The Carrier’s Curse: Questioning, Testing, and Why Everything Plain Is Exciting Again

May 31, 2019


Raise your hand if you’ve been here: you’re mailing a package
with a heartwarming case for support, copy that hits all your marks in two
pages or less, all in a gorgeous, full bleed, four-color carrier. The package
is great, the message is strong, and your lists are ready to go. You’re so
proud of this piece, you even stick the carrier up on your office wall like
your kid’s A+ science test on the fridge.

In short, you think it is going to be your best campaign
ever—until you get results. Cue removal of package from wall, into recycling
bin (or, if this is really not your week, the fireplace).

If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. At this year’s
DM201 in Philly (and if I didn’t see you there this year, you’d better be there
next!), I was pleasantly surprised to see that Kerri Kerr of Avalon Consulting
and Dennis Lonergan at Eidolon Communications share my experience: I keep
falling in love with pieces that look modern and beautiful, like white
upholstery, but they all end up working about as well as, well, white

My beat is digital media, where the tricky, pretty bells and whistles on emails and online ads are seemingly endless. But why do the things we like keep losing out?

The first thing you need to do is test creative. Test carriers, test letters, test subject lines, test images, test everything. You’ll save yourself a headache while getting key learnings about your program and your audience.

But if you’re just
going out with one package, take these three tips:

  • Keep it
    . Colorful carriers with beautiful photographs of your institution or
    your collection sound great in theory (and they will make your co-workers in
    marketing ooh and ahh) but in practice, plain envelopes with a teaser keep on
    winning. Go simple and save on costs. After all, the only person you need to
    wow is your boss, and you do that with great results.
  • More is
    .Long emails and letters may
    seem counterintuitive—“who has time to read all that copy?”—but the truth is,
    they consistently beat shorter messages in testing. Your donors are skimming
    your letter or email whether it’s four pages or two or one measly paragraph. So
    make your case, and make it thorough—I promise, it works.
  • Let your
    cause speak.
    Which is going to win: the sympathetic teaser on why the life
    of a pig is worth saving, or the in-your-face teaser that vividly describes
    animal cruelty? The latter might be a turnoff for some, but it beat the former
    in response rate and average gift when the pros went to test. Other head-to-heads
    of more aggressive appeal language, with specific, tangible obstacles and
    enemies to achieving a conservation mission, beat out the more cooperative
    letter. So don’t pull punches in your copy!

But again, if you can: test,
test, test.
Not every result is true for every organization, every
audience, or even every appeal. To grow your program, you need to identify
what’s working for you and what’s not—that’s the only universal rule when it
comes to creative.

Because every once in a while, there’s an exception to the
carrier’s curse, and the package you love beats goal and does great.

So keep that space free on your wall a little longer. You never know when you’ll find an awesome piece of creative to hang there for good.

Nick Parker is a digital manager at Schultz & Williams, where he helps nonprofits raise money online. Reach him at (He promises to subscribe to your email list!)

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