Free solutions for your direct marketing program

In a perfect world, all of our direct marketing costs would be marginal, so they scaled as we mailed, helping us to pick the exact right quantities and people every time.

Of course, in a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to solve the social ills we are trying to solve as nonprofits.  So that’s a good indicator that we are not in such a world.

In this world, most solutions (which are like products, but more expensive) have a fixed cost.  You are forced to do the math – am I going to use X enough to justify spending Y?  What if it doesn’t work?

But then there are the products that have the best fixed cost of all: zero.  Many free solutions are classic cases of “you get what you pay for,” but some rise above and can be valuable parts of your technology stacks:

  • Buffer.  Schedule your social media posts; I use this for some morning retro Twitter posts.  Paid version allows you to queue up more – be patient and it’s free.
  • Canva.  I suck at design. Canva makes it easy.  Like Photoshop, but free.
  • Fiverr.  OK, this isn’t free.  It is, in fact, $5.  But that’s five dollars for ad creative, copy writing, proofing, and other tasks you may need to get done, quickly and not by you.  Most solutions will cost more than $5, as there are increases for quantity or tight timelines, but it’s far better than many services that are much more expensive.
  • Google Analytics.  Really, there are many Google products that could be on this list.  And while the free version doesn’t have the bells and whistles of its paid counterpart, neither does it have the $150,000 price tag.  You’ll be able to track traffic, see how your site is functioning, and, best of all, set up your goals and see how you are generating your conversions (and how you aren’t).
  • Google Scholar.  Want to see if anyone has tested what you are thinking about testing?  Or learn the psychology of donors?  Google Scholar brings you scholarly articles about all manner of subjects.
  • Hemingway. Put your copy here.  It will simplify it.
  • M+R’s Toolbox.  Quick tools to help you with your T-tests, chi-squareds, benchmarks, and more.  Subscribers to my newsletter have known about this for months (become one here!).
  • QuickSprout.  An audit of your site to let you know what you can be doing better.
  • Simply Measured free tools.  They have a lot of paid tools, but their free ones will give you a good idea of the basics around your social media presence.
  • SplitTester and Split Test Significance Calculator. Never again wonder if you will ever achieve statistical significance on your ad test.
  • WordPress. I use it for this blog.  Some may say that isn’t a huge endorsement, but there are other, more attractive sites there as well.  You can also have static landing pages in addition to your blog using the Pages tool.
  • Wordstream’s Free AdWords Grader. What it says on the tin.

And, of course, my free newsletter – it’s what every stylish marketer will be wearing this summer.  Or reading.  Or something.

Free solutions for your direct marketing program

The curious case of Kimberly Ellinger

We have a phantom member of our family.

casper-friendly-ghost-3

(not like this, although does anyone else find it creepy than this dead child is following people around in children’s entertainment?)

When we moved into our first house, one of the people who sold us the house was Kimberly something-or-other.  We immediately started getting mail for Kimberly Ellinger – her first name, our last.  Our best guess is that a mailer assumed she got married, or divorced, and changed her last name to the one that was now on the house.

That was 2003.  For us, it was five residences in three states ago.  During that time, no one named Kimberly Ellinger ever sent in a donation, mailed back a comment card, or bought something through the mail.  Because she doesn’t exist.  Never has.

But she apparently loves Land’s End catalogs.  She clearly needs car insurance pretty badly.  And she got her AARP card last week.

AARP is one of the biggest acquisition mailers in the United States with about 170 million pieces going out recruiting new member each and every year.  Part of me felt a little bit good that even an organization like this can fall prey to something that costs non-profits each and every year: bad data.

You may think that the worst thing that bad data can do is run up your costs.  Au contraire, mon petit fromage.*

In 2014, a man received a letter from OfficeMax that was addressed to his name, with the second line of the address reading “Daughter Killed In Car Crash.”

Yes, a year earlier, his daughter had in fact been killed in a car crash.  As someone who has lost a daughter, I can tell you that this type of solicitation does not make me want to buy office products.  It makes me want to find the person responsible and punch them until I run out of fist or they run out of face.

But there probably was no person responsible.  A screw-up that large requires a faulty system to let that letter go through.  And every snowflake in that avalanche pleads not guilty.

