Direct Mail

Personalizing Your Nonprofit's Communications

Not long ago, Facebook unveiled a new feature with great pride—the "Year in Review."

The concept seemed brilliant on the surface. Facebook pulled highlights from your year and created a slideshow for you to share with friends. Problem was, the slideshow feature was completely automated, and it created the slideshow from WHATEVER you posted, happy or sad moments. For Eric Meyer, who lost his six-year-old daughter to brain cancer, Facebook automated a painful reminder of a trauma. Even worse, the automated slideshow ended with a default tagline: “It’s been a great year! Thanks for being a part of it.” 

Facebook is a dramatic example of an automation fail, but it serves as cautionary tale for the rest of us.

Let me start by saying that personalized communications are not the big bad wolf. Fact is, they work well. In fundraising, for example, testing has shown that increased personalization consistently yields stronger performance.

But many nonprofit organizations, in a rush to get to see the benefits of the personalization, make some pretty serious missteps. Personalizing your communications is meant to say to a constituent: "We know you. We care about our relationship." When the personalization goes awry, the exact opposite message is conveyed: "You are a number, and we use machines to communicate with you."

Here a few simple tips to make the most of your personalization efforts. 

1. Remember This Mantra: Garbage In, Garbage Out—The ability to execute personalization boils down to one key: the integrity of your data. If it is bad, then your communications will reflect it. Things to watch out for: incomplete fields, data in wrong fields, improper capitalization, incomplete donor history, wrong gender in record, etc. Err on the side of using data you can rely on 100%.

2. Test and Then Test Again—Many blunders happen due to sheer lack of testing. At M&C, when we test email, we conduct live sends to see exactly how the system will generate the email. Be sure to complete and personalize default information for those fields that are blank. Nothing worse than "Dear ." In direct mail, ask your printer to run off a few samples of letters and response forms to using names from your actual list. This is essential.

3. Turn to an Expert—Yes, DIY is all the rage, but this is one area where your organization would benefit from the counsel of an expert who has done this before ... and knows what to watch for. Ask around for a solid reference and ask lots of questions.

I advise you to start small in your personalization and build on your successes from there. And remember, the relationship is what's important. The personalization can simply help strengthen, or weaken, it. Use it for good.

Auditing Your Direct Mail: 3 Ideas for Improvement

A lot of nonprofits look to M&C to review and critique their direct mail. Creative audits are one of our favorite types of projects. It's gratifying when relatively small changes dramatically improve results, as is often the case.

Here are a few of the consistent pitfalls we see nonprofits make with their direct mail:
  • Trying to get too much in—A direct mail piece should have one primary call to action. Resist the urge to put the kitchen sink in there because you are making a larger investment in direct mail. Get your primary action in there early and often—and don't assume your readers will make it to the backside (sad as it is).
  • Being too focused on you—Yes, the mailpiece is coming from your organization, but you have to focus on the readers' needs and wants. Around here, we call that "meeting them where they are." And not expecting it to be the other way around. 
  • Letting "pretty" outweigh functional—Consistent branding is important but when the rules go too far, then they do more harm than good. A competent graphic designer should build standards that provide as much flexibility as they do limitations and that work with the full spectrum of channels. And if you're encouraged to use headlines or fonts that are hard to read, run. And run fast.  
Get in touch with M&C if you're interested in learning more about creative audits.

When Data Goes Wrong

It was the gasp heard round the marketing world.

Due to a database error, Office Max recently sent a direct mail piece that included "Daughter killed in car crash" in the address area. Another calamity followed when Bank of America addressed a recipient as "slut" in a letter.

These are dramatic (and hopefully rare) examples of data gone terribly wrong. In the case of Office Max, two databases had merged creating the erroneous fields. Bank of America had purchased a list containing the insult.

Whatever the case, these situations spotlight the importance of data integrity at every level. The fact is, much less egregious errors sour customers and constituents—even if they don't make headlines.

Here are some tips we offer clients as they decide what to include (or not include) in their appeals:

1. Less is more—If you're unsure of the donor giving history, don't take chances. Yes—including "supporter since 19XX" can be a powerful statement, but if you're wrong, it's offensive. You're better to be general and accurate than specific and alienating.

2. Gender is important—Be sure your staff isn't guessing when it comes to names. Names like Francis, Pat, Terry and many others are a wildcard. Talk about policies for data entry and confirmation and remain consistent.

3. Think of the total relationship—We write a lot of re-activation packages for nonprofits. We recommend against writing too much guilt into the package ... "I wonder why I haven't heard from you." The reason is, it's quite possible the constituent is interacting with your organization in others ways, volunteering for example. Or perhaps they've given at an event or told a friend or loved one about your work.

4. Check the data (or at least spot check)—Oftentimes, the list goes straight to the mailhouse without another set of eyes. Take a look at the file. Get a few samples of the actual lasering before it hits the post office.

In the end, it's not rocket science. The same tenets that apply in personal relationships hold true here. Acknowledge and be respectful of your relationships in every arena.