Just 178 Days Until Christmas

July 15, 2007       Tom Pope      

Everyone has a friend who started shopping for the 2007 holidays the day after Christmas 2006. The regular population looks upon them with scorn. But, six months out is a whole different matter. Nonprofit direct response is getting ready for that holiday push – creative, lists, database, premiums.

Part of the planning now focuses on multiple mailings and tying the package to the nonprofit’s mission. For example, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in Irving, Texas, sends a number of appeals that culminates in January.

“We typically have a message linked to, ‘Tie One On For Safety,'” said Kristy Hensel, chief development officer for MADD. The awareness helps heighten public attention about drinking and driving during the holiday season and connects the audience with the mission by the red ribbon.

The January part is a culmination of mailings that started during October and November. “Responses are typically elevated during the holiday time,” she said. “This leads to one of our largest and most successful direct marketing mailings in the January renewal where members receive the membership card.”

The start of the new year being the time to reconfirm the membership has been part of the history of MADD. The blending of the message from the holiday period could boost the renewal in January results. To achieve the results, the summer becomes the time when MADD analyzes response rates, segmentation, and messages to determine which are the most appropriate approaches for communication for its house file of 900,000.

“During the summer, we analyze certain messages to parts of our database,” she said. “We want the largest number of donations with the lowest cost possible.”

When analyzing at how people respond, “view every activity you mail as part of a larger campaign,” said Larry May, CEO for Direct Media Inc., and May Development Service, a direct response firm in Greenwich, Conn. “Find which segments arrived from specific mailings so that you can plan more than one mailing over the fall campaign.”

He explained the process. Each of two mailings could have a different response rate, such as X and Y percent. You might have another new response of Z from the total series of mailings, even though the X and Y individual mailings are a little lower. “The results of the series could be larger than the two by themselves,” he said.

The past five years has been so productive for many organizations that additional ways to communicate are sought. Look at the window of August 15 to December to make more contact with donors who show responsiveness, according to May.

Examples of additional communication could occur with an organization that uses greeting card programs. Select the best donors above the average by taking them out of the regular mail stream for a special mailing. Also, send the regular mail. Both packages will do well, according to May. “You won’t face complaints, and you will be giving donors more opportunities,” he said.

Other types of communication besides the appeal could focus on newsletters or informative pieces about the mission, along with emails so the donor feels comfortable with where the money is going. “Some of our clients mailed around Thanksgiving and found they could mail also in the second week of December,” he said. “Both mailings were successful.”

Often the middle donor campaign features a more elaborate package for a particular need. The strategy usually deletes those donors from the regular mail. “You’ll find you could send donors all the appeals during the fall season,” he said. “Leave the decision to the donor for which appeal to respond — many times they will answer both.”

In planning for the fall, look for pockets in the schedule that are two weeks clear of mail dates. Ask whether segments of donors exist who are frequent or give amounts that show they would be open to new appeals.

“Mail every two to three weeks rather than every four to six weeks,” May said. “If you’re nervous about over-communicating, then take a segment of those people for a test campaign.”

The summer planning should identify the segments for special attention by looking at the basic targets of recency, frequency, and monetary (RFM) methods. “People don’t want to be pestered, but the statistical analysis is the opposite,” May said. “Often, we see a response in the future from people who don’t respond initially.”

External factors that influence donors in the fall depend on the amount of traffic in the mail box. Donors are deluged by eight to 10 pieces of mail a day, according to Mark Stokes, nonprofit specialist at Production Services Associates (PSA), a Deerfield, Ill., provider of lettershop and print services.

“Many pieces are financial and half to three quarters are still number 10’s (envelopes),” he said. “When you’re competing with others for attention in the mail, you have to stand out.”

Other options stand out. Use different colors and sizes of the envelope. Paper weights are moving away from 24-lb. “Glossy stocks or heavier packages like the FedEx envelopes increase the costs, but also the response rate,” he said.

Stokes quoted the Direct Marketing Association’s figures about dimensional mail pieces being opened three to five times more than the number 10. “We found out that commercial clients were willing to spend 2 1/2 times more on a package and they still benefited from an uplift in the response.”

The Children’s Wish Foundation International, in Atlanta, Ga., reaches as many as 240,000 children a year. During the summer, the nonprofit finds low-income families who want to serve children. The nonprofit runs wish-granting programs for children facing terminal illnesses. Programs also help the families of the affected child.

“Usually two to three months in advance, we go over copy and choose lists to reach the public,” said Linda Dozoretz, executive director. “That way, we can start calls the week of Thanksgiving through mid-December.”

Plans focus on the mission rather than the commercialism of the holiday. Dozoretz avoids the hype by concentrating on simple life concerns of the children served, such as supplying hair ribbons for those who lost hair to chemotherapy.

Planning is crucial because donors react negatively to overly-dramatic pictures.

Dozoretz selects pictures of the child that show the enjoyment with the wish by showing the child swinging on a new playground set or playing at a pool table.

The planning requires Dozoretz to seek lists of adoptive families who would most likely participate. Those names come from coordination of lists and direct response. “In July we have to locate families to send out the letters to people who are recommended to us,” she said.

When nonprofits target lists, they have to aim at obtaining demographics that resemble the donor file, according to Marilyn Michie, executive vice president of fundraising and development for The Heritage Co., a full service, fundraising and direct marketing company in Little Rock, Ark. “Some analysis is based on historical norms, see what has worked before,” she said.

When it comes to lists, check for newer selects of donors you might want to acquire who resemble the 0- to 13-month donors. You might want to reach out to those who lapsed in an effort to bring them back.

“In the last quarter over the past few years, we’ve seen a major event like Katrina,” she said. “So we wouldn’t target Katrina donors,” said Michie.

“Go deeper into the file if you did well last year,” she advised. If not, go back to see what happened in previous years. “You need to spend more time to turn over every rock to find donors — historically that strategy pays off,” she said.

Analysis of previous holidays means checking to see how the mailing hit the public, according to Craig DePole, vice president and general manager in the Washington, D.C., office of the fundraising firm Epsilon. “Last year, the mailings hit during the middle of a mid-term election that had the character of a national election,” he said.

DePole pointed to the trend of cutting out critical pieces that help donors. “With the schedule getting larger with more appeals, and the need to raise more money, people drop the mailings that don’t raise money,” he said. But such packages as the welcome package or call help the overall strategy. “Often a follow-up will drive better responses to the original mailing,” he said. “You wouldn’t know that if you just look at the follow-up by itself.”

Summer is the time to re-examine the creative. Reference the material back to the mission and the strengths of the nonprofit. “Creative people have to see which tests the best,” he said. “Line up artists and writers to map out the copy, and that’s the time to make sure you’re speaking to the donors to obtain more information about them.”

People are looking at databases in a more sophisticated way, according to DePole. “Look who has received the mail, then how many times you sent them a package so that you know where to cut off,” he said. “That way you can mail smarter. You shouldn’t be mailing everyone on the file just because they are there.” MADD’s Hensel believes that smarter mailing occurs by linking the consistency of the renewal process with the year-end appeals in a series approach that blends the message with the mission. “During the summer, we have to analyze response rates, segmentation, and messages to determine which are the most appropriate opportunities we want to communicate,” she said.  NPT

*** Tom Pope, a New York City-based journalist, writes on management issues.