The basics of direct marketing testing

It’s testing week here at Direct to Donor and we’re going to start with some simple principles, as is our Monday pattern.  This is the first of many testing weeks, given the importance of the topic.

Unless it doesn’t work, in which case we might never speak of this again.

This is a great segue to the first rule of testing: that which works, works.  That which doesn’t work, doesn’t work.

I know, it sounds like I’m stating the obvious, but there’s an oft-forgotten conclusion from that, which is that if you aren’t willing either to roll out with it or to scrap it, you shouldn’t test it.

Two different much-beloved CEOs have expressed to me over the years that the single best predictor of whether a mail piece would succeed or not is whether they liked the piece.  If they liked it, it wouldn’t work; if they didn’t, it would.

Part of why they were and are much beloved is that it doesn’t matter whether they liked it or not – it was all about whether a tactic worked successfully.  The mantra that goes with this is:

Or, as I would put it, it doesn’t matter if the source if the quote is a damn dirty Commie if it’s a good quote.

That said, there are some things that are beyond what your organization will accept.  For example, an environmental organization shouldn’t use paper in their mailings from non-recycled old growth forests.

If that’s the case, then, don’t test it.  A goal of testing is to find something that will be able to use in some larger capacity in the future.  If that isn’t possible, it eliminates the need for the test.

That said, the list of sacred cows should be as small as possible.  You’ll hear me say test everything and I mean it – other than things that are untenable, experimentation is the best and truest way of learning.  Donor surveys are great, but they show what people think they would do and how they would react versus what they do do; it’s important not to confuse words and deeds.

There are things that are far more important to test than others.  That’s why it’s important to start with a hypothesis and to test the fundamentals first.  I love tests that nibble around the edges as much as the next person – if you can show me how to improve a piece with a different teaser and pick up 1.4% additional in response rate, I’m game.  But the most important tests that you run will be about fundamentals – who are the people that I should be talking to and what offer am I giving them.  Having a hypothesis will help with this and the broader it goes is better.  A hypothesis like “I believe our lapsed donors will respond best to the means and message that brought them into the organization initially” works well because it lends itself to testing on various platforms with a variety of tactics and a success could mean large things for the organization.  One like “I believe a larger envelope will work better” is restricted to one piece at one time and thus has limited ripple effect.

Finally, please learn from my mistakes and don’t test something by rolling out with it.  I did this in my first year of nonprofit marketing.  We had three underperforming mail pieces and I decided to replace them with new packages I had dreamt up.  Thankfully, I was lucky – the success of one of my pieces paid for the abject failure of the other two.  If I hadn’t been lucky, I might be blogging on effective panhandling tips right now.  You don’t want to put your nonprofit in a position where hitting goals and achieving mission is based on your hunch.

This may be a bit of conventional wisdom.  However, tomorrow, there is one piece of conventional testing wisdom that needs to be taken out back and shot for the benefit of your testing program.

The basics of direct marketing testing

The basics of retention

I had the pleasure of speaking on an excellent panel last week with NonProfit Pro on the topic of donor retention, so instead of our regularly scheduled week, let’s look at retaining our donors.

As direct marketers, we often have every bit of data about an appeal or campaign at our fingertips.  We can track average gift and response rate, test versus control packages, open rates, click-throughs, conversions, and so on.

The thing that is often forgotten is that each number represents people.  Everyone who gets a piece of mail, email, phone call, or text (or fax blast, carrier pigeon, telegram, etc.) votes on it by their action or lack thereof.

Lost in the numbers of an appeal or campaign performance are the metrics that matter in the long-term: are our strategies helping you love those who support you more and/or helping your supporters love you more?

Yes, it sounds a bit hippie-ish, as if I’m going to get the drum circle out any moment.  And part of it is – these are the people who make our work possible.

But even if we must look at this from under our green eye shades through our decidedly non-rose-colored glasses, it makes both sense and cents to make donor retention a top priority.

Our direct marketing programs are like a bucket with a hole in the bottom of it.  If you want the water level to rise, you can only do one of two things – poor more water into the bucket, or decrease the size of the hole.  Given this analogy, you might wonder why you would bother to pour water into a bucket with a big hole in it.

