSO – I should add – I have no idea how this package performed. It may be the best performing acquisition package of all time but certainly I believe here are a number of ways to make it more relevant and meaningful to a donor.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you:

50 things (at least!!!) NOT TO DO in your direct mail appeal.

  1. White #10 outer envelope – almost anything BUT a white #10 will perform better.
  2. The tagline is horrible. It doesn’t ask a question, doesn’t intrigue. It’s a statement.
  3. “Personal”? Why is this word here?
  4. 3 colours? From a production perspective, it would be cheaper to do 2 colours – or 1 colour even!
  5. No return address.
  6. It’s a 8.5″ x 14″ letter/reply which I know is cheaper to produce but a full size 8.5 x 11 letter and 8.5 x 11 coupon is ideal and often/always perform much better.
  7. It’s printed 4 colour which gives the appearance to donors of being more expensive. (I’m guess it was printed digitally.)
  8. The type is tiny on the letter. At least make the type 12 point. 14 point is better.
  9. Too many mixed cases in fonts, upper case and lower case.
  10. Just say no to rock star signatures.
  11. A blue signature would at least make it look like someone signed it for real.
  12. The design/ placement of elements is all over the place.
  13. There is no personal story.
  14. 15,000 people, 300,000 people… a donor can help one… give us one!
  15. “It receives no government funding”? “It“? What is “it”? How about “we”?
  16. Epilepsy Canada is the only national…. really? They are the ONLY one?
  17. No indents. This should look like personal communication, not a business form letter.
  18. Directing potential donors online to read stories? You have their eyeballs now! Tell them one!
  19. 8 “you“s… ug. The BEST fundraising is always about your donor. Not your organization.
  20. Don’t direct people away from the appeal but asking them to give online.
  21. What and how much are you asking for? Why?
  22. What are you inspiring the donor to do/change? (aside from crumple this up and throw it out as quickly as possible)
  23. All of the changes in formatting (bolding and underlining) makes no sense.
  24. My donation is an direct investment? What?
  25. The PS is totally wasted. It’s a chance to reiterate your ask.
  26. BTW – what wrote this letter? definitely not a human.
  27. Mixing of fonts and cases and colours, oh my.
  28. Overall, there is no key message, ask or story. It’s a kitchen sink approach.
  29. Coupon: so small considering all of the information that is on it.
  30. “I won’t be quiet. You can count on my support” – not Affirmative, whose voice is this?
  31. Single and monthly jammed on the same side.
  32. Ask for one thing – single gift only OR monthly gift only increases your response rate.
  33. The type is tiny on the coupon.
  34. The spacing between lines for donor information is SO small – can you imagine being 85 years young and filling this out?
  35. No donor name and address is lasered on the coupon?
  36. Single donation: Yes! I want to continue the battle… this is a prospect piece (I HOPE!!!!) I will be joining the battle… not continuing it.
  37. Driving someone to pay online is risking that the donor will put the piece down to give maybe online later, which likely means they wont give at all.
  38. Stay connected: why should your prospective donor want your newsletter? I’m assuming this is a printed newsletter and not an e-newsletter.
  39. Monthly withdrawal – language is so transactional.
  40. Yes! I will invest in epilepsy… A donor doesn’t invest in any thing! They make change! They fix something!
  41. No reason or explanation or inspiration to give either a one time gift or a monthly gift.
  42. Back of letter: Photo – oh look a human! Eye contact would be way better.
  43. Tell me more about Tyler! I sense an important story there that as a prospective donor there, I want to hear, find out how I can help him.
  44. This information is completely lost on the back of the letter – make it a separate piece, let Tyler tell his story (or Rylie!)
  45. I don’t need to see the movie poster for “I heart shakey.” (BTW – what a horrible movie name featuring a child actor who has epilepsy!) Show me a bigger picture of Rylie.
  46. Tell me more about Rylie! There sounds like there is hope there!
  47. Back of letter feels like a dumping ground of information.
  48. Back of coupon – why is this here? Why am I constantly being told to go online to give or do anything? Also – BTW you left your low resolution “istockphoto” in the layout.
  49. The image of the website doesn’t really look like your current website…
  50. BRE: Testing shows asking someone to put a stamp on the BRE actually lowers your response rate.
  51. BONUS: Canada post can reject this envelope at processing – line of type needs to stay in a defined box on the left side.
Listen, we take direct mail very seriously.
We take donors time, attention and emotions very seriously.
If we aren’t helping charities tell the inspiring stories that happen around us every day, the stories that remind us why we work so hard, the stories that reminded us why we fell in love with that mission and instantly knew we HAD to do something to take it further, to make it better… Then we have failed.
Inspire your donors to care and give and love them when they do.

