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Learn how to use direct mail to build relationships, build financial support, and lead to community change.


  • What is "direct mail"?

  • Why should you use direct mail?

  • What goes into a direct-mail package?

  • How do you put together a direct-mail package?

  • How do you know if the mailing was effective?


Image of a dirty envelope.


Many of us get direct mail every week at home -- translation: "junk" mail. If someone asked, "What do you do with your junk mail?" -- many would reply, "Oh, I don't even look at it. I just throw it away." But research shows that more people than you think look at "good" junk mail and respond to it. Well-designed and well -written direct mail sent to the right people gets a one-percent response. Even though this sounds very low, it's far higher than any other way of reaching large numbers of people who don't know about your group or initiative. That one-percent response can bring enough participants and donors to your initiative to make if effective and ensure that it is ongoing.

Even though we may have been annoyed by it at times, direct mailing is a strategy that is here to stay and one that organizations can and should use effectively. This section will define "direct mail," explain why you should use it, describe how to produce direct mail that people will read, outline the steps to set up a direct mail program, and explain how to test a program's effectiveness.

What is "direct mail"?

"Direct mail" is the term used to describe impersonal letters sent by bulk mail. The U.S. Postal Service no longer uses the term "bulk mail;" now it is called "Standard Mail A." For better understanding we will call it "bulk mail" for the most part in this section, since that is still the common practice.

Direct mail is not advertising; the role of advertising is to convey a message from the advertiser to a wide population. Advertising rarely targets individuals ; its message is usually intended to build awareness or to create demand for a product. The goal of direct mail is exactly the opposite -- the goal is to obtain information or a donation from the prospect. And instead of a variety of media, there is just one opportunity to reach the target audience with a direct mail package.

Letters addressed to an individual (e.g., "Dear Ms. Alvarez") or sent first class are not technically called direct mail, although these more personalized letters may have direct mail qualities in their look or style of writing. Direct mail is involved in two fundraising steps: acquisition of new donors and retention of previous ones. A third step (upgrading -- increasing individual donations) is done through more personalized mail and personal contact.

Bulk mail (a mailing of 200 or more identical pieces) is pre-sorted by zip code for the post office and receives last-priority processing. It is a relatively recent strategy used for fundraising. It was first used on a large scale in 1964 in the U.S. presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater. Through the following decade direct mail became a popular fundraising strategy that brought in the bulk of funding for many organizations.

Due to saturation of the market and people becoming used to it, bulk mail is considered less effective than it once was, but it certainly isn't going away. The effectiveness of direct mail as a fundraising strategy has been questioned over the years, but it remains the least expensive way for an organization to reach the most people with a message that people can read at their leisure. It can be very effective because it is focused, personal, and immediate.

Direct mail is one type of direct marketing. The other types are direct sales (e.g., going door-to-door to sell vacuum cleaners) or telemarketing (e.g., selling long distance service, health club memberships, credit card services, or aluminum siding ). There are seven reasons to use direct marketing:

  • Selling a product or idea
  • Conducting market research
  • Image building
  • Creating awareness
  • Generating and qualifying leads (to build sales or donations)
  • Introducing new products or ideas
  • Presenting special offers or pleas

Direct mail is part of "social marketing." Social marketing is defined as the application of commercial marketing techniques to the analysis, planning, execution, and evaluation of programs designed to influence the voluntary behavior of a group of people in order to improve their personal welfare and that of society. The goal is to make the desired behavior fun, easy, and popular. In contrast to the way products are sometimes sold to the public, social marketing doesn't involve devious manipulation or high-pressure selling of your "product" -- your group and its goals. It doesn 't involve compromising the ethics, services, or budget of your organization -- but it does help reach the desired audience and encourage the necessary support -- financial and otherwise.

Along with special events, direct mail is one of the best strategies an organization can use to develop closer relationships with its donors. Closer relationships with donors means more emotional investment in the organization's work, which means they will be more likely to establish or increase their financial investment in the organization.

Why should you use direct mail?

