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

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 upholstery.

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 simple. 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 more.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!)