Blockbuster Controls: It’s All About The Donor

Effective marketing is letting a customer know what he gets when buying a product. The offer is often more about a feeling than a product.

Take cars as an example. “With a car it’s freedom, luxury, sex, just about anything but transportation,” according to Moira Kavanagh Crosby, president and founder of Charlottesville, Va., marketing firm MKDM. “The translation to fundraising is that it’s not why should a donor give or what they can do, it’s what they get when they give to your organization and what your organization can do for donors.”

Kavanagh Crosby talked about direct mail controls during the 2013 Bridge to Integrated Marketing and Fundraising Conference in Oxon Hill, Md. Fellow panelists at the session, called “Blockbuster Controls and How They Got That Way” were Dennis Lonergan, president and creative director of Eidolon Communications in New York City, and Luke Franklin, senior director of member communications for the American Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), also in New York City.

“No one says, ‘I’m a t-shirt-wearing member,’ it’s card-carrying member,” said Kavanagh Crosby. One control that often sees success is that of a membership card. It’s an offer of belonging; you’re part of the club, and here’s proof. Kavanagh Crosby said this method is great for lapsed donors, but doesn’t do as well among acquisitions. She said it lifted response for one client by 20 percent, from 1.66 percent to 2.02 percent.

Premiums are often another good control tool, but make sure to offer donors a choice. Kavanagh Crosby found that an offer containing the most choices delivered the best cost to raise a dollar. “If we spend a lot on a premium, we’ll have to spend the same to get a renewal,” said Lonergan, urging caution. “But it’s still a critical tactic to break through the clutter (of a donor’s mail box). Premiums offer a gut reaction: people want things.”

Even when you have a winning control, it pays to test. Lonergan related the tale of a large international advocacy organization with a premium that had stood the test of time for 20 years. “Along came a new package 21 years later and beats it,” he said. “The new package takes a different approach. It’s a huge in-line package with everything personalized, but it leaves a lot to the imagination because there’s no photography,” like the other package, said Lonergan. “The power of imagination can be more powerful than putting something right out there,” he said.

Franklin talked about the importance of testing. Though ASPCA had been getting solid results with a control it adopted in 2007, results had leveled out by 2009. Among some of the items ASPCA tested were replacing photos of stock animals with those of animals the organization had rescued, changing the offer to make it about how many animals a gift can feed, and changing the offer to make it about how long a gift will feed one animal, which saw the best results.

“This makes it sound simple, but in each there were various iterations,” said Franklin. “There were big overall ideas that won,” he said, but ASPCA went through 36 iterations and sent more than 55 million pieces of mail before it hit on its new control.

Franklin ended the session with a quick list of takeaways:

  • Test each element that makes cost-effective sense
  • Backtest, i.e. mail the old control occasionally to ensure you don’t stray too far from what got you results
  • All ideas are good ideas, with a budget in mind
  • Never stop testing a control
  • Have a co-control to give a package a rest
  • Test new packages