Today people are bombarded with advertising messages from TV, newspapers, magazines , radio, and the Internet -- so it can be difficult to get their attention. Direct mail is a way to do that. Direct mail can help build relationships that result in ongoing financial support, resulting in long-term change in your community.

Following are some reasons to use direct mail for your project. These reasons often refer to "sales,"but don't let that confuse you. Remember that your organization or project is a type of "product" that you are trying to sell to past and potential donors.

  • It is cost efficient. Studies show that, on average, every dollar spent on direct mail brings in 10 times that in donations or sales of a product. It brings a return of more than twice that generated by a TV ad.
  • You reach prospects that WANT to hear from you. Surprising but true, more than half of American households say they would actually like to receive more direct mail or that they would enjoy receiving some.
  • Consumers are receptive to direct mail.
  • Businesses are receptive to direct mail. 
  • It is a powerful revenue-building tool with a growing potential. 
  • It works.
  • It is flexible. You can mail anyone your message at any time, using any format. You can send postcards, letters, or brochures -- depending upon what your organization wants to use and the budget.
  • It can be focused. Mass media is more of a shotgun approach to a large, diverse universe of potential consumers. Direct mail, on the other hand, can be targeted to a single individual, at a single address. You know exactly whom you are speaking to. You can choose precisely the audience you want to reach and speak to them one-to-one. You aren't wasting postage on people not wanting to hear your message.
  • It has predictability and measurability. There's no guesswork. By carefully testing and tracking your mailings on a small scale you can effectively predict the revenues that will result from a large campaign. Additionally, the results of a direct mail campaign can be measured with precision. You know exactly how many pieces were sent out, who got them, how much each piece cost to send, and how many people responded. This information makes it easy to calculate cost-per-response. You can also track how many repeat donations were made, and how much was generated by mailings over a longer time period.
  • It is a unique, private message that the consumer can hold and think about. It gives them a message they can read at their leisure and think about for more than a few seconds. By reaching them through their personal mailboxes and not through more "public" environments like the airwaves or the Internet, it offers a unique message that speaks to them "in private." Other messages that aren't in print can be fleeting -- and much more expensive. If the message doesn't get across, the consumer will not respond to it.

What goes into a direct-mail package?

There are five components of the classic direct-mail package. These items will be described more fully later in this section. They are:

  • The Envelope -- it determines whether or not the letter inside is read. The objective is to make it look as though it contains a personal letter.
  • The Letter -- There are some simple principles involved in composing an effective direct mail letter.
  • The Reply Device -- This is usually a card that the donor can send in with their check. It has space for the donor to write their name, address, and indicate the amount they are giving.
  • The Return Envelope -- Use either a business reply envelope or a plain self-addressed envelope to add convenience to a potential donor.
  • Other Enclosures --These can include a lift-out note, an article, a memo, a fact sheet, or a brochure.

How do you put together a direct-mail package?

Following are the steps to produce a direct mail package. It's a good idea to walk yourself through all of the steps before beginning the planning process. You may need to work on some of the steps simultaneously before you can finalize the complete program. For example, the strategy, format, and budget all may weigh uponone another. A four-color brochure and an oversized yellow letter enclosed in a red envelope may be more appealing than a letter on white paper in a white, standard envelope. But that and the postage could put you way over budget, so you may need a strategy and format adjustment. Here are the planning steps:

Compile or buy a mailing list.

You can compile a mailing list or you can buy one. Many lists are rented from a list broker for a specific period of time, usually one year, with a limited number of uses. The list can be as broad as a phone book, or as narrow as a listing of couples 25-39 years old, who both work in blue-collar jobs, belong to Brand X political party, drive a six-year-old car that needed a fuel pump last year, have two children who go to inner city schools, and live on the east side of the street. The most important thing to keep in mind when you begin to compile your list is exactly whom you're trying to target.

There are several list brokers who will sell or rent lists of names. Other brokers can be found in the yellow pages of the phone book or through ads in direct marketing magazines. In some cases the brokers have compiled the list, but usually they are acting as the seller's agent.

