(This is the third post in our New Year, New Heights development series. Need to catch up? Click here for practical tips on improving your email program this year and here for an in-depth look at three reporting tools every nonprofit should have to improve their fundraising strategy.)
In today’s digital age, it might seem somewhat nostalgic to talk about direct mail. While it’s tempting to default to cost effective communication channels like email and Facebook, direct mail is still very much in play. Today, direct mail continues to be an effective way to prompt donors to take action. Knowing the methodology has evolved, how do we cut through email clutter and reach donors in a personal way via their mailbox?
With this question in mind, I went straight to EveryAction’s Product Manager, Jason Lott, who has over 17 years in direct mail experience, to talk about the challenges and the future of direct mail and the strategies every nonprofit should consider to ensure their direct mail program is at the top of its game.
1. You started out in direct mail almost 17 years ago. How has the industry evolved?
I first worked for the Shakespeare Theater here in DC and then moved to the Human Rights Campaign for almost 12 years before arriving at EveryAction.
At HRC, I was in charge of making sure everything was organized and running smoothly for their direct mail campaigns. We worked with external vendors, so as you can imagine there were a ton of spreadsheets involved.
When I started at EveryAction I knew one of the first things I wanted to work on was a direct mail planner to make some of that work easier. What are the things we can do to reduce that effort for nonprofits? How can we save them time and reduce the possibility of errors?
As conventional wisdom had it, mail out as much as you can to as many people as you can to maximize your returns. One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that nonprofits need to practice “leaner and meaner” mailing to maximize their net revenue. This means mailing your best targets - the people that are the most responsive and bringing in the highest average gifts.
With EveryAction, we’re fortunate to have canned and custom reports that give you everything you need. I often hear from other organizations that they're using thousands of source codes to track their donation attributions and audiences, but with the “direct response donor range reports” all that information is ready for you.
2. What are some of the challenges you’ve seen in the direct mail field and how is technology working to address these?
There’s often a lot of back and forth in direct mail. So say you’re trying to figure out who your audience is going to be and how to segment it. Someone creates a massive spreadsheet and then you discover some errors so you send it back with edits. Realistically, that’s never easy to do in Excel. It’s highly prone to user error and in direct mail, a small error could cost upwards of $50,000.
In EveryAction, our Create A List functionality is very powerful and the beauty of it is you don't even need to know how to do complex SQL queries. For example, the tool helps you target people that gave between $5-$100 in the last 12 months and all you have to do is select those options. It’s faster and drastically reduces the possibility of user error.
Furthermore, Create A List is the first step in creating a good direct marketing plan. And based off these audiences you then start to figure out how to break it down further. You can have all of it saved to come back to whenever you’re ready!
The reason we went with saved searches instead of lists is prioritizing users and ensuring they have the most up-to-date information. We don't want you to accidentally include someone that renewed yesterday when you're trying to plan for a renewal mailing.
3. Are there any digital tools that are absolutely necessary for nonprofits to run a successful direct mail program?
While using digital tools for your direct mail program may not be necessary, they’re incredibly helpful. Direct mail can be a bit of a dinosaur. It’s slow to adapt to new changes. Since everyone has been doing it for a long time it’s easy to be set in our ways. And while you may not need to change, it’s a disservice to your program not to use the tools that are available.
For example, in EveryAction we have a Direct Response Plan and our goal with this tool was to make it collaborative. Everything is in one system and allows for your entire team to make changes in one place.
4. What are some ways that people are able to innovate and stand out with direct mail?
The key part of direct mail is effective testing. With email it's so easy to do a lot of multivariate testing really quickly, get results back almost immediately, and make changes on the fly. But with direct mail it's a lot slower so you have to be cautious about the decisions that you make and the way to do that is through smart data targeting. That includes narrowing your message to ensure you're targeting people you know are already responsive rather than just sending out a mass email.
By using the Direct Response Plan in EveryAction, you can really innovate in selecting your audience and making sure you're sending to exactly the people you want. The segmentation step is really the meat of the plan; this is where you take your overall audience and you start to break it down into pieces. For example, you want to get to people that are renewal responsive in the first segment and people that have not been responsive in the second segment and so on and within each segment you can break it down even further into packages. This is your A/B/C/D etc. testing. We even have features to do continuous source codes and customized ask strings.
This is the part I get really excited about! What most people do is figure out all this on a spreadsheet and then send it off to somebody on their data team to run the SQL queries and figure out the numbers. Three days later you get the numbers back and they're not exactly what you want so you make some changes and the whole process starts again.
The other alternative is that you can set this up in EveryAction, hit the update counts button, and get results in under 2 minutes!
5. As nonprofits continue to innovate and their demands understandably evolve, how does that impact direct mail? In other words, what do you see as the future of direct mail?
A trend that I’ve seen lately that I think will continue to grow is multichannel fundraising. This means you’re not just sending out mail in a vacuum but it’s followed up with an email or phone call or social media. We’re really lucky to be able to complement our direct response tools with a great email tool so ideally nonprofits can have both of their email and direct mail programs harmonize.
6. Lastly, what tips or strategies do you suggest for nonprofits looking to up their direct mail game this year?
Be smart about your data. Make sure you really examine all the various segments you’re targeting and ask yourself if you’re spending time on audiences and segments that aren’t bringing in a lot of returns. At the end of the day the best piece of advice I can give is that it isn’t always about how much mail you’re sending, but who you’re targeting and how.
Ready to incorporate better testing and segmenting into your direct mail program? If you have any questions or suggestions, email us here!
Looking to take it one step further in revamping your direct mail program? Click here to schedule a free demo of EveryAction.