While not as drastic, bad data is costing you dearly.  Here are some systems you can set up to make sure that you aren’t sending the next such letter (and, more mundanely, save on the costs of bad data, which include both costs of mailings and the opportunity costs of missed revenues):

  • Enter every bad address – mail and email — in your database as a bounce as soon as you can.  For the mail, this will save on postage; for email, it will help your emails not be seen as spam (and, even better, it will help your emails actually not be spam).
  • Track back these bad addresses to their origin.  If you get a bunch of your acquisition packages back, find out what list(s) the pieces came from.  If it’s one or two, that’s life.  If you are getting a bunch of return to senders back, you can ask for a refund from the list and/or not use that list again.
  • Use change of address tools.  For each mailing, you want to run NCOA to make sure mailings get where they are supposed to go (and to remove non-standard address two lines like the above horrific story).  For emailings, an eCOA can help you find new addresses from those that you’ve lost touch with.
  • Search your database for common swear and hate words.  It may shock you but not everyone on the Internet is a mature, upstanding member of society.  I have seen things in online databases in particular (which are usually user entered) that would make longshoreman blush.  Most of these are attempts to see more adult versions of “Dear Mr. Poopyfacehead” in print that I would describe as adolescent except for my desire not to besmirch adolescents.  However, some may put real people’s addresses on with these abhorrent names and woe be unto you if you mail them as such.
  • Similarly, look for ZIP codes of 11111, 12345, 0, and the like, as well as popular phone numbers like 123-456-7890 or 111-111-1111 and emails like xxx@xxx.com (that’s how ingrained it is to put .com at the end of email addresses).  Delete them.
  • Once you’ve taken out the bad data, delete accounts that don’t have the bare minimum necessary for inclusion, which should likely be a physical address, a phone number, or an email address.  I once saw a mailing addressed only to “Roy.”  Nothing else.  My guess is Roy wasn’t going to get it.

Finally, at a certain point, give up.  If Kimberly Ellinger hasn’t answered your first 50 mailings, number 51 probably isn’t going to sway her.  Also, when you do, do the industry a favor and mark them as “do not rent.”  Since you are going to be going after the people who provide you with bad names, it’s best not to become one yourself.
* This may surprise you, but I don’t actually know French.

The curious case of Kimberly Ellinger

Mail acquisition cost savings tips

Now that you’ve driven some costs out of your mailings with postage tips from yesterday, let’s talk about driving costs out your acquisition efforts.

One of the big costs of acquisition mailings is the lists themselves.  Chances are fairly good that if a list works for you, your list works for them.  Thus, make sure you have list exchange agreements set up with these nonprofits, as you can both save each other money.

(Note: if you have a source of names that are not traditional direct mail donors, you may want to take them off of both the rental and the exchange markets.  Most donors are loyal to doing good works and perhaps less so to your organization.  However, if you had a source of donors that are loyal specifically to your organization like your most loyal volunteers, you may not want to exchange these with everyone and their brother.)

Speaking of unique sources of names, another way to save on costs are to try to “acquire” your own names.  That is, you have some lists of people who are constituents of your organization who haven’t yet donated – volunteers, advocates, white paper downloaders, service recipients, etc.  These names may not all make money on the first go-around, but you can usually acquire these at a higher response rate and/or average gift than someone off the street and there are no list costs.

While it will be an additional investment, I remember customizing your copy for that person’s status with your organization.  Indicating that you know they are a volunteer and thanking them for their service will not only cut down on your complaints; it will also very likely increase your response rate.  After all, you don’t want to do business with someone who doesn’t know who you are – why would your donors?

Even if you don’t have these names in your active acquisition efforts, be sure to keep them in your database of record.  When you rent or exchange a list with another nonprofit, it goes through a process called match back.  This is where they run your names against the incoming list – any matches are returned to the origin nonprofit and you don’t pay for them since you already had them on your file.

However, that ping from an outside list can indicate to you that the person that you hadn’t been mailing because they only downloaded one white paper three years ago is giving to other organizations and could be a quality acquisition candidate.  Thus, you can put them into acquisition at no cost.

Another source of “free” names are your lapsed donors.  You likely have a list of people whose RFM analysis (or hopefully modeling or RFM+ analysis) indicates that they shouldn’t be getting donor pieces anymore.  That’s fine and natural.  However, that doesn’t mean you should stop trying to re-acquire them.  Now they are in a limbo between donor and, as the song goes, just somebody that you used to know.

