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.