Here are some tips to remember when buying a mailing list:

  • Always check references when selecting a list broker. Some brokers and list makers try to sell you lists that make them the most profit and do not pertain to your needs. Avoid them.
  • Do not save a list that you buy or rent (if you are authorized to use it more than one time) unless your organization maintains it. Any list more than three months old will be seven percent inaccurate.
  • Use a list only twice. You have gotten 90 percent of the responses you are going to get from it. Throw away the names of people who have not responded, and concentrate on getting new names for your "hot" list. The "hot" list is crucial to your direct-mail success.
  • Keep the list clean. If the addresses are inaccurate, it will cost you in more ways than one -- your package won't reach your potential donors (so no money will come in) and you will have wasted money on the mailer and the postage. The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) offers the National Change of Address (NCOA) service through a network of individual businesses licensed by the USPS. The cost generally ranges from $2 to $5 per thousand addresses checked. On a regularly scheduled basis NCOA licensees receive current change-of-address information that is used to update the NCOA database provided by the USPS. Check with your post office for the latest information on address correction services. For details go to the USPS website ( and use the search feature; enter "NCOA" to take you to the information.
  • Audit your list at least once a year. If you use it more frequently, check it more often. This maintains your "good" list of names, which cuts down on wasted postage and increases your likelihood of getting responses to your mail.

Lists can also be compiled from public records that are easily accessible, such as the telephone book or the Department of Motor Vehicles. You can find out such things as who just bought a new house, who just had a baby, or who just opened a business. Brokers can provide you with lists compiled by other companies that are very specific, such as who purchased what from which catalogs and how much was spent. Another source is the subscription list of a magazine that publishes articles on issues of interest to your organization; such lists are often for sale.

According to the Direct Marketing Association, about half of U.S. companies make their lists of customers and subscribers available. General interest magazines on news, sports, and entertainment usually have larger lists than special-interest magazines, but the lists will probably be less focused to your concerns. Trade and professional associations and local organizations sometimes make membership lists available. These are the most focused lists of all, which makes them the most useful to an organization trying to gain support on a certain issue or issues.

The main ingredient for a successful direct mail campaign is the list of people it is sent to. Compile or choose your list carefully. Be sure each person's name is spelled correctly and the addresses and zip codes are correct. A misspelled name can irritate a potential donor and cause them to send their money elsewhere -- or nowhere at all. An incorrect address or zip code can make the mailing undeliverable , and a waste of your organization's money.

Some organizations with lists of 5,000 or more names use list rental as a way to raise income. Many organizations are concerned that their donors will be angry if their names are sold. To ensure that this does not happen simply include this line in your newsletter: "From time to time we make our mailing list available to other organizations that we feel would be of interest to our members. If you prefer that we do not include your name, please let us know and we will make sure you do not receive any of these mailings." Be aware that some organizations do not sell their mailing lists. Also, do NOT steal or use mailing lists that are marked "Members Only." The names may be coded (e.g., "dummy" middle initials such as Bill X. Jones) so a member can figure out which list their name was sold from originally. Such a situation can become unpleasant and unproductive to your efforts -- avoid it. Besides being unethical, it could start a campaign against your group!

Lists are divided into three categories relating to the likelihood of people on the list to make a donation or react to your plea. The categories are Hot List , Warm List, and Cold List.

A Hot List consists of people who have made a commitment to your organization. In decreasing levels of "heat," the lists include: Current Donors (expect a 10 - 66 percent response), Lapsed Donors from the past two years (5 - 10 percent expected response), Volunteers and Board Members who haven't yet donated (a widely varied 5 - 100 percent expected response), and Close Friends and Associates of all of the above who are not yet donors (2 - 5 percent expected response).

Current Donors is an organization's hottest list; the second hottest is the Friends of Current Donors. A successful tactic for increasing the size of your list is to ask current donors to send you names and addresses of their friends. Some people will send in one or two names, most won't send any, and a few will send dozens. With a mailing list of 1,000 donors, you can figure on getting 200 names with such an appeal. For example, you might include a coupon in your newsletter that asks for new names for the mailing list. Some statisticians say that everyone knows 250 people; of these people 10 - 20 percent will be suitable prospects for your project.

