8 reasons your last direct mail appeal didn't work (Part 1)

By Wayne Gurley

1.  You mailed to the wrong audience.

Your mailing list is the single most important element for success in any direct mail appeal. A letter that might have worked gangbusters for some other organization may fail miserably for yours.

At the risk of sounding obvious, the best audience for a direct mail appeal are your active donors. Next best is lapsed donors (those who haven’t given in at least a year).

Keep in mind that the further away in time from a donor’s last gift you get, the worse your response will be. With most of our clients, we can’t go much further than five years from the date of a donor’s last gift.

Ideally, you’re going to want to acquire new donors while you’re also going to the effort to prepare a direct mail appeal. So your prospects should be more than just “suspects.”

A good prospect list will include people who are the correct age for fundraising, and either have more than a casual relationship with your organization, or match up closely with your existing donor base (as in the case of an affinity-oriented rented list). Hopefully, they also will be philanthropically inclined and direct mail responsive.

Copyright 2018 Allegiant Direct, Inc.

Wayne GurleyComment
The 7 Critical Elements of Direct Mail (Part 7)

By: Wayne Gurley

The timing of your mailing can make a big difference between a successful effort and one that lays a big goose egg. In fundraising, here are a few things to keep in mind…


Are some months better than others to mail? Yes, but knowing which months to mail isn’t as much of a challenge as it used to be.

Most people believe that the best times to mail are in the fall and the spring. In fact, if you look at a graph of direct mail volume, it looks a lot like a “roller coaster,” going up in the spring (March, April and May), down during the summer (June, July and August), and back up for a big finish in the fall (September, October, November and December).

But is this really true?


For years, direct mail volume was dictated by when people were working or going to school and when they were taking vacations. Also, for much of the 20th century, America was locked into a “seasonal” or “agricultural” economy, which dictated patterns of crop growth and harvest.

This slowly has been changing for the past 20-30 years. But suffice it to say that one of the big reasons children did not go to school in the summer was that they were out in the fields helping bring in crops. This often took all summer and, in some cases extended into the fall. As an economic necessity, children could not attend school during the summer months.


Another reason for school being out during the summer – no air conditioning! The advent of air conditioning, particularly in the south, changed the mindset that children couldn’t attend school during the summer. Today, a number of school systems have switched to year-round school schedules, which may not be popular but certainly will serve to further change the dynamic of “off” summer months.

Even though we now have more of a service economy than agricultural, the same psychological mindset is still in effect – work or go to school during the fall, winter and spring, and vacation during the hot summer months.


The main reasons to be in the mail during the fall months are the two “feel-good” holidays – Thanksgiving and Christmas – and the year-end “tax brick wall” of December 31.

Will recent changes in tax laws regarding the deductibility of charitable gifts change this?  It's hard to tell and only time will tell.

But if you can wrap your appeal around one or both of these holidays, you can still probably take advantage of the inherent psychological need of an individual to “share” his or her blessings with others during a time of year that promotes “peace on earth and good will toward men.”

Do you get more loyal donors in the fall vs. the spring?

In my opinion, not necessarily. I don’t have a lot of hard data on this, but several years ago we looked at the value/loyalty of an organization’s donors acquired in the spring vs. those acquired in the fall.

Donors acquired in the spring were more loyal. They made more repeat gifts, and more of them were still giving long after those who gave for the first time in the fall.

My educated guess is that it has a lot to do with their motivation for giving. Motivation for giving in the fall may be “peace on earth, good will toward men,” and not necessarily because they like your organization all that much.

But donors giving for the first time in the spring are a bit different, because they have no such motivation. Their motivation for giving is that they think highly of your organization.


In my view, most organizations want to be in the mail during the spring and fall months due to the fact that everyone else is in the mail. So, it’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But some of the best appeals we’ve done for our clients have been during the summer. A successful children’s home’s “Back To School” appeal drops in July, since school begins in August.

Due to the heavier mailing season in the fall, we encourage our clients to consider mailing earlier in the fall season, like September and October. There’s simply a ton of mailbox competition in November and December.