Hand pouring water from a glass into a leaking pail
The image of a leaky pail of water that is legally required
to accompany all retention commentary.

And you would be right – retaining the donors we have is of greater importance than acquiring new ones.  While you certainly can’t stop acquiring to focus on retention (less you get down to one very very very loyal donor), keeping with donors with your organization is vital for several reasons:

  • It’s cheaper. There are very figures for this.  Some say it’s twice as expensive to acquire a donor as to retain one.  Others say it’s 12 times as expensive.  Someone out there right now is working on a study that definitely concludes that it is a hillion jillion times more expensive.  Bottom line, it’s cheaper to retain a donor than to acquire one, by a factor of X, where X is big enough to be important.
  • It’s easier. Picture addressing your acquisition package, email, or phone call to someone that you know already knows what your organization is, what you do, and kinda likes it.  Cuts a few sentences, maybe paragraphs, out of it, no?
  • Retained donors are of greater value than new donors. We’ll talk retention rates tomorrow, in that people who have only given one gift are far less likely to stay with your organization.  They also tend to give more gifts and more per gift.
  • Retained donors are of greater value, part 2. Major donors rarely come from the ranks of people who made one gift to your organization; that’s something that comes from a longer-term association with you.  Additionally, more than half of bequest givers have given to an organization 15 times or more.

So this week, we’ll talk about donor retention: how to measure it, why people stop giving, how to get that elusive second gift, and how to reactivate a lapsed donor.  Like many of these topics, each one of these could be its own book (and some are), so if there are areas of particular interest to you, let me know by email or in the comments and I will work to dedicate a week to the topic.

The basics of retention

Your first acquisition mailings

The first thing to know is that mail programs will generally lose money initially. Even if you have great donors and good packages at first, the cost of growing the program will likely outstrip the benefits of running it at first, especially because there are significant fixed costs in the mailing space (e.g., it costs just as much to copywrite a letter than does to 100 people as it does one that goes to 100,000).

Acquisition is where you can get into serious money. Acquisition is designed to lose money for all but the most (absurdly) conservative organization. It’s an investment in bringing new people into the organization and getting them to support you financially. Yet, it’s necessary to start to build your file and lower your marginal costs.

One way to do acquisition on the cheap is with warm and conversion leads. Warm leads are people who have engaged with your organization non-financially (e.g., remember those folks we got to download our white paper last week and give us their contact info?); conversion leads are people who have donated, but not through the mail (e.g., online donors, walkers, gala attendees, etc.). These are inexpensive ways to get new donors, as you don’t have to pay list rental fees.

The other way to get names is, not surprisingly, to pay list rental fees. Try to find organizations like yours to test their lists – often people who support an environmental/cultural/health/etc. charity support many of them. It’s much easier to convince someone to support something very like what they already support.

It also behooves you to put your list up for rental/exchange as well. This will lower your list costs because you will be trading lists with some nonprofits instead of renting theirs.

Charity Navigator will ding you for having a privacy policy that allows this, even if you allow people to opt out of list rental/exchange at any time. Like so many things in the nonprofit world, Charity Navigator is wrong about this. They would recommend, in fact, that you not mail your donors because of the cost involved and because they don’t believe that part of the mailing is a program expense designed to educate your supporters about your issue and promote awareness. That said, if you took the same mail piece and gave it out at a walk instead of putting a stamp on it, it could be considered almost entirely a program expense.

If this doesn’t seem burdened by an overabundance of logic, you would be correct. Generally, you would do well to take a George Costanza approach to Charity Navigator and simply “do the opposite” of their guidance.

In addition to rental and exchange markets, you can also work with cooperatives to get additional names. These coops include Abacus, Dataline, Datalogix, DonorBase, I-Behavior, Target Analytics and Wiland. I think I’ve tried almost all of these at some time or another. These coops share names among them and will build a model of response to get the best possible donor lists for your organization. Think of it as not renting from 10 different lists, but rather getting the best from 20 different lists. Some work better for some organizations than others and it may take a few to get it right.