A Warm List consists of people who have supported or heard of your services or initiative or similar ones but have not heard of your group. Expect a 1 - 3 percent response from them. If your organization gives advice or referrals over the phone or through the mail, it is a good idea to maintain a log of people served. If possible keep a log of names and addresses of these people; when they call, ask if you can send them more information about your organization. People that don't want it will decline to give their name. Each time you acquire 200 names you can send an appeal by bulk mail. Include in these mailings the names of people who previously donated but no longer do, if you know the address is still correct. If you conduct a special event always pass out a sign-up sheet (or have a door prize drawing if it seems appropriate ) to get names and addresses. Another type of warm list is one from an organization like yours. Many organizations will "rent" their lists to you for one mailing.

A Cold List is any list that is more than a year old or includes people about whom you know little or nothing. An example of this is the phone book. This is the least useful of lists, so focus on the Hot and Warm lists.

Plan the goals and strategy for your direct mail package.

It's important to have specific goals in mind before you start production of the package Consider these questions in planning the goals and strategy. Remember that they tie in closely with the format and budget.

  • Is your goal to raise money, to generate interest in working on your project , to generate awareness on an issue, or all of the above?
  • Who will the package go to and what do you want the reader to do in response?
  • Will it go to prospective or current members that you want to convince to make a donation? Do you want them to come to a meeting? Do you want them to help on a project or event?
  • What is your objective? Don't send a brochure if a postcard will do. Don't send a letter if a brochure is necessary to convey the message.
  • Does your message require more space, more detail, and a larger format than you anticipated? If so, you might consider reducing your mail quantity. Consider that sending an incomplete message to more people, rather than a complete message to fewer people, may lead to disappointing results.
  • What type of mailing would interest your target audience? If you know they receive lots of "business mail," consider sending a larger envelope or a colored envelope rather than the standard #10.
  • Is the mailing going to their home or business? Is it screened by an administrative assistant or family member before it reaches your target?
  • What is the product, cause, service, or event? The piece should fit the project and the prospective donors. For example, you might not want to mail Fortune 500 executives a one-color flier, and likewise you don't want to solicit funds for a charity with a tight budget by sending an expensive-looking, glossy, six-color brochure.
  • What can you afford? The budget will affect all other aspects of the package , so it must be considered carefully -- and early in the process.

Decide on a format.

There are a number of formats for a direct mail package. The format dictates how artwork and copy will come into play. The copywriter (and art director, if your organization is large enough to have one) will need to know exactly what format you are using , since it affects how much room they have to get your message across. Each piece you include in the package should clearly state the offer or appeal.

Each successive step adds cost, but also effectiveness in increasing the number of readers who respond to the package. Deciding on format can be done simultaneously with the next step of determining the budget; these steps work hand-in-hand. Increasingly, many direct mail pieces (regardless of format) refer target audiences to Internet websites for special announcements and additional information.

A big problem in creating and reviewing a direct mail package can come if you do it by committee. (Author William Bly asks, "Do you know what a moose is? It's a cow designed by a committee.") If you don't use a professional to create the package, there is the risk of using a committee composed of people who (a) don't know what direct mail is, (b) don't know how it works, or (c) don't know what it can and cannot do. For example, a committee might decide to cut a three-page letter to one page because someone thinks the target reader "won't read long letters." Decisions like this usually come from assumptions based on personal prejudices and reading habits -- and not facts. Be careful here. If you unknowingly (or knowingly) challenge the research of direct mail pros, you could waste a lot of time and money.

Following are format choices for your mailing:

  • Postcard -- inexpensive and a "fast read," although it's not as private to the reader.
  • Letter -- allows more space for the message, but it adds expense.
  • Envelope -- they come in all sizes and flavors, the most common being the #10 (an 8 1/2 inch by 11 inch sheet folded twice fits nicely in it), 6 inch by 9 inch, 6 1/2 by 9 1/2, and 9 inch by 12 inch, among others).