But don’t be afraid to mail in months that might not make the “Top 5″ in best months to mail – like August.


  1. Holidays – When mailing around a holiday, fund-raisers are well-advised to drop their appeals approximately four to five weeks before the actual holiday. In other words, your Thanksgiving appeal should go out no later than about the third week of October, and your Holiday/Christmas appeal should drop around the third week of November, just before or just after Thanksgiving.
  2. You don’t want your mailing to arrive during the week of a major holiday like Thanksgiving or Christmas or when folks are away during a long weekend, like Memorial Day. What usually happens is that people who have been out of town come back to a big pile of mail, and they tend to trash it instead of reading it.
  3. December – When mailing in December, try to get in the mail no later than the first week of the month. The reason? The postal system is so clogged during this time of year, your mail might get delivered quickly enough to get a response back before Christmas or December 31 – unless you use first class postage, which might be too expensive.
  4. End of the Month – Some direct mail consultants advise mailing at the end of the month to take advantage of the fact that seniors receive their Social Security checks around the first of the month (precisely on the first if they have direct deposit). This, of course, depends upon whether your key donor demographic is in the 66+ age group.
  5. Significant Events – Mailing too close to “disaster” events like a terrorist attack, hurricane or tsunami can have a deleterious effect on the response of your mailings. Usually it’s best to wait several weeks after a significant event like this to send your mailing.
  6. Bad Economy – A struggling economy can have an effect on mail results, but a poor economy usually doesn’t improve quickly. Sometimes you have to take your lumps and keep on mailing in hopes that things will turn around. What typically happens during times like these is - people still give, but at a lower average gift. You may need to lower the amount of your ask in order to maintain participation.

Copyright 2018 Allegiant Direct, Inc.

Wayne GurleyComment
The 7 Critical Elements of Direct Mail (Part 6)

By: Wayne Gurley


Your budget is a critical factor in determining direct marketing success. Most budgetary issues are determined by the kinds of audiences an organization will be soliciting.

The lion’s share of a direct mail budget usually goes to prospecting. As a result, the cost of your prospect package is crucial. If you spend too much, you can damage your results, and along with it, your budget.

On the other hand, you don’t want to make your package look crummy, either – especially if you are the kind of organization known for quality services (like a hospital or medical center).

Stay away from pressure-sensitive or cheshire labels on a closed face envelope. It screams “JUNK MAIL!” And don’t use a pre-printed mailing indicia. Instead, use a live stamp or a meter imprint. Also, when using a closed face envelope, be sure to address it either with laser or high quality ink-jet imaging.

In fund raising, there’s a fine line between a quality image and a cheap one. You can make a package look so expensive that a prospect might feel you’d be wasting their money if they sent you a gift.

In this regard, stay away from fancy graphics and processes like gold or silver foil-stamping – unless you’re promoting a membership or giving club offer, in which case a little extra “flash” might be appropriate. Just be careful of the image you project.

Copyright 2018 Allegiant Direct, Inc.

Wayne GurleyComment
The 7 Critical Elements of Direct Mail (Part 5)

By Wayne Gurley

Next in our review of the seven most critical variables in direct mail is Format.


In direct mail, “format” (or package) is the manner in which you transport your message to your intended audience. And you have a wide variety of choices from which to choose.

From postcards (single, double and triple)…to self-mailers (usually a single piece of paper folded and labeled)…to catalogs, to the traditional classic workhorse envelope package (window and closed face)…each has its own advantages, disadvantages and usages.

Let’s talk a bit about each one:

Postcards – These inexpensive mailers are often used to promote subscription and other offers requiring “two-steps” – in other words, a response and a follow-up invoice.

Since they have no mechanism for returning a payment, they are usually only good for offers that seek “sign-me-up–and-bill-me-later” respondents.

Postcards aren’t very useful for charities or other offers that require immediate payment. You also can’t add a credit card payment option since sensitive information goes back through the mail in full view of anyone who wishes to see it.

