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What’s Old is New Again

How Direct Mail and Email can influence each other as they work together.

Let’s look at Direct Mail first. It still has a lot going for it. It demands response – even if only to recycle. It’s familiar to older demographics and can be a novelty to younger ones. And specialized agencies have spent decades refining direct mail technique so results can be very good.

But Direct Mail has some limitations too. It’s expensive compared to some other channels. It takes months to create, post and receive response and longer still to receive and analyze test results.

And now let’s go on to Email which also has a lot going for it. It’s inexpensive compared to mail, and easy to personalize and segment. Test results are close to instantaneous. And boy, is it useful for emergencies!

But it’s not perfect either. It’s easy to delete, hard to prospect and, quite frankly, because it’s cheap it’s quite often done in house – with poor results.

Direct Mail is the senior channel so it has influenced Email since the beginning. Your subject line and preheader text is your outer envelope. The month-long annual renewal strategies of direct mail can be utilized by Email in days or even hours - think Giving Tuesday. And how about indentation: paragraphs are indented in direct mail—and books! – to draw the eye into a paragraph. Why aren’t we testing this in Email?

And in a recent article in The Agitator stated something I’ve believed always. “Good copy pulls better than short copy regardless of the medium or channel.”

And Email can influence Direct Mail too. Direct mail thrives on ‘lift notes’. But who writes notes anymore? So I’ve used an Email as a direct mail insert. It’s more realistic. And why can’t we use the word “Unsubscribe” in direct mail? Everyone knows what it means.

Something else I’m doing more and more often is enclosing a 3”X 5” card. With an eye-catching graphic on one side, the other side reads “Why not take me to your phone, tablet, laptop, or desktop to make your donation right now.” followed by a unique campaign URL.

Direct Mail taught us to keep in touch with donors about the results of their donations. Think about how much better we can do it with Email, personalized to each donor and moving through time. Charity Water does this so well. Surf Lifesaving in Australia combatted face-to-face monthly donor attrition with an annual set of emails kicked-off by the canvasser who signed up the donor.

Direct Mail thrives on premiums, upfront and backend. It’s a bit difficult to use upfront premiums in Email but backend ones, such as a cookbook for UNICEF Canada or a tote bag for Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, work well.

Design in Direct Mail is important. If every package looked the same, results would decline pretty fast. Emailers are moving beyond templates to palettes for this same reason.

These OE teasers would work well with Email.

  • “Enclosed, your first real chance to tell the National Rifle Associate to go to hell.” Use of “enclosed,” (sure, why not!).
  • How about this one-word teaser from Canada’s Farm Radio International: “Radio”
  • “Your feedback is needed. Tell us your priorities for Canada.”
  • “If you love animals, you’ll want to see what’s inside.” Again, I see no problem with the word “inside.”
  • And finally: “A warm bed. A full bowl. A home. Is that too much to ask for?”

So there it is - Direct Mail and Email. Two channels that can influence and complement each other. If you test any of these suggestions, I’d love to hear your results! Until then, good luck with your fundraising and marketing efforts.







Steve Thomas is the Founder of Stephen Thomas Ltd, a full-service fundraising agency. He can be reached at