Types of Envelopes

  • Envelopes come in white, manila, rainbow colors, and/or with a clasp. Research shows that a brightly-colored, over-sized envelope with a first-class stamp gets more responses than a plain, standard envelope with a bulk mail stamp. Many mailers routinely use custom-sized and designed (and costlier) envelopes to gain immediate attention and prompt opening.
  • It may be worth a test to see if a custom envelope with a premium price justifies its cost, versus a standard-sized envelope with the same message. A cost-to-benefit analysis is necessary in making your decision. In any case, any size envelope gives you the option of a personal, more costly "closed-face" carrier with the prospect 's name/address on the surface.
  • A "window" carrier with the name/address appearing on a piece inside the window and showing through is another option. A window envelope saves the expense and time of printing and sticking labels.
  • Self-Mailer -- a less expensive option with the letter forming the envelope when folded and secured closed. Additional pieces can be inserted in the self-mailer.
  • Brochure -- include this with a letter to further tell your story in pictures and/or drawings to accompany the words in the letter. Four-color printing (very expensive) is often not necessary; one or two colors with crisp photos and clean copy is usually satisfactory.
  • Lift-out Note -- include this with a letter (additional expense), or a letter/brochure combination. A lift-out note or letter is enclosed with, or stuck on the letter. It can be written by a board member, a key person in the project, or someone who has already been helped by the work of your project. It can have a handwritten look to it, and should be in a different style and/or color from the letter or brochure. For example, you could print the lift-out note in a handwriting-style font on a pink sticky note and attach it to the letter. Or the note could be on a folded, colored sheet of paper with a "teaser" message on the outside to encourage the reader to open and read it. The purpose of the lift-out note is a further inducement (with information not given elsewhere in the package) to donate money or time to your initiative. It is considered an additional influence for people who are "on the fence" about participating.
  • Response (or "Order") Card -- important in continuing the "selling" process. It states the benefits of the donation and suggested levels of membership. It makes it easy for donors to join or donate by filling in the spaces for name, address, phone number, and amount of donation or credit card information (whichever is applicable to your organization). Then all they have to do is put the card in the reply envelope, stamp it, and drop it in the mail.
  • Return Envelope -- adds convenience to a potential donor with a negligible cost to the organization. There are two styles: business reply envelopes (BRE) and plain self-addressed envelopes. The BRE includes return postage to make it most convenient for the reader to send a donation; the organization pays the postage (which is about twice as much as first-class postage), but it is only paid on those envelopes that are returned. The donor pays postage on a self-addressed envelope, which is slightly less convenient for the donor. The percentage of responses to a mailing declines significantly if a self-addressed envelope is not enclosed. For low-budget organizations , BREs are not necessary; fewer organizations use them as consumers have become aware of the cost.

Determine the budget.

Format, color, packaging, and postage are the budget factors for your direct mail package. A general rule to use in budget planning is that the donations you receive in response should at least equal the cost of the mailing. Experts say you are doing well if you get a 1- percent response; it may be as low as.025 percent or it may be higher than 1 percent.

  • Format -- if you have a lengthy, extensive story to tell (the cost and benefits of your program) you may want to send a 4-color brochure that gets the message across. If it is a reminder to your current donors that you want additional donations, a postcard could be enough. You might decide that a simple business letter with a #10 envelope is appropriate. The business letter costs less than the brochure, but you must match the format to the goals you set. Cheap doesn't mean cost-efficient. Most experts say that using a business letter in a plain envelope just because you already have the stationery is not a good justification for your strategy, and can leave you with an unsuccessful mailing -- which means low response. So, the appropriate format should guide your budget, but not be dictated by it.
  • Color -- even a postcard is enhanced by it. Most experts have concluded that color increases effectiveness. But it also increases costs by a long shot. Carefully consider the cost of a jump from one to two to four or more colors.
  • Packaging -- anything other than standard envelopes can be a costly item. This is an important part of budget planning.
  • Postage -- size, shape, and weight of the mail piece will determine the postal cost. Ask your post office about the options or go online to their website. Computerized bar-coding and other cost-saving processes are worth asking about. See their website for details. Remember to factor in the cost of the reply card included in the mailing and envelope postage.