Mailing them with the same piece that attracted their attention at first can be a good way of getting them back into the swing of donating.  And it’s likely a good investment – reacquired lapsed donors tend to have better retention rates than newly acquired donors.  Just don’t take them for granted – they’ve told you with their behavior that they aren’t head over heels for you.  Once you’ve reacquired them, make sure they get your love so that they won’t lapse again.

When you do rent or exchange with outside lists, look at the many variables you can select: recency of donation, amount of donation, demographics, location, etc.  This is a case where you don’t want to scrimp on costs.  If a list is not performing for you as it had, you may want to spend more on it (counterintuitively) by asking for more recent donors, larger donors, only females (if your organization skews this way as most do), or adding a ZIP code select (asking for only donors in your top performing ZIP codes).

On the flip side, if a list is performing very well, you may be able to relax these variables, helping you get additional productive names and saving on costs.

Also, remember that just because you bought the name doesn’t mean you have to mail it.  If your analysis/modeling of an outside list name indicates that they won’t pay for themselves, don’t throw good money after bad money.  The list cost is sunk; you need not be.

It’s important you have a good relationship with your list broker.  They should know your strategy and whether you are driving for quality or quantity of donor.  Chances are if they are doing a good job for you, they will already be optimizing for many of these things, but it never hurts to ask.

Mail acquisition cost savings tips

Postage techniques to save money on your direct mail

We face pressures to our net income from all sides:

  • Response rates are down
  • Retention is down, challenging and expensive (but well worth the effort!)
  • Costs of materials are up
  • Platforms and consultancies have high fixed costs before you ever send the first email or mail piece
  • Postage can be expensive

jefferson-nickel-unc-obvThis week, we want to look at tips and tricks for getting everything you can get out of your costs.  As someone who will squeeze a nickel until Thomas Jefferson begs for mercy, I hope these can help you recover little bits of your net.

In the mail, one of the primary cost drivers is postage.  As nonprofits, we get lower postage rates than commercial mailers (but less than members of Congress), but even this cost can be very high, especially for smaller mail runs or non-standard envelope sizes.

So the first tip is test a standard envelope size if you aren’t already doing it.  That oddball envelope may help you get noticed in the mail, but at what cost?  Some research shows that a simple plain white envelope has the highest offline open rates, so you may be paying more for your postage to little or negative effect.

You should also try commingling.  As you might guess, the USPS’s cost of delivering a mail piece increases the number of times a mail piece needs to be touched.  Let’s say you dropped a letter to a donor into your local mail box.  It would then go to, in order:

  • Your local USPS office
  • Your local Sectional Center Facility (SCF)
  • Your regional Network Distribution Center (NDC)
  • Donor’s NDC
  • Donor’s SCF
  • Donor’s USPS office
  • Donor’s mail route
  • Donor

At your NDC, your donor’s NDC, and your donor’s SCF, your letter has to be sorted, organized, and bundled with like envelopes.

Thus, if you can get 150 pieces in the same three-digit ZIP code (the first three digits) and deliver them bundled, you get a discount.  If you have 150 in the same five-digit ZIP code, even better and even more of a discount.

The trick is that you don’t have 150 pieces for each ZIP code.

But your mailer likely does.  Thus, you can save money if your mailer bundles your mailing with other mailings that it is doing (and packages them properly and puts on intelligent bar codes and such).  This is called commingling.

You might ask why someone wouldn’t do this.  When I took over a program, it was specifically banned, because the powers that preceded didn’t want our pieces to go out at the same time as everyone else’s.  I reversed this and laughed all the way to the bank.

There’s another trick you can use beyond commingling and that’s drop shipping.  This involves delivering your mailing to your SCF or NDC yourself, thus cutting two or three steps out of the process.

Note that by “yourself,” I don’t actually mean yourself.  Your mail vendor should be able to do this.  Talk with them about the cost trade-offs of doing this.  If your mailing is large enough (or the mailings you are commingling with are large enough), you should be able to get cost efficiencies here as well.

At the very least, these should be worth discussing with your mail vendor.  If they have never heard of these things, that’s probably a good indication that you are now in the market for a mail vendor.  They should be able to discuss with you the tradeoffs and efficiencies they are able to get.  Also, ask them about how many commingles they do per week.  Ideally, you want three or more so a missed commingle doesn’t delay your mailing by more than two days.

It may only get you a couple pennies per piece here and there, but those are the types of advantages you will scratch and claw for on the response rate and average gift side.

