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25 Ways to Improve Your Direct Mail

February 18th, 2010 Posted in Fundraising

1. Write the call to action before you do anything else. It’s very un-Zen to say it, but fundraising is more about the destination than the journey. You’re going to arrive a lot more successfully when you know exactly where you’re going.

2. Think of 25 reasons why a donor should give to you. Then, get rid of all the reasons that are about you and not the donor.

3. Ask, “How would The National Enquirer write this?” The Enquirer knows the value of the amazing, the lurid, the outrageous, the unexpected — and it milks it. Are you doing that, or are you imitating “respectable” journalism, purposely keeping it as colorless and purely factual as possible? Guess which approach gets more readership — and raises more funds.

4. Ignore your brand guidelines. Your brand guidelines are meant to sharpen and define your message and make it consistent. But there’s a fatal flaw: The guidelines are all about you, not about your donors. They’re all about self-?focused communication, and that will hurt your fundraising. How can I say that, never having seen your brand guidelines? I’ve read a lot of nonprofit brand documents and not yet have seen one that’s nontoxic to fundraising.

5. Show, don’t tell. You’ve heard this in every creative-writing class you’ve ever taken. It’s good advice. It’s easy to assert that something is sad, or great, or special, or cutting-edge. It’s more persuasive to give the facts that add up to those things.

6. Overdo it. Be too dramatic. Too emotional. Too strong. Eight times out of 10, you’ll realize later that you didn’t overdo it at all. The other two times — well, it’s a lot easier to tone it down than it is to pump up weak and underdone copy.

7. Use your data. You know quite a bit about the people you’re writing to — their names, their cities, what and when they’ve given, and more. Use these facts to make your copy more personal and relevant. Just make sure you don’t sound awkward and robotic.

8. Flunk your English teachers. They meant well and taught you many useful things, but not everything they taught was useful. Paragraphs don’t have to start with topic sentences. Passive voice is not all that bad. Neither are sentence fragments.

9. Repeat yourself. Whatever it is that you want people to do, tell them that thing again and again and again. Repeat yourself because you don’t know if they ?understood or even noticed it the first and second ?times. Repeat yourself because hardly anyone ?starts at the beginning and reads straight through to the end.

10. Annoy yourself. You are not your donor. That’s one of the most important truths you can know, and it has a dramatic side effect: Messages that motivate donors very often will turn you off. Learn to make your own distaste a good barometer for effective fundraising.

11. Use a cliché or two. There’s a reason clichés catch on. They express things that people often want to express — in short (and sweet) ways that are easy (as pie) to remember. Fundraising isn’t creative-writing class; you aren’t going to lose points for lack of ?originality. However, you will get extra credit for motivating more people to give.

12. Use fewer adjectives and adverbs. If your nouns and verbs aren’t doing the job, adjectives and adverbs are not going to pick up the slack. Well-placed ?modifiers can add zing. But most of the time, they just make the copy harder to read — and make you sound like a huckster.

13. Omit huge numbers. Donors don’t want to solve a problem because it’s big. They want to solve it because it’s solvable. Yes, 24,000 children die from hunger-?related causes every day. That’s a mind-boggling fact. The fact that it’s mind-boggling is exactly why it’s a poor fundraising platform. Give donors the opportunity to save one life, and then another and another.

14. Use wrong grammar. I’m not suggesting you be churlish and deliberately make stupid mistakes. But sometimes getting it right makes you come across as a schoolmarm, which, unless you’re an actual schoolmarm, is pretty unsympathetic. For instance, correct use of “whom” doesn’t sound natural to most people (and it’s probably dropping out of English). Any correct grammar that people don’t commonly use in speech is a candidate for flouting. And if that’s too painful, just revise so you avoid the issue.

15. Replace at least one paragraph that’s about you. Instead, make it one that is about your reader.

16. Limit paragraphs to seven lines. Long paragraphs are forbidden territory. Anything more than seven lines is long. Most paragraphs should be one to four lines.

17. Break up long sentences. Long sentences are the main cause of thick, unreadable prose. Any sentence more than 20 words is probably too long. Keep ?sentences closer to 10 words. Or less. Really.

18. Read your copy out loud. This is one of the best ways to make sure your copy is clear, colloquial and easy to read. If you stumble while reading, sound pompous or arrogant, or just come across as an idiot, your copy needs more work.

19. Cut your first paragraph. I’m not kidding. It’s like magic. Most likely, your first paragraph is a warm-up — and your real lead is your second or even third paragraph. Give it a try. It’s one of the quickest and most surefire copy revisions I know.

20. Make the letter longer. I know you wouldn’t read a long letter. Neither would I. For all we know, nobody reads long letters anymore. But we do know long letters work. Every time I’ve tested this (except once a few years ago), longer letters worked better than shorter ones. Add another page, and you’ll almost surely get more response.

21. Use photos sparingly — but use them. They say a picture is worth a thousand words (personally, I think it’s more like 600). So use those pictures carefully. Too often we use photos that might as well be saying ?”lobster” a thousand times. Make sure the photos you use tell the same story as the words you write.

22. Underline stuff. And use bold. And italics. Emphasis and variation are great for readability. Just don’t overdo it, because too much emphasis turns out to be no emphasis at all.

23. Use black serif type over a white background. Any variation from this — sans-serif type, white type over color, even black type over a tint, colored type — will degrade the reading comprehension of your donors. This advice will make some designers very unhappy, but it’s a simple reality.

24. Use 13-point type for body copy. Hey, your donors wear bifocals. Almost every one of them. Would you rather be part of their daily struggle to read small type or a strain-free oasis in their day? Which choice do you think will make them more likely to respond?

25. Bypass most of your reviewers. Committees kill fundraising, systematically draining life and power from anything they touch, while bulking up the ?message with irrelevancies and worse. That’s just ?the way committees are. Work without committees, and you’ll see improvements — to your copy and ?your revenue.

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One Response to “25 Ways to Improve Your Direct Mail”

  1. Susan Reilmann Says:

    Your article made me chuckle more then once. We hire a free lance writer to put our newsletter together and she and my secretary are forever correcting my “creative” writing style – sometimes for the better I admit but often achieiving the “boring”.


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