Create the package.

Some organizations do the creative part in-house, and others use agencies. But there are other ways to make this project work within your budget. For example, an organization member might have a daughter or a nephew who just started art or journalism school and would like the experience of designing a direct mail package. An agency usually costs more, but professionals may be able to bring a level of quality to the job that can't be matched. You may have a member or a friend of a member who is a professional willing to donate his or her skills and time to design and write the pieces.

Answer these questions as you plan the design of your mailing:

  • How elaborate or complex do you want the message to be? For example, how many pieces will go into the mailing? Will any of the pieces be printed in color? Will you have a message printed on the outside of the envelope to "tease" the customer?
  • Is there a corporate or organizational image or logo that needs to be considered?
  • What should be the tone of the copy? For example, do you want it to formal or more casual and friendly? Slick or more down-to-earth?
  • Does the style of the package look obviously computer generated? If it screams "mass mailing," it's likely to go unread. Personal touches as simple as a rubber stamp by hand, or addressing a letter to "Mr. Jorge Ortiz" rather than "Resident " go a long way.
  • Do all of the pieces fit the envelope? The envelope may fit postal specifications -- but do all of the pieces (letter, reply card, lift note) fit inside? Is the reply envelope too small for a check to fit inside without being folded? (For example, if the recipient has to fold a check to fit it in the reply envelope and you use an automatic envelope opener -- it could slice the check in half. The same goes for an order form or reply card.)
  • If you send out 10 mailings each year, do they have an established, well-received look or brand identity that needs to be maintained? (For example, is there a logo, a certain color or print style, a layout style, a photo that is always included, a type of paper the piece is printed on that is readily recognizable?)
  • Have several people proofread all of pieces in the package -- several times? Proofreading the piece cannot be overemphasized. Often the person who writes the copy is not the right one to proofread it. Think of it this way -- the writer knows what was meant, and will "see" what was supposed to be there. But that may not be what is really there.

Remember that the later you get in the design process, the more it will cost to correct an error or make a change. Copy and photo changes are easy and inexpensive in the creative stage, but are increasingly expensive the closer you get to the print stage; it could destroy your budget.

Pre-press set-up costs will vary based on color or black and white, size, the degree of detail in the package design, use of artwork, and the format in which it is received by the people doing the work. For example, a completed, high-resolution document on a computer disc is in a virtual "ready-to-go" condition and saves you money. Art, copy, and layout pieces needing assembly will cost a lot more to put together.

Be sure to double check reply phone numbers, zip codes, and website URLs (the website address that begins with "www" or "http"), as well as spelling and grammar. In phone numbers or URLs, one digit wrong is the same as every digit wrong. If you use photos or illustrations be sure you have permission to use them; you may have to buy full rights from a stock photo house, the photographer, or illustrator. Arrangements may also need to be made with models and their agents.

Print it.

The printer will estimate printing costs for you based on four factors:

  • Platemaking -- This is a basic cost in offset printing. It will not vary much from printer to printer and will not be a significant factor unless you are printing a small number of pieces.
  • Press time -- Most printers have many presses that can accommodate all sorts of jobs. They vary in quality, so ask to see examples of their work before deciding on a printer. Prices may vary based on labor cost and the volume and size of the print run. The more lead-time you can give the printer, the more flexibility the printer will have in scheduling. (Translation: If you're presenting a job at the last minute that you need tomorrow -- you probably won't get it. If the printer's schedule is full there's nothing he can do to help you.)
  • Paper -- This is a cost variable that you can control to a certain extent. Paper is expensive, but there are choices you can make that are appropriate to your project. There is a correct paper stock for most print jobs; this should be part of the overall considerations made in the budgeting process. For example, a 4-color brochure is usually printed on cover stock, which has a firm feel that lends substance to the message. A letter should be printed on good stationery, but a fact sheet can be on lighter stock. Recycled paper is an option to investigate. When you state "printed on recycled paper" on your mail piece, you're helping the environment and showing what you stand for. It is cheaper than other stock papers, but consider that not all presses or inks will run well on recycled paper. Ask your printer for advice on this decision and look at work samples.
  • Minor alterations, major costs -- As mentioned previously, changes in art or copy at the creative stage are usually easy to do and relatively inexpensive. At the prepress level, they are costly because new film and plates have to be made and reproofed. At the print shop level the cost is much higher because all of the above must be done, and you may be charged for press down time that was reserved for your project. A general printer's rule is the "50-500-5000" Rule. Figure that each change at the creative level will cost about $50. At the prepress level, figure $500, and at the press level, plan on $5,000. These startling numbers should "impress" upon you that it's best to finalize early in the process.