34 Responses to “Case Study: 50 things (at least!) not to do in your direct mail appeal”

  1. Lashonda January 31, 2014 10:01 pm #

    I constantly spent my half an hour to read this weblog’s articles or reviews all the time
    along with a mug of coffee.

  2. sushi vancouver bc January 28, 2014 7:43 am #

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  3. December 13, 2013 5:39 am #

    This info is a wonderful starting point for further
    research into the topic. Great post.

  4. Amber October 2, 2013 10:32 pm #

    Love your honesty and no B/S approach! I’ll definitely be subscribing to your blog. I work for an agency that is just starting to fundraise. We have no donor base and the ED wants to shy away from DM. What are your thoughts? Would you recommend an e-blast rather than snail mail given our $3000 fundraising budget?

    • John Lepp October 3, 2013 8:20 pm #

      Thanks Amber. Starting up a DM program from scratch IS or CAN BE expensive… that being said – likely you DO have people you could mail – board members, past and present, staff, past and present, maybe people who have given in other ways… also – the traditional audience for DM is different than people who tend to give online or by other means… you could do some pretty creative in house mail with $3000 though. It all depends on what the objective is. Good luck!

  5. Steve Lowe March 31, 2013 4:54 pm #

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. You made your already excellent article even more relevant and useful by addressing the comments one at a time. What a great idea and fine way to address us readers’ questions and concerns. Fabulous.

    • John Lepp April 2, 2013 1:24 pm #

      My pleasure Steve! That’s what we are here for – so ask away! Thanks for commenting!

  6. Rose March 28, 2013 10:56 pm #

    Great article with a frank and honest flavour. We don’t do a lot of bulk direct mailings, most always they are personalised based on what type of donation they’ve made. But I’m bookmarking this for the day I do venture into this realm!

    • John Lepp March 28, 2013 11:10 pm #

      Thank you Rose for commenting – i hope it does come in use for you – but personalized is always the way to go (so don’t do mass mailings if you can avoid it!!!)

  7. Mazarine March 28, 2013 9:33 pm #

    I love this post, and I love the comments too!

    Happy to link you from my enewsletter

    I hope more nonprofits can learn from your direct mail expertise!



    • John Lepp March 28, 2013 10:39 pm #

      thank you so much Mazarine! I hope so too! We are all pretty “shar-zies” over here…

  8. Claire March 28, 2013 12:18 pm #

    Thanks for this piece. The envelopes thing really caught my attention… I’d love to try something different, in theory, BUT there are a number of factors stopping me. The main one is cost – I’m at a very small organization and we have a backlog of standard letter-size white windowed envelopes, which I have to use up. I feel like these advice pieces are always aimed at people who don’t have budget restrictions! :)

    The other cost factor is that I think if I used anything that looked like it cost more than bog-standard, I’d get complaints from the donors. I realize that people who complain are engaged, but, I think it’s a risk. It’s really easy to give donors the message that the organization is wasteful with its resources without realising. I really think there’s something to be said for message and presentation being consistent – and in our case, I think looking like we do things on a shoestring is probably beneficial to our DM results (but I can’t say for sure)

    Anyone else have this problem? :)

    • John Lepp March 28, 2013 12:35 pm #

      first off Claire – let it be known we <3 small shops… hands down, you can touch your donors in ways the big orgs never, ever can! I personally find lack of budget forces us to be even more creative. It takes more work too but the rewards can be substantial. if you have a bunch of standard envelopes that you have to use up – let me offer some suggestions – use live stamps for your best donors instead of a preprinted indicia or post meter. Write on it! Write the return address on the back or a personal note on the front! Inside the pack – hand write the signature and in the margins where you want to highlight some important information – what else can you do to make the pack feel as personal as possible? Lastly, a lot of our readers are from small shops so feel free to ask your burning questions any time!

      • Jacqui September 14, 2013 4:03 am #

        Hi John
        Loving all this info you’ve posted! I’ve been told that if you have less than $100k to play with, don’t even try direct mail. But I’m thinking, from some of your comments, that you would say that’s not true? Help?! =)

        • John Lepp September 16, 2013 1:35 pm #

          Hey Jacqui! Thanks for commenting. Starting a dm program CAN be expensive, especially if you have no names and contacts. But almost every charity has contacts they could send mail to. Current and former staff and board, volunteers and event participants, etc. You might find you actually have quite a few people you could mail to. Acquisition tends to cost the most because of the low ROI, but if you are targeted enough, and have the right sort of appeal, it still works. Helpful?

  9. Manon March 27, 2013 7:56 pm #

    Hi John,
    #1 on the list was “anything but a white envelope will work” , any suggestions on colour, tips and tricks? I am looking to test envelopes this year and I’m trying to find my direction. If you have any results you could share, that would be great. Thanks!

