Direct Mail & Email

Direct Mail & Email

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Direct Mail and Sustainers — A Challenge

When it comes to building a membership program, direct mail is a staple. This is no different when it comes to monthly giving. However, there are some limitations to what has been proven to work.

Since many sustainer programs are still young, some questions yet remain about what ultimately will work and not work for sustainers in the mail. A key thing to remember is the phrase "it depends." It depends on the size of your program, on your donor base, on when you send your mail, and on what kind of mail you send out. There is only one way to know which tactic will work best for you and that is to TEST, TEST, TEST. And remember, on mailings with smaller quantities, like renewals, you will likely need to test for several months to secure valid results to help you determine how best to move forward.

While telemarketing and on-air drives have exhibited great success in acquiring sustainers because they are more personal interactions that allow the chance to explain what the program is, and really engage in the idea of the power of simple, long-term support in a human, emotional setting – when it comes to direct mail, often a sustainer appeal will fall flat or can even suppress response.

Yet it's important to remember that even though direct mail in your sustainer program can be a challenge, it's still valuable to utilize this technique as strategically as possible to grow your program.

Don't forget that using direct mail also includes never promising your sustainers that they will receive no mail. Stations that have promised "green" or "paper-free" programs are already finding that they are limiting their ability to maximize future revenue by taking this important fundraising technique off the table.

This section contains recommendations on where best to place your resources in sustainer-focused direct mail and includes a number of sample campaigns that can be versioned for your station.

Renewal Mail

For decades, the most dependable donors on any station's file have been those who choose to renew their membership each year by donating through renewal mail. If a donor renews their membership each year in the mail, you can now make the case to them that sustained giving is easier for them, and that they can make an even greater difference by breaking out their donations over time.

While any station would love to turn all of these solid, and likely small, direct mail donors into sustainers, it's important to remember that many of these donors are older and have developed a longstanding habit of giving through the mail. There's one thing we know: donor habits are very difficult to change, which means that your traditional long-term renewers are going to be some of your most difficult prospects to convert to sustained giving.

That said, there are some techniques worth testing for implementation in renewal mail.

  1. Send a "Pre R1" effort the month before your renewal cycle begins specifically asking your donors to convert to the sustaining program. Also offer them the opportunity to renew early with their traditional one-time gift. Be sure that you have analytics in place to not only determine the response rate, but also to know how many donors converted and what the average upgrade is.
  2. Include an option to renew as a sustainer on the reply form on your main renewal series. Since renewal mail is such a steady source of income, be cautious here. For example, if you're just building a sustainer program and still need to explain it to your donors, including a sustainer option in renewal mail might confuse donors and suppress response. However, if you already have a robust and well-advertised sustainer program in your lineup, a sustainer ask string, checkbox, or buck slip are well-worth testing. Remember that for any type of renewal testing, you must typically test for 3-6 months to make sure your results are valid before rolling out the strategy to all donors.

Upgrade Mail

Adding sustainers to your program is just the first step in building a successful and growing program. Once these donors begin to give monthly, you'll want to maximize their value with targeted efforts to encourage them to donate a little more over time.

Similar to telemarketing and on-air campaigns, asking these donors to give just a few more dollars each month with their already active sustainer gift is an easy way to bring in what compounds to a lot more money each year. You'll want to send an upgrade appeal at least once a year, ideally twice. And if you find a mailing that works well, making it a monthly effort on a sustainer's giving anniversary can also be an effective and efficient way to approach upgrades in the mail.

The most effective type of upgrade mailing launched to date is a combination EFT conversion/upgrade mailing. This type of mailing has not only received extremely high response rates at a number of stations, but also shares the added benefit of converting more credit card donors over to Electronic Funds Transfer.

Other sustainer upgrade mailing samples can be found here.

Additional Gift Mail

Including sustainers as a segment in your additional gift mail is one of the easiest ways to reach out and ask for increased support. But it's important to keep in mind that "easy" is not always best. Very few additional gift campaigns have been proven to be cost-effective when it comes to generating additional revenue from sustainers. Here are some guidelines for targeted use of additional gift mail.

  • Don't exclude sustainers entirely, because it's important that they are exposed to the ongoing case-building you're setting forth in your fundraising program.
  • Do target sustainers at key, compelling times of the year such as calendar year-end or fiscal year-end.
  • Consider including sustainers on mailings that are more engaging, such as member challenges or member surveys for example.
  • Be sure to segment your sustainers and acknowledge them in your copy to create a connection and help build the case for additional support.
  • Always code sustainers separately for full analysis on how this segment performed.

Several stations have tested one-time additional gift asks vs. combo options to either upgrade or make an additional gift on the reply form, and have generally found that the combo option performed better. It's always good to test out these techniques yourself, as different stations and different markets may not perform the same.

Acquisition Mail

The vast majority of testing to-date has shown that including a sustainer option in acquisition mail can suppress response, keeping your expensive list or prospects from becoming your newest donors.

Unless you have a robust acquisition program and can risk a test panel to continue to dial in on this technique, it's best for now to not include a sustainer appeal in acquisition direct mail.

That said, when acquisition lists have later been overlayed with online responders, it has been found that many of your direct mail prospects will go online to donate, and a healthy number of them will then become sustainers when exposed to the idea, and the benefit of Passport, in your online space. So some of these prospects are still receiving the message. Be sure your acquisition package makes your website clear and accessible to the increasing number of donors who, even prompted by mail, will be more likely to go online to make their gift.