Self-Mailers – Like postcards, these are a lot cheaper to mail, but also have their limitations. Unlike postcards, many of them have their own tear-off reply envelopes so that checks can be returned. These messages are viewed more as “announcements” or promotions than solicitations, and therein lies their weakness.

Many fundraising consultants say they don’t work and flatly refuse to use them. I tend to agree. That’s why you don’t see them very often.

Envelope Mailers – The workhorse of direct mail. Classic envelope mailers work because they approximate the personal, one-to-one correspondence from one individual to another.

Due to cost, most envelope packages favor window versions, but their more expensive cousins – the full-front or closed face envelope – also have their unique place with certain audience segments.

You can get envelopes in a variety of sizes and different types of materials – including a thin plastic called a “polybag.”

Catalogs – Not often seen in fundraising, catalogs are normally reserved for companies that have a wide variety of products or services to promote. Catalogs often have built-in reply envelopes but mostly are used to promote online or telephone sales.

Copyright 2018 Allegiant Direct, Inc.

Wayne GurleyComment
The 7 Critical Elements of Direct Mail (Part 4)

By Wayne Gurley

Next in our review of the seven most critical variables in direct mail is – artwork.

Simply put, your artwork (or graphics, if you prefer) is the way you choose to display your copy and message.

The main thing to remember when thinking about artwork is that its main purpose is to enhance your copy – not sell. Only your copy can do that.


A common mistake I see in many direct mail packages is what I call “overcreativity.” The graphics are simply too flashy and either dominate or overpower the message.

In classic communication theory, this is called “channel noise” – anything that gets in the way of communicating your message.

Photos or clever graphics splashed all over the outside envelope – perhaps even with teaser copy that doesn’t really “tease,” but instead telegraphs the contents of the package to the potential donors – are a few things that can cause response loss.

And if a reader thinks he or she knows what’s inside your package, then it’s doomed to failing the dreaded “trash can” test.

Inside, photos on the letterhead, overblown logos or designs crowding out the copy, or a long list of your board of directors also can be grave offenders.

Remember this important rule: Don’t do anything to distract the reader from your message – or your results may suffer.


Many direct marketers seem hell-bent on overwhelming their readers with creativity. They want their package to “stand out” in a crowded mailbox. To a large extent, this is a noble pursuit.

But there are other ways to accomplish this goal. Sometimes being subtle is the best way to achieve differentiation. Changing the format of your package slightly – perhaps by using a larger or even smaller package size or envelope color – is another option. Or, switching from a window to a closed face package is another possibility. Using absolutely nothing on the front of your envelope is also very intriguing – you’ve simply got to open it to find out what’s inside!

Canadian direct mail expert Stephen Thomas once quoted Roger Craver on using artists: “It’s best to use a bad artist. But if you must use a good artist, ruin them first.”

Graphic designers use fancy designs to show people how good they are. But they forget their main objective is to get a response – not impress people with their artistic skill.


If you aren’t careful, using flashy graphics can backfire on you.  If your prospect or donor thinks you spent too much money creating your package, he or she may think you’re wasting money and won’t send you a gift to be used in similar fashion.

So be careful of the image you project. If you’re a health care institution, your package must match the level of quality care you are selling. But if you go overboard, people may say, “So that’s why they charge me $100 for an aspirin!”

On the other hand, if you’re creating a package for Mercedes-Benz, don’t look cheap. Pull out all the stops.


Copyright 2018 Allegiant Direct, Inc.

Wayne GurleyComment
The 7 Critical Elements of Direct Mail (Part 3)

By: Wayne Gurley

My last two blogs in this series covered the first two Critical Elements of Direct  Mail (#1: The Mailing List and #2: The Offer).  Now I’d like to review the next most Critical element in direct marketing – the Letter (or Copy).

Copy is defined as the words you use to express your offer to your audience.  So, if you’ve selected the right list and chosen the right offer, the next thing you’ll want to do is communicate the case for your product, service or organization in clear and precise language.