Mail it.

Mailing costs are determined by how you mail your item. First-class mail usually has a higher level of response, but it costs much more than bulk mail. The cost for mailing services is affected by the volume of the mailing, the number of steps involved , and the difficulty in handling. Budget considerations that go into your mailing are:

  • cost of the mailing list
  • merging and purging of the mailing list
  • coding and running mailing labels
  • inserting letters into envelopes, labeling, sorting, and packaging
  • postage

Costs can be cut as much as 6 cents per piece by buying an annual bulk mail permit , presorting mail, bar-coding, and maintaining your mailing list. The savings add up very quickly particularly if you do several mailings per year.

Also, don't be "postally ignorant." Your direct mail package may look great, but if it doesn't comply with postal regulations with regard to size and weight, it's a waste of your money and time. Get the guidelines from your local postmaster before you begin designing.

Follow up.

Always thank the donor immediately after you receive their donation. Besides being courteous, it lets them know you received it. This also opens the door for them to ask questions about your initiative or even make another donation of time or money .

How do you know if the mailing was effective?

If you plan to construct a building, you should test the soil where you plan to build. In direct mail, you can't build a successful campaign before sampling the potential supporters of your initiative. There are two reasons to test: (a) to save you from disaster by assessing viability at a minimal expense and (b) to improve your average response rate and thus maximize your financial return. You know if your direct mail package is effective if you test it and then track the results.

When you test a mailing (whether you test the offer, the mailing list, or the package itself), you have a great opportunity to learn a lot. What sets direct mail apart from more traditional media is its ability to be tested. You know exactly who the mailing is going to; this is different from advertising that goes to a broad market. In a relatively short period of time, testing helps you determine if your mailing is effective before you spend your whole direct mail budget. Testing gives you a better indication of what works, what doesn't, and valuable insight into creating a better and more successful direct mail campaign.

Let's say you have been mailing postcards to potential members from time to time and they have brought in a number of donations. What would happen if you sent them a brochure instead? With direct mail you can test both and find out. Do a sample mailing and send half of the people on your list the postcard and the other half a new brochure. By testing a small group now, you can avoid costly mistakes later. In this example, the postcard is the "control." The control refers to the mail piece that's been the most successful for you. If the brochure brings in even greater response, then that becomes the new control -- against which all your other direct mail pieces will be measured.

Why test?

Basically, to save you from making costly mistakes. When you do a test mailing and it does well, you can then "safely" mail it in greater quantities because you 'll have a good idea how it will do. Being able to predict how it will do is a valuable tool that makes a significant difference.

What do you test?

If something can be mailed, it can be tested. The best factors to test are those elements that will have the greatest impact on your response rate. Maybe you've been mailing a postcard and decide to test an offer and a letter. If you get a huge response , how do you figure out which was the responsible factor? Was it the offer or the letter? Test one element at a time and you'll always know.

6 key things to test are:

  1. Offer (if you give, you get this benefit)
  2. Cost (or donation level -- $25, $100, $500)
  3. Package (how it looks -- color, type of paper, size, pieces included)
  4. Copy (the words you use)
  5. Timing (Is Summer better than Spring? Is Fall better than Winter?)
  6. Mailing List (who the package goes to)

When should you test?