Postage techniques to save money on your direct mail

Attribution challenges for online and offline marketers

This week, we’ve been looking at the differences between online and offline direct marketing and how the specialists from these two different worlds can talk to each other.

This difference may be no more stark than it is for attribution.

With online attribution, you can follow a Web visitors journey through your site.  You can (and should) follow them through the site and say that someone we attract to the home page is worth X; if we get them to take an advocacy alert, they are worth Y; if they download a white paper, they are worth Z.  These steps toward donation each have their place in the donor journey firmament online.

With offline, attribution is usually applied with a sledgehammer — they donated to X mail piece, so X gets the credit.

Having run a quasi-membership program, I’ve seen the absurd joy of watching donations spike to last year’s membership pieces the moment this year’s come out.  (OK, “spike” is a bit dramatic; “hill” perhaps?  They go up by a little for a time, then back down.)  People almost certainly set them aside and then, reminded by the latest piece, send in whatever reply device they have at hand.

This is one minor example of how offline attribution is often done, but simplified to the point of absurdity.  One is put in mind of the old physicists’ joke about milk production:

Ever lower milk prices were driving a dairy farmer to desperate measures, so he consulted with  a theoretical physicist. The physicist listened to his problem, asked a few questions, and then said he’d take the assignment, and that it would take only a few hours to solve the problem. A few weeks later, the physicist phoned the farmer, “I’ve got the answer. The solution turned out to be a bit more complicated than I thought and I’m presenting it at this afternoon’s seminar.”  As the talk begins the physicist approaches the blackboard and draws a big circle. “First, we assume a spherical cow of uniform density…” (here’s the origin joke, which I simplified

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So I guess was the only one who thought of that joke with oversimplification?  Sorry ‘bout that…

Anyway, this way of looking at attribution has several program-damaging faults:

  • It can cause people to cut cultivation communications.  These communications that help retain donors, learn about them, and bring them ever closer to the mission but don’t directly convert can have a big impact on eventual conversion.  In essence, you may end up cutting the wrong thing.
  • It can cause overcommunication.  If you add a communication and it nets positive, you may think it is the power of that communication, when it’s really about the the last communication but there wasn’t enough space between communications to differentiate.
  • It puts you in a mindset where you are thinking about the individual communications, not the individual donors.  This puts you in real trouble.  It’s natural to look at a mail piece or an email and think about how it “generated” the gift (when some research indicates that the last piece is about 16% responsible for a gift, leaving the vast majority to other causes).  In reality, the donor generated the gift.  How do you want to treat that donor going forward.

While sacrilegious to some, offline direct marketers would do well to take a bit of the humility from online attribution models (if not the models themselves) — there is only so much the proximate communication is responsible for.

Attribution challenges for online and offline marketers

What are the open rates and click-throughs of your mail pieces?

It sounds like a non-sensical question.  And it highlights another major difference between offline and online direct marketing — trackability.

Those who live in the digital marketing space are used to being able to track what happens with their emails and campaigns down to the user level.  They complain when tracking pixels don’t work quite the way they are supposed to on every device and aim for ever better attribution models to understand where their investments are going.

XX Home Maytag B.jpgThose in the offline space are used to sending something out and waiting for results.  And waiting.  And waiting.  

Further, they are used to looking at packages as a whole.  They get one result: did someone donate (OK, two: and how much)?  Because of this, it’s tempting to think of mail testing as the thumbs up or thumbs down as in the Roman coliseum.

But you can find out things like your offline open rates and tweak them to your heart’s content. Take a simple 2X2 testing matrix.

While you won’t be able to tell what your actual open rate was, you can to content yourself with relative open rates.  With online, you have an intuitive feel for whether a 20% open rate is good or bad compared with the emails around it (and whether they generally are opened at 10% or 30%).  This same relative weighing works well in mail.  If 20% more people donating with envelope A than with envelope B all other things being equal, then you have a 20% better open rate with envelope A.

Similarly, if letter C does better than letter D by 30% with the other parts of the mail piece staying constant, you have a 30% better “click-through” rate.

And you probably already know the trick that you only have to test three of the four quadrants here.  If envelope A beats B when they both use letter D and letter C beats D when they both use envelope B, chances are pretty good that the winning test is envelope A with letter C, even though that wasn’t a tested combination.

