Part four: Twenty things you should know before planning your next direct response campaign

publication date: Apr 15, 2014
author/source: Peter Hoppe

Peter Hoppe photoToday we get down to the nitty-gritty—components of a great letter and the importance of variable copy.

9. Components of a great letter

With better access to research on the value donors place on knowing where and how their donations are being invested, the direct-mail appeal letter continues to play a key role in response rates, average donations, cultivating active donors, reactivating lapsed donors and encouraging monthly giving.  Here are the top 10 rules I follow when writing an appeal letter:

  1. Make your appeal letter optically pleasing and inviting to read.
  2. Write small paragraphs and short sentences. Make use of image.
  3. Be conversational and informal. This is not an annual report, it’s a personal appeal.
  4. Feature an emotional story that personalizes your organization or cause.
  5. Thank your donor. Then thank them again.
  6. Recap what the last donation accomplished. Explain what the next donation will achieve.    
  7. Attribute organizational achievements to donor support.
  8. Try to relate monthly giving and donation levels to an outcome.
  9. Ask for support up front, in the middle and at the end of your letter.
  10. Don’t forget the p.s., support the ask!

Imagine yourself sitting across from a donor. Your letter should be a passionate but informal conversation about your organization, the cause it serves, and the vital role that the donor plays. Focus on impact rather than reach—changing one person’s life is often more powerful than reaching out to 100 people. A picture can be worth 1000 words, and a good story can be even more illustrative than a picture. Do resist bragging about your organization, and highlight achievements in the context of donor support. Although not always possible, try to demonstrate what a $50 donation or a $15 a month donation can accomplish. And please don’t forget to ask. Believe it or not, I still see letters that extol the virtues and accomplishments of an organization, but never directly address the need for support.

When it comes to length, longer is not always better. A four-page letter with two inserts and a fridge magnet can make a lot of money for your direct mail supplier, but not always for your organization. If you have an interesting and compelling story to tell, use as much space as you need. If additional inserts or incentive gifts support that letter, use them. However, you shouldn’t drone on about your organization for four pages just because someone told you longer letters increase response rates.

A one-page letter that gets right to the point can pack a lot of punch. I use this strategy when developing reminders, with great success. Two-page letters strike a nice balance and respect the reader’s time and commitment to reading your appeal. If you have more to say than can fit on two pages, consider moving some of that information to an insert rather than cramming everything together. Remember, your letter should be optically pleasing and inviting to read. That said, a landmark achievement or powerful story may deserve three or four pages, as long as it’s captivating and compelling.           

10.  Variable copy—making your letter even more personal

In a previous article, I covered the need to segment donor files based on past donor behavior. The advantage of doing this not only allows you to track each segment, it helps to make your appeal even more personal.  After all, a donor who gave your organization $500 six months ago should be approached a little bit differently than one who made a donation of $35 two years ago, or someone who had never supported your organization. Strategic variable copy accomplishes all of this.

First, you need to develop one or two paragraphs that can be customized to each segment. More often than not, this will need to happen on the first page of your letter. Personalizing two or more pages is costly and sometimes unnecessary, although, my rule of thumb is the higher the average donation, the more you should invest in personalization. Think of it this way: a donor who gave your organization a contribution of $10,000 or more may expect a specially prepared letter, a telephone call and even a visit.

When devising variable copy, think of what you want to accomplish for that specific segment. An active and high-level donor may need to be directed to the benefits of your organization’s leadership-giving program. A donor who has made two or three contributions over the last 18 months should be encouraged to join a monthly-giving plan. A donor who has lapsed in giving may need to be reminded of what past support helped to accomplish, and that your organization and the constituents it serves cannot afford to lose that support. And a prospect may need more background information on your organization in order to make a first-gift decision. You can also use variable copy to remind a donor when they made their last gift, the amount of the contribution and the purpose for which it was used.

Variable copy can also support special inserts that specific segments receive such as a monthly or leadership-giving brochure, or an invitation to a special event. Preparing good variable copy can be very time consuming and may drive production-data specialists crazy. However, it supports a primary principal of effective direct mail—the right message for the right donor.

Letters are not the only components that drive direct response. My next installment will talk about the outer envelope, the insert, newsletters, reply coupons and the lowly BRE. Cheers!  

Part one: All roads lead to a planned gift

Part two: Measuring success

Part three: The true value of incentives, swag and monthly donors

The past three articles in my series: twenty things you should know before planning your next direct response campaign, covered the first eight important things you should know. If you missed these installments you can find them here (insert link).  If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me at

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