One of my early mentors in direct marketing described the process of writing a direct mail letter like this:

“I sit down at my typewriter, put in a piece of paper, and wait until drops of blood begin to appear on my forehead.”

(I later learned this was a quote from American journalist, author and dramatist, Gene Fowler, who — at the time —  my mentor did not credit.  Fowler’s actual quote is:  “Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”)

Actually, it isn’t quite that bad. But it sometimes can feel that way. There’s a lot of pressure involved in writing a good piece of direct mail copy - because your copy must perform.

Unlike general advertising, which is sometimes hard to measure, you get your report card immediately with a direct marketing effort. Results are what you live for. And results are what you get – sometimes good, sometimes bad.

I’ve found that the best way to start a direct mail letter is by writing the reply slip first. That way, you understand your offer and what you will be asking your reader to do.


In my experience, writing is a lot like preparing to run a race or participate in an athletic event. You’ve got to “warm up” your mind and fingers to the task at hand.

I usually start by writing a few trial lead paragraphs. Generally, those first few efforts are quite poor and discarded later in favor of a better effort after I’ve warmed up. However, a rookie writer will simply leave them in, meaning their letter doesn’t get to the point as fast as it should.

It’s important to identify your lead paragraph. Most of the time, those first few “warm-up” paragraphs aren’t really leads at all, but rather attempts at getting to a lead. Rookie writers often bury their lead paragraph somewhere deeper in the letter. The secret is finding the “real” lead and putting it in the first paragraph.

Another tip: Make sure your lead is short, to the point and captures the reader’s attention.


In the 1991 film, “City Slickers,” Mitch (Billy Crystal) asks Curly (Jack Palance) what he thinks is the most important thing in life. Curly holds up one finger and says it’s “one thing.”

When writing a direct mail letter, it’s important to focus on “one thing.” One big writing mistake is trying to cram too much into one letter. Have one main objective, and don’t let anything stand in the way of clearly communicating that objective. If you use a story as an example of how your organization helps people, use only one story – not two or three (which is something I see a lot).

Ask the reader to do one thing – not two or three. You can give them options on the reply slip as to how they want their gift to be used, but don’t give them too many things to figure out in the letter. They won’t take the time to do that.

Make sure your copy can pass the “trash can” test. Most people open their mail over a trash can, so you only have a few seconds to capture their attention. If you make your copy too hard to understand or if it’s too difficult for the reader to determine what you want them to do, they’ll simply throw it out.


How long should your copy be?

Some direct mail consultants will tell you to ALWAYS use long copy – at least two to four pages. But in reality, the most important element in a good letter is not its length, but its content. What you say and how you say it is infinitely more important than how long it takes to say it.

There is no “one-size-fits-all” letter length for every organization. My rule of thumb has always been – make the letter as long as it needs to be…no longer, no shorter. Of course, this puts a big burden on the copywriter to know when to stop writing.

Keep in mind – if you can do justice to your subject matter in a single page, then don’t overwrite for the sake of conforming to some preconceived notion about ideal copy length. If you need more space and can do a good job of keeping your reader engaged and interested, by all means, use longer copy.

But don’t take my word for it. The best way to find out what’s best for your organization is with a split copy test.


  1. Write in a warm, personal and conversational style.
  2. Avoid “institutional” copy. Don’t use “we.” Instead, use “I.”
  3. Communicate a need for urgency. Use a deadline if possible.
  4. State your case. Explain why your letter is important and why the donor should respond.
  5. Thank the donor in advance for their support.
  6. Don’t use two letter signers.
  7. Don’t apologize for writing.
  8. Don’t use reputation copy – like “we’re the best.” Support your case with verifiable information.
  9. Don’t use big words that will confuse your reader.
  10. Don’t use humor. Humor is a very individual, personal thing, and can backfire on you.
  11. Always ask for a response.
  12. Always use a PS. It’s one of the most read sections of any letter.
  13. Make the letter easy to read. Use easy-to-read fonts of a good size. Indent your paragraphs.
  14. Don’t use graphics or photos in the letter. Keep it text only.
  15. Don’t assume people will know what to do. Tell them what to do.
  16. Don’t use teaser copy unless you really know how to “tease.”
  17. Make your copy dramatic and compelling.
  18. Use short sentences and paragraphs (six lines max).
  19. Ask for a specific gift amount.
  20. Don’t list your board of directors on your letterhead.
  21. In multi-page letters, don’t end a page with a completed paragraph. Continue it on the next page.
  22. Don’t use semi-colons (only lawyers can understand them).
  23. Use statistics sparingly and only to support your case.

