Direct mail isn’t dying but it’s changing

There’s nothing more tedious than the arguments you sometimes get into about which types or channels of fundraising are the most effective. The “my one is better than your one” species of debate seldom leads to a great deal of enlightenment (indeed it is I think one of the Seven Myths of Fundraising). The most vocal protagonists on either side tend to have a financial stake in the argument.

So when I’m asked to give my opinion on whether a particular fundraising channel is or is not effective, I’m generally cautious. The principles of good fundraising apply whatever method is being used to reach new or existing supporters. But how a particular channel will work for an individual charity will vary based on a whole raft of factors. Generally, you find out which ones are right for you through trial and error (we fundraising pros dress this up and talk about scientific testing and analysis but that’s what we mean).

I’ve been hearing that direct mail is dead or on its last legs for at least 20 years. Or before that, I can remember as a very young fundraiser being told by my elders that direct mail had no future, after all only old people read it any more. This is was before I learned that reaching old people was actually a very good things for fundraisers as these people are much more valuable than the fickle young..

But direct mail has stubbornly refused to die. Despite the communications revolution of the last decades, the internet, the end of personal letters, huge hikes in postal costs, today charities in the UK and US still make vastly more money out of direct mail appeals than they do from any other channel. Online income remains a fraction of mail income for the great majority of charities. Social media still produces hardly anything in direct income for the vast majority of charities. Only face to face really runs mail close and if you compared the total value of donors, I reckon mail would still come out on top.

This isn’t to say that mail doesn’t face major challenges. It has become steadily harder to recruit new donors through the mail for many years now. Only a minority of charities who can currently make mail acquisition work, onto to single gifts. Mail acquisition to regular gifts is extremely difficult. Overall metrics for direct mail acquisition have steadily worsened over the years, new donors cost more, give less in real terms and have a lower level of repeat giving than they did ten years ago.

Meanwhile our direct mail donors are getting steadily older. Donor files which had average ages in the sixties, now are more commonly in mid or high seventies. As I’ve said, this isn’t bad news in itself. For legacy income it is pretty good news. But it is a problem if we can’t recruit new donors.

I think the solution to the conundrum is to stop thinking about channels in isolation and think about our audiences. The core charity donor audience in the UK is a fifty plus demographic. This isn’t to say that other groups don’t give but we know that the older audience is massively more valuable. A useful shorthand for this group is “babyboomers”, as long as we realise this a generalisation that can conceal as much as it reveals. But broadly, the post war generation, a group of unrivalled affluence who are now giving to charity at significant levels. These people have been as affected by the communications revolution as any other group, today’s sixty somethings are online, use smartphones and are on social media. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t use other channels as well. Mail is still there along with TV, radio and print media. The point is babyboomers are, like pretty much everyone else, fully multi-channel in how they receive information and respond to marketing.

In this world, all channels have a part to play, as part of an integrated marketing strategy. The physical impact of a piece of addressed mail, if it is relevant and compelling, can be even greater in a world where mail is becoming a rarer and more specialised channel. But it won’t work in isolation, it will need to sit as part of a series of supporting messages across a range of media. A donor might see a mail piece and response online. Or see a TV ad and respond by mail. Or follow a route where they see messages on several different channels before responding on another. They’ll probably research an organisation online. Or seek validation through recommendations on social media.

All of which makes a charity marketing strategy a much more complex business. Charities which have tended to think about “fundraising” separately from “marketing” or “communications” might find this particularly challenging. Ability to manage and analyse data across different channels in an integrated way will be crucial. It’s a more complicated world, definitely. But one, full of opportunity for those who get it right.

2 thoughts on “Direct mail isn’t dying but it’s changing

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