    • John Lepp March 27, 2013 8:08 pm #

      Hey Manon. The majority of charitable direct mail – in Canada anyhow – is sent in a plain, windowed, white #10 envelope. It’s the cheapest option which is why it is done. Almost anything you test again it, quite likely would perform better. Taking away the window and making it a closed face, adding a first class stamp, doing a reverse window (window on the back), adding a full image, using colour stock, handwriting on the donors name, or your charity name and address, using handwriting fonts, etc… doing one or all of these things – even on a #10 – through testing will mostly likely lift your response. Even better – use a 9″ x 6″ envelope, or better, best – a 9″ x 12″… at the end of the day – it all comes down to “TESTING TESTING TESTING”. When we test, we learn. Until then, make no assumptions. Is that helpful?

  10. Matt March 27, 2013 1:17 pm #

    From a gift processing perspective, outside of asking for the name on the credit card, there is no where for a donor to fill out or verify their personal information.

    This seems like it could cause problems for the organization. If I was a donor and I sent in a money order and completed the form as fully as possible, the organization would have no idea who I was (no name on the money order, I didn’t use a credit card so I wouldn’t have filled that out, etc).

    I am hoping this information is coded in the support code number for their sake.

    • John Lepp March 27, 2013 8:09 pm #

      “I am hoping this information is coded in the support code number for their sake.” – you and me both Matt – thats my assumption but still… what a nightmare…

  11. Jim March 23, 2013 5:20 pm #

    I can understand Jen’s hesitation about putting this dissection online and identifying the charity that is sending it. Sure, it may be the best performing package they have and a lot of charities have awful looking controls that work (no names), but what if a charity churns pieces like this out and they are not getting wise counsel on other options. So many people believe that direct mail is dead or dying that believe many charities just assume the program can run on automatic. Why change a package when that can be expensive or why listen to advice when that will not stop the decline in revenue? It has to be the mantra that direct mail is a dead end, so why invest any time in fixing what is clearly broken.

    I have wondered, like Margaux, about other choices to give. I get the logic that once you have them reading the mail don’t give ask them to wait, because that is what directing them to give online is. I wonder how many organizations are testing to find out if that is what happens.

    I received an acquisition piece from a charity that provides services to a family member. John, I bet there were at least 51 things wrong with that piece. My favourite was that the letter asked for a different amount than on the coupon.

    • John Lepp March 24, 2013 4:54 pm #

      Thanks Jim for your additional thoughts…

  12. Tara March 22, 2013 4:29 pm #

    Good post and a reminder of what not to do in DM or what we should do in DM.

    Just a couple of comments:
    “It receives no government funding”? “It“? What is “it”? How about “we”?
    This was referring to the fact that Epilepsy Research receives no government funding, not that Epilepsy Canada receives no government funding.

    “Epilepsy Canada is the only national…. really? They are the ONLY one?”
    Again, this in reference specifically to research on Epilepsy only.

    • John Lepp March 22, 2013 4:41 pm #

      Good points Tara. I’m not convinced that the copy was clear enough on those points but I do agree with you. Thanks for pointing it out.

  13. Claire March 22, 2013 3:24 pm #

    This made my Friday – great reminders for everyone who manages a DM campaign.

    • John Lepp March 22, 2013 4:39 pm #

      Cheers Claire! I’m glad the post is helpful!

  14. Jen March 21, 2013 5:36 pm #

    Hey Margaux! You know that we are firm believers in integration. Love it. But I think the way to achieve it is with the tasty e-mail sandwich and/or the phone follow up. When the donor is on the phone, talk to them. When they are online, engage with them. When they are reading your DM, ask them to return it. It’s a way more natural in terms of messaging to stay focused on the conversation you are having right then and there. People are going to move between channels. so echo your offer in every open channel you have. But then the donor is doing what is natural, not being directed here or there or all over. It’s a subtle difference to have the channels open but not broadcast all of them in every open channel. Know what I mean? xoxo

  15. Margaux March 21, 2013 10:47 am #

    Ok, so I completely agree with most of this, BUT there is one thing that I would argue – in 2013, I think every piece of direct mail should leave the reader with a few options of ways to give. A phone number and a URL to a DEDICATED landing page (ensuring online response to the appeal can be measured) are a must because so many people prefer to move between channels. I’d say this is integration 101! If nothing else, I’d think it’d certainly be worth testing…

  16. Timothy W. Crane July 6, 2013 7:47 pm #

    I agree that the copy for the above letter was horrible. I do disagree, and yet agree with some things. I get a higher conversion with #10 white envelopes but “only if the whole letter package is handwritten). I also find in my data that a return envelope with no return address get a higher open rate in surveys done than with a return (but again only with handwritten packages). While many of your tips focus on design appeal, and I agree with them, I have found that a simple handwritten letter costs twice as much as color direct mailings, but convert at 4-900 % higher rates.


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