Copyright 2018 Allegiant Direct, Inc.

Wayne GurleyComment
7 Critical Elements of Direct Mail (Part 2)

By: Wayne Gurley

We’ve already discussed the single most critical variable in any direct marketing effort – which is the mailing list.

But what’s the second most important element?

The answer is – the “offer.” In other words, the letter’s “proposition.” From the reader’s standpoint, it‘s “why are you writing to me…what do you want me to do…and what do I get in return for my money?”


In fund-raising, most offers are known as “hard” or “full price” offers. This simply means you are offering the benefits of your organization and the work it does at full price – no discounts or premiums.

Here, the word “price” can be substituted for “gift.” But unlike commercial products or service offers, a fund-raising offer asks a person to send money so that they can do good work helping others.


A lot of people think that fund-raising is simply getting people to part with their money for nothing in return – in other words, no product or service. But in reality, nothing could be further from the truth.

Personally, I’ve always believed that “giving is a selfish thing.” That might sound a little odd, but when you stop and think about it, it really isn’t so strange. When someone makes a gift to a philanthropic organization, they are committing a selfish act.

What are they getting in return? At the very least, they get a warm feeling for helping an organization they believe in.

The most important thing to remember when constructing your offer is to communicate clearly what you want the donor to do – including the amount of money you are asking for, how the money will be used, and what benefits (tangible or otherwise) you promise in return for the donor’s gift.


Russ Prince and Karen File wrote a terrific book called “The Seven Faces of Philanthropy” (published by Jossey-Bass). Their research identified seven kinds of motivation for giving:

1. Communitarian (Doing good makes sense, or is good for the community.)
2. Devout (Doing good is God’s will.)
3. Investor (Doing good is good business.)
4. Socialite (Doing good is fun.)
5. Altruist (Doing good feels right.)
6. Repayer (Doing good in return.)
7. Dynast (Doing good is a family tradition.)

Can you think of different types of offers that might be developed for the above motivations? How about…

1. Communitarian – Give to help our community hospital/children’s home/social service agency.
2. Devout – Monthly pledge program to help our mission/ministry.
3. Investor – Charitable gift annuity/charitable remainder trust/gifts of stocks or bonds.
4. Socialite – Buy a table… bring your friends… come to the party!
5. Altruist – Support our organization. It the right thing to do.
6. Repayer – Grateful patients helping other patients/Graduates supporting the scholarship fund to help future worthy students.
7.  Dynast – We’ll name a building for your family.



One of the strongest words in the English language is FREE. Fundraisers often use “Free With” offers like premiums (back-end freebies) or freemiums (front-end freebies) to generate bigger responses.

Address labels, magnets and note pads are common freemiums used in fundraising today. They tend to generate higher responses, but lower average gifts. They also tend to generate more “guilt” gifts. It’s the principle of reciprocity – “you do something nice for me, so I’ll do something nice for you” by sending you a few bucks back as thanks for the address labels or whatever.

Do freemiums generate more responses? Yes. Do they generate committed donors?  They can, but not always. If you use freemiums to generate a new donor, will you need to continue to use them to get them to renew their support? Possibly.

Another example of a “freemium” would be a bookmark or pen. A good example of a premium would be, “Get this book for your gift of $35 or more.”

Pledge Programs

Pledge Programs – to which donors promise to give on a regular basis (typically monthly) – are another kind of offer. Certain benefits and recognition can be attached to the offer to strengthen it.