  • When you want to fine-tune a successful mailing for even greater results
  • When your return-per-mailer isn't as high as you had hoped
  • When you have new creative ideas that you think could do well, but you need further justification for them
  • When you want to expand your market with a wider list
  • When something in your package changes, such as cost, offer, or types of payment accepted (check, credit card)

Identifying your variables

It is crucial to carefully identify the variable in each test. Select the names randomly that you're testing to maintain your control of variables; this helps you get valid results. For help in setting up testing, check with list brokers or other professionals who already have systems set up. Basic rules for testing include:

  • Code the mail pieces to identify them. (This can be done with a unique letter or number code on each piece.)
  • Test only one variable at a time.
  • Keep track of the names used.
  • Use sufficient test quantities.
  • Mail the test lists at the same time.
  • Don't accept test results blindly.
  • Repeated mailings succeed in the long run, single shots don't.
  • Use a statistically significant number of samples so the test is valid.

Since all variables cannot be controlled, keep your testing and tracking methods as simple as possible. By testing only one element at a time, you'll make things much easier for yourself and get more reliable results.

Test a statistically significant number based on the size of the overall mailing you have planned to produce valid results. The larger the test sample, the more reliable the results. A general rule in testing is that in order for a test to be "analyzable ," you should receive a minimum of 50 responses to the mailing. On a 5,000-piece mailing, this represents a 1- percent response rate, which is very respectable.

Examples of format variables to test:

  • postcard vs. self-mailer
  • standard envelope vs. larger envelope
  • postage stamp vs. bulk imprint
  • window vs. closed-face envelope
  • lift-out note vs. no lift-out note
  • return card vs. no return card
  • brochure enclosed vs. no brochure

Examples of copy variables to test:

  • headlines vs. no headlines in the letter
  • bullet items under the headlines vs. no bulleted items
  • personalized salutation vs. not personalized
  • teaser on envelope vs. no teaser
  • decide who signs the letter
  • handwriting in the letter margins vs. no handwriting
  • testimonials vs. no testimonials

Testing Don'ts:

  • Don't send a mailer to someone who already got it in the final rollout test.
  • Don't make major decisions based on minor results; if there's no clear cause and effect, don't assume one exists.
  • Don't read non-tested factors into the results. If you didn't test a variable , don't assume it contributed to the final result. For example, if you didn't test the copy, and results were disappointing, don't blame the copy. Stick with the results and make improvement where necessary depending on tested variables and results.

Tracking the results

To ensure your direct mail program is achieving your objectives, you must track the results. This means tabulating how many responses you get and determining whether different classes of targets behave differently.

Track whether your target recipients donate or not, how much they donate, and how much you have to spend to get them to donate. Don't forget to follow up quickly. Timing may affect response, so roll out the package quickly after the results are analyzed. If you don't understand how to do testing and tracking, get a professional to help you do it. It could be well worth the money, and help you avoid disaster.

In Summary

Research shows that well-designed, well-written direct mail sent to the right people gets a one-percent response. That one-percent response can be more than sufficient to bring in enough participants and donors to your initiative to make it effective and ongoing. A one-percent response is higher than the response received by any other media. Direct mail is a strategy that is here to stay and one that organizations can and should use effectively.

Direct mail is not like advertising sent to a wide population, because it targets individuals to obtain information or donations of time and money. Direct mail is part of "social marketing" -- the application of commercial marketing techniques to programs designed to influence people's behavior and improve the world. In contrast to the way products are sometimes sold, social marketing doesn't involve manipulation or high-pressure selling. It doesn't compromise the ethics, services, or budget of your organization.

By following the steps and pointers discussed in this section (mailing, strategy, format, budget planning, follow-up, testing, and tracking), a direct mail program can significantly help build relationships -- resulting in ongoing financial support and long-term change in your community and our world.

Tim Brownlee

Online Resources

FundRaiser Family of Donor Management Software

Nomm de Plume The How-To Resource for Business

Print Resources

Andreasen, A. (1995). Marketing social change: Changing behavior to promote health, social development, and the environment. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Klein, K. (1996). Fundraising for social change. Chapter 6: Using direct mail and Chapter 7: Variations on the mail appeal package. Berkeley, CA: Chardon.

Stern, G. (1996). Marketing workbook for nonprofit organizations. St. Paul, MN: Amherst H. Wilder Foundation.