Why “mail everyone” is never the answer

I’ve had my first request – to talk about the basics of segmentation. Thanks and keep them coming!

The question will eventually come, if it hasn’t already: “how many people are on our list?”.  The answer?


For those who may not get the reference, it’s from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  When assigned to find the Ultimate Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything, the computer Deep Thought ponders this for 7.5 million years and comes up with the answer 42.  It then says that:

“I checked it very thoroughly … and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”

The question of how many people are on our list or in our database is similarly ill-formulated.  You may have a list of X people, but are you really going to ask for a donation the person who called your executive director a [redacting] [redacter] at the gala 11 years ago and never corresponded with your organization thereafter? So your list is X-1.  How about dead people?  You need them in your database so you know not to solicit them.  And so on.

Every time you communicate with these folks, you are losing something.  Usually, for methods like mail and telemarketing, there is an additional marginal cost for each person reached.  With email, there isn’t, so email tends to be the least segmented direct marketing method.  This, however, ignores that there is a cost for not segmenting an email file; the less people open your emails (and especially in cases where you are emailing an account that no longer exists or is checked), the more likely systems are to think you are a dirty dirty spammer and cast you down into the ranks of personal attribute enhancers, Nigerian princes, and your great-aunt who thinks that you absolutely need to know about the ecstasy-lased gummy bears “epidemic.”

The bottom line is that even when you aren’t paying the bill, you have every incentive to make sure your list is as trim as possible.  That means not communicating with the deceased, opt-outs, those with incorrect communication data (although you should be doing NCOA (national change of address), eCOA (electronic change of address), and corrective phone appends on those people you would still like to talk to), and those who have opted out of the medium (e.g., email opt-outs) or message (e.g., solicitation opt-outs).

You may think that once you clear those people out of your list, you should have a defined number.  However, different people are at different stages of interaction with your organization.  Here are a few:

  • Some guy (aka suspect)
  • Prospect
  • One-time giver
  • Multi giver
  • Sustainer
  • Mid-major donors
  • Major donor
  • Planned giving donor

These are frequently presented in a pyramid because there are only so many easy-to-use graphics in PowerPoint.  Some may say it’s because suspects and prospects are the base of the program and they grow from there in smaller and smaller numbers, but you and I know the truth.

The truth is that these are like the stages of grief, in that they don’t always apply, don’t often go in order, and abstract over significant parts of the donor journey. For example, take a look at the types of retention you should be measuring and you’ll see that there are categories – first-year, but not first-time, givers and reactivated lapsed – that this pyramid doesn’t take into account.  Similarly, you will see people who are major donors on their first gift, people who you didn’t know about who leave support to you in their will, and the former sustainer who no longer wants to support your organization.

I take inspiration from Stephen Jay Gould, who critiques in many discussions of evolution the ideal of progress or, worse, inevitability:

Progress is not merely a deep cultural bias of Western thought…it is also…the explicit expectation of all deterministic theories of evolutionary mechanism that have ever achieved any popularity, from Darwinian selection to Lamarckism to orthogenesis. I do not, of course, mean progress as an unreversed, unilinear march up the chain of being; Darwin did away with this silly notion forever. But even Darwinism anticipates that an imperfect, irregular, but general ascent should emerge from all the backing and forthing inherent in a theory based on a principle of local adaption to changing circumstances.

Stephen Jay Gould, “The Paradox of the First Tier.”

In reality, the donor journey isn’t a net gradual march from suspect to prospect to one-time donor, to multi-donor, and so on.  But the general theme of this – that you should treat different types of donor different based on what you want them to do for the organization, what they want to do for the organization, and their means and interest – is a good one.  A suspect and a potential major donor are very unlikely to want the same communication in the same way.

So there are some folks you may want to get some communications, but never others.  Other such groups:

  • Board members
  • Organizations
  • Recent donors
  • The people you serve
  • Public officials and opinion leaders
  • People who have requested a certain number of communications each year

That’s the broadest type of segmentation – what type of people do we want to include?  But we’ll want to increase revenues and save costs by sending the most effective communication possible. So in this week of segmentation, we’ll talk about the philosophy of segmentation, then start with a basic segmentation – RFM analysis – and build from there.

Why “mail everyone” is never the answer