Benefits and recognition also can be attached to Membership Programs and/or Giving Societies. These kinds of programs allow donors to develop a deeper and stronger relationship with the organization. If structured properly to generate multiple annual gifts, they also can help identify good planned giving prospects.

Copyright 2018 Allegiant Direct, Inc.

Wayne GurleyComment
7 Critical Elements of Direct Mail (Part 1)

By: Wayne Gurley

First in a series of seven…

Can you name the single most critical variable in any direct marketing effort?

If you said the “mailing list,” you’re absolutely correct!

Your list is the single most important element in any direct marketing effort – more important than package style, graphics…even more important than copy.

In fact, you can have the best copy in the world, but if you send it to the wrong person, it won’t work. (Remember the definition of junk mail – “mail that's been sent to the wrong person.”)


For fundraisers, there are basically two kinds of lists (each with subsets) that you can use with varying degrees of success. They include in-house lists and rented names.

1. In-house lists.

In-house names can be of various quality. Obviously, you want to include donors. Then, you may want to include people who have participated in events or signed up for one of your services. Sometimes these work well, and sometimes they don’t.

If you raise funds for a hospital, you can usually make your Grateful Patients work well. The same can be said for members of a 55+ Senior Club, if you have one.

An example of a list that usually doesn’t work is Memorial Donors. Memorial gifts are usually made by people who are more interested in honoring a person rather than supporting your organization. As a result, they typically do not respond well to direct mail solicitations.

Other in-house lists you also may wish to consider include Employees and Vendors. Sometimes these work, and sometimes they don’t. You’ll have to test them to find out.

2. Rented Names

Rented names fall into four categories: Donor Lists, Subscriber Lists, Buyer Lists and Demographic Lists.

Donor Lists are donors to other organizations with a similar affinity to yours. For example, a hospital might rent donors to March of Dimes, Easter Seals or Muscular Dystrophy in their geographic area. And a children’s organization might use a list of donors to other national children’s organizations like UNICEF or Covenant House.

Rented Lists are just that – “rented” for a one-time use only. If you want to use them again, you must pay to rent them again. They can never be purchased. In fact, I strongly recommend that you never use a list that is available for purchase. If you can buy it and own it, it probably isn’t worth very much. And I can virtually guarantee it won’t work well.

Some donor lists are called Compiled Lists. A compiled list has been put together from various sources. For example, we use a list called “Capital Donor Masterfile.” This list is made up of people who have given to health-related causes. It usually works very well.

With compiled lists, you want to determine the “usage” – that is, what organizations are using the list – and not just for testing, but for continuations. A “continuation” is a larger, repeat use of a list, always followed by a successful test. If you see an organization with an affinity to yours using a particular list, then it’s probably a good idea to test it.

And speaking of testing, don’t ever mail a large quantity of names without testing the list first. Test 5,000 or 10,000 names, then read the results.

Subscriber Lists are people who have subscribed to magazines like Time, Newsweek, Southern Living, Prevention Magazine or other publications like newsletters. They are “direct mail responsive” lists and they work very well for fundraising offers.

Buyer Lists are people who have bought things through the mail, usually from catalogs. Sharper Image, Harry and David and Omaha Steaks are examples three lists that often work well for fundraisers.

Demographic Lists are made up of people who live in a certain area or meet certain demographic requirements – like age, income, length of residency or home value. I don’t recommend this type of lists for fundraisers. They tend to be the worst kinds of lists you can rent.

Many organizations believe they can simply rent names of wealthy people in their area and have success. But a demographic list fails two important criteria for direct marketing success:

(1) They have not been shown to be “direct-mail responsive” – in other words, they have not demonstrated a willingness to make a gift, purchase something or subscribe to a magazine through the mail. Some people are simply not direct mail responsive, and therefore aren’t good candidates for a direct mail solicitation.

(2) They have not demonstrated a “philanthropic intent.” Just because someone has money doesn’t mean they are willing to part with it for the benefit of your organization.

Copyright 2018 Allegiant Direct, Inc.