The downside here is that your best names will start to get mail from a lot of different organizations. On the flipside, you have access to the best quality names from other organizations. Be sure to hold out part of your file to determine the impact of this mailing structure on your file.

After you look at your first bill for an acquisition and regain consciousness, you will rediscover the value of warm leads. Just because you started a paid mail program doesn’t mean that the free tips discussed earlier, especially about working to turn your Web site into a constituent generator, don’t still apply. On the contrary, free is often the best possible price. Adding to the original thoughts, now that you’ve run a program, look at lapsed donors as another source of (re)acquisition. Generally speaking, lapsed donors once renewed will be more loyal to your organization than an outside acquired name and they generally acquire more inexpensively.

So far, I’ve been talking about mailings – online and off – as one size fits all. In reality, if time and money were no objects, each communication you would send out would be handcrafted and uniquely personalized and there would be bespoke artisanal direct mail pieces coming out of Brooklyn and Portland in lavender scented envelopes.

In truth, you aim for something in the middle using customization. That will be the topic for the rest of the week.

Your first acquisition mailings

Turning on the online spigot

You have the forms, but now you need the traffic. Well, it’s important to remember that Field of Dreams was a work of fiction – building it is not a sufficient condition for people coming.

To start, you do have Google Grants don’t you? If not, we’ll wait right here while you apply.

(pause)

So, how about that local sports team? I heard they won or lost yesterday. That coach is a genius. Or should be fired.

(pause)

OK, you’re back. I’ll talk more about Google Grants in the future, but suffice it to say it’s a great way to start acquiring warm leads. There are limitations like the $2 cost-per-click maximum that chaff some in the nonprofit world, but try applying for this free money from Bing or Yahoo and you’ll find it doesn’t exist.  So $2 CPC it is.

As part of your Google Grant process, you need to identify some keywords and phrases that are important for your organization.

To do this, you will have to speak like a human being. There is a cognitive bias known as the curse of knowledge – once you know something, it’s really hard to act as though you don’t know that thing. Or, as the original authors of the paper describe it:

“In economic analyses of asymmetric information, better-informed agents are assumed capable of reproducing the judgments of less-informed agents. We discuss a systematic violation of this assumption that we call ‘the curse of knowledge.’”

There is a wonderful irony in this definition.

Anyway, in order to determine how people will find your wonderfully constructed conversion forms, you need to think like they will think. One example is from MADD. The organization teaches that there is no such thing as a drunk driving accident – that each crash is 100% preventable and that drunk driving is a violent crime.

Unfortunately, that’s not how people search for the terms.  Google Trends searches for drunk driving accident are in red; searches for drunk driving crash are in blue:

drunk driving accident crash

So MADD has ads set up for both accident and crash – they won’t say accident in their copy (ever), but they meet people where they are searching.

The same terms that you are advertising on with Google Grants should also be terms that you use in the page that you are looking to optimize. Not only will it help people convert once they come to the page, but it will also improve your performance for those terms in search engines. If you have partners in the space, be sure to link their pages and vice versa. This will increase your traffic and improve your search engine listing as well. There are a number of additional tips for optimizing for search engines that will cover at another time.

If you are developing and driving traffic to your online funnels and communicating with them regularly by email, you’ll have a better idea of what messages work for your audience and what don’t. From there, you can get a feel for whether a more robust direct marketing effort can further increase your net income. And remember, mo’ money means mo’ mission.

Thanks for reading. Please be sure to comment on this first week of blogging below, so that I can better write for your needs and thank you for your support!

Turning on the online spigot

Sending your first email

Now you have an email client. And I have a print version of what I’d like to send. I can just put it in a PDF and attach it, right?

No. An effective email is not:

  • An attached PDF. PDFs limit interactivity and frequently exceed attachment limitations on emails, which limit deliverability.
  • An email asking someone to click to go to your newsletter online. Every click you add adds friction to the process and increases the likelihood that people will abandon your newsletter, especially when you don’t have the space to explain what you want them to do.
  • An email asking someone to download your PDF newsletter. All of the disadvantages of a PDF with the additional friction of an added click.