But what you may not know is the right algorithm can do this writ large with a wide variety of variables.  Ask your vendor(s) if they can run permutations that will allow you to figure out what happens when you five envelopes, four offers, three letter permutations, six different ask strings, and so on.  They should be able to create a variablized stew that helps you run a number of tests at once.

The other thing that I’d recommend is not just taking a page from the online playbook, but using online tools to test your efforts first.  Don’t know if your teaser copy will work well?  Try it as an email subject line or a CPC ad headline first.  While the audiences are a bit different online and offline, catchy is generally catchy and boring is boring.  Working out details like this online can save your testing for things that can actually help you get to know your donor better, leading to more valuable communications and donors.  

(Or, better yet, scrap your teaser copy and test a plain white envelope — it may have the best open rate of all.)

What are the open rates and click-throughs of your mail pieces?

Online-offline translation guide for acquisition

When I was an exchange student in Japan, I carried a pocket-size English-Japanese dictionary with me.  (Pocket sized to make sure that it never had quite the word I needed, causing me to resort to “large bald person’s religion’s house” when I wanted to find the Buddhist temple.  I quite possibly offended the entire nation and thus apologize here for my adolescent self.*)

Recently witnessing a conversation between two people– one an older direct mail veteran; the other, a digital native online community builder who may never have seen a piece of paper – put me in mind of those days of mistranslation and bumbling.  They never seemed to grasp that one man’s teaser copy was another woman’s pre-header (or close enough to be getting along with).  Thus, they talked past each other and went their separate ways thinking the other was an idiot, even though they seemed to my ears to be agreeing.

Thus, this week, I’d like to try for some peace, love, and understanding between the often warring nations of offline and online.  Or at least the understanding part.

We’ll start with one of the simplest areas of cultural differences: acquisition.

Those who have been weaned on online will find the offline acquisition culture strange and terrifying.  Most notably, they trade and rent acquisition lists from each other!

For those in the offline world, don’t suggest this as a tactic for your online brethren.  Not only is it illegal (sending unsolicited emails is called spam and it’s even less appetizing than its namesake), but it is culturally not done in the online world.  (Yes, the cultural taboos are even worse than the legal ones.)

Despite, or because of, these differences, however, there is a lot that each tribe can learn from the other.

For online folks, just because you can’t and shouldn’t exchange or rent lists online doesn’t mean that you can’t create mutually beneficial relationships.  You can do this through shepherded emails.  Let’s say another nonprofit has a similar constituents or issue area to you.  You might consider sending an email to your list saying, in essence, that if you like us, you might like them.  And vice versa (of course; there is no quo within the quid).

Similarly, you might try engaging your corporate partners to see if they will run a shepherded email for you to their constituents, urging them to engage with you.  This has its own built-in incentives — the for-profit looks like the valuable philanthropic member of the community they are and you reap the list building benefits.

For offline folks who think the no-list exchange or retail rules are overly puritanical, know that an opt-in model for mail is on the visible horizon.  For those in the US, our friends in Europe are facing this by virtue of EU/UK regulations.  (How politicians justify themselves being able to send mail as they wish with opt-in only for nonprofits baffles me, but I suppose that’s what happens when you write the laws yourself.)

And opting in does provide a stronger bond between you and the donor or potential donor.  Thus, you can learn from your online partners how to build that bond.  Some tips:

  • As we’ve advocated, make sure you are setting expectations for what communications a person will receive in your welcome series.
  • Make it easy for a person to change the frequency, timing, and/or nature of their communications.  One tactic smart online folks will do is have multiple lists for which someone can subscribe.  If a communication is not to the person’s liking, they can be removed from those emailings without losing a constituent.  If a person does not want (for example) premiums, they should be able to request that and have it be honored.
  • Make it easy to opt-out with clearly visible instructions.  A person who asks to be taken off of your mailing list is doing you a favor (not as much of one as they might have done, but a favor nonetheless).  They could simply let you mail away and waste your money, but instead, they are helping you save it.  Help them help you.
  • Get your list through organic means.  Online and offline content can help you build a subscriber and constituent list.  This content marketing isn’t good for just online activation — it can be used for mailing as well.

Hopefully, these will help you discuss acquisition fluently across channels.  Tomorrow, we’ll talk about the cost implications from offline and online, using fun and exciting terms like “marginal costs.”  You won’t want to miss it.

 

* Of course, if I’m apologizing for my adolescent self, we’re talking about way more people than just the entire nation of Japan…

Online-offline translation guide for acquisition