This brings up the question of what it is. A good email is:

  • About the person receiving it. “I” is bad. “You” is good. Me Tarzan. You Jane. Seriously, though, you want to be talking to donors, volunteers, and other supporters what they are doing through you. You are the tool that good people use to do good things. You should brag about yourself about as much as an Allen wrench brags about those Hemnes dressers it made.“We” is controversial. My perspective on it is that it depends on the use of “we.” If “we” is your nonprofit, it’s bad. If “we” is the community of people dedicated to making a cause come to pass, and you can clearly delineate it as such (this is hard to do), it can be good. “We” in the sense of Queen Victoria expressing her lack of amusement: awesome.
  • About a discrete topic. Frequently, email newsletters try to be all things to all people, instead of telling a compelling story.
  • About an interesting topic. This sounds like it would be self-evident, but you would be amazed about email newsletters that talk about the check presentation that just happened or the award from the local Chamber of Commerce the nonprofit received. Most bad topics fail the first test of whether they are about the person receiving it, but some other bad ones are about the person receiving it, but forget that that person is a person and thus is both self-interested and not immortal (thus not having ultimate time to read your newsletter).
  • Equipped with what you want people to do. You do not want to wind up your audience and not have them know what they are supposed to do with their new information.

If you are just starting out, try a few different types of emails to see what resonates with your audience. A few to try:

  • Thank you emails, whether it’s for donating or volunteering or simply being an email subscriber. People generally complain as much about being thanked too often as they hate being too handsome or too rich. Or so I’m told by handsome and rich people.
  • Urgent! Email is the perfect medium to get out timely communications. I’ll talk about ways to take advantage of this with things like matching gifts, but an urgent email is usually a good one.
  • Other ways to support. You will eventually be asking for money by email and if you are doing it right, you will be doing it often. To lay the groundwork for this, be sure to mix in other ways to support your organization that don’t involve a credit card. This can be volunteering, advocating, telling friends about something important, taking a pledge, giving your more information about their preferences, engaging in a cause-related marketing campaign and more.
  • The inside scoop. People love to get exclusive information, to feel like they are inside the velvet rope. One great example of this was chronicled in The Audacity to Win, David Plouffe’s account of the 2008 Obama campaign. In it, he reveals that offering people the opportunity to get the VP pick texted to them increased their mobile subscribers by 1500%. It can work for you too.

These learnings can be the background for your entire direct marketing campaign. Now is the time to find your voice and the issues that work for you, before it costs a lot of money to get that message out.

These are the basics. Now, you need a list. We’ll start that discussion tomorrow.

Sending your first email

Setting up your outbound emails

Surely, you can test email marketing by going into Outlook or Gmail and hitting send right?

No, you can’t.

And don't call me Shirley

There are a few reasons for this:

  • Putting a bunch of people in the To: line of an email gives everyone’s email address to everyone else. This will royally tick off everyone who is on the list, making your list smaller and far angrier at you. And let the fates help you if someone decides to reply to all.
  • You’ll just put them in the BCC line instead? Both every email system worth its salt and AOL will recognize your message as spam, putting it in email purgatory with emails like online scams, pictures of (redacted), and (really really redacted) that you won’t be able to get out of your mind.
  • You can’t effectively customize emails. The loveliest sound to all of us, from the age of two-ish on, is the sound of our own name. Not having a name in an email isn’t a cardinal sin, but it is a venal one.
  • You can’t test and you can’t effectively report results. This is a cardinal sin. The commandments say “Thou shalt test,” and implied within that is being able to measure the results of said test.You may argue that it isn’t actually a commandment, but it will be at least as helpful to you in your career as anything that anyone says about donkey-coveting.
  • Your emails will look bad. This is not necessarily a deal-breaker. Ugly can often convert well. Let me rephrase: your emails will not look like you intend them to. That is the deal-breaker.

So you want some email software to help automate your sending. The things you are looking for are:

  • Quality reporting, including open rates, click-through rates, click-through rates on each link, unsubscribe rates, and (ideally) conversions. If you can’t measure conversions through your email reporting, you can set up different forms for each email and measure it on the back end.
  • Ideally, you want to be able to address people by name as discussed above. Also, you’d like to be able to customize other information. I’ve seen double-digit response rate increases just through simple state customization like “help reduce childhood cancer rates in XXStateXX.”
  • Mobile adaptivity. We’ll talk more about this in coming months, but if you had to choose whether something will look good on mobile or on desktop, you might choose mobile. Fortunately, you shouldn’t have to choose.
  • Form management. Your email provider should ideally have forms that allow people to sign up that automatically go into your email database. This moves people through your system easily and makes your life a lot easier.
  • Managing unsubscribes, email preferences, etc. Same reason.

If you absolutely must have free, you might want to look at Vertical Response, which gives you 10,000 emails per month free, and MailChimp, which gives you 12,000/month. Please post your comments in the, you know, comments section on either system.  I’m starting up with MailChimp, so if you would like to test the user experience for receiving newsletters, you can sign up at right. (hint hint)

However, I strongly urge you to look into email providers that you may pay for, in that it’s really nice to have an email system that ties into your larger database, is part of a true CRM system, or can be part of a larger marketing platform. Take a look at user ratings of different email systems (and different types of systems). This does bode well for MailChimp, which was highly reviewed for small and medium enterprises.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about actual email content.

Setting up your outbound emails

Starting a direct marketing program

There really is no reason not to have some form of direct marketing program. Strong use of, at the very least, email can lead to incremental revenues for your organization and deepen the ties that your supporters have to you. But jumping in with both feet can be extremely expensive for your organization and hurt your ability to fulfill your mission.

So how should you start? Blackbaud counsels you in their guide:

“The best way for your organization to tell if it is direct marketing-ready is to conduct a feasibility study with a proven direct marketing strategist. You wouldn’t launch a capital campaign or any major change in strategy without first consulting the experts in this area; the same should be said for direct marketing.”

So obviously you don’t want to do that.

Seriously. Don’t do that.

This is for a few reasons:

  • It will be expensive, just for the consultant.
  • Asking a direct marketing consultant whether you should do a direct marketing program is like asking your seven-year-old daughter if you should get a pony. (Yes, this is a gender-based stereotype. I base this solely on my own daughter, who would answer very much in the affirmative.) It is in their best interest for you to take your entire reserves and start acquiring donors every channel. For example, did you know that Blackbaud, who recommends you hire a direct marketing consultant, provides direct marketing consultants?This is not to pick on Blackbaud. (OK, maybe a little.) But while almost all consultants of my acquaintance are too professional to start spending your second mortgage on list rentals and will try to recommend a reasonable approach, they don’t necessarily have the entire view of your organization and competing priorities in mind.
  • You don’t need one. You can start a direct marketing program on the cheap and learn many of the things you need to know for a full-scale program without a consultant.

One of our mantras here is going to be to test everything – fire bullets, then cannonballs. Or it would be if we were to start having mantras. You will likely eventually need an agency and they can be a great creative and strategic partner. And you are going to make mistakes at first, but better than you are making the mistakes yourself than paying someone else to make them.

So let’s start with testing and let’s start with free. For acquisition, look at what you have around you already. You probably have lists already – people who you’ve served, alumni, gala attendees, walkers, open house attendees, whatever. These are all warm leads – people already pre-disposed to supporting you.

For there, develop your online warm lead acquisition machine. Do you have white papers, tip sheets, pledges, petitions, or any other online interactions? Ask for an email address and permission. Then, start pushing people to those pages, through smart use of search engines and Google Grants.

Now, start up your email newsletter. It need not be fancy. But it needs to be about what the donors and volunteers are making possible. And then it can also be about what additional support can do for the mission.

This skips over a few key things for your free start to direct marketing:

So, we have our marching orders for the rest of the week, with a post on each. Thanks for reading!

PS. If you still think you need a consultant, let me know. I’ll be inexpensive and I can pad this blog post to well over 50 pages, assuming I can add in some charts and graphs.

Starting a direct marketing program