How to Write to a Donor

penDo you remember your first “real” job?

Mine was selling encyclopedias door to door. (Note to readers under 30: “Encyclopedias” are 30-volume sets of books that have information about a lot of stuff. Think “Wikipedia” with better pictures, fewer editing errors, and a 4-figure price tag.)

As part of the training, they had us memorize and practice a sales pitch, then sent us out to the field. Most of the new guys did great. I was the Hindenburg, Apollo 13 and Hurricane Katrina rolled into a massive ball of hopeless disaster. Zero sales the first day, zero the second, zero the third, etc. After a week of wasting perfectly good sales leads on me, my sales manager accompanied me on a call. We went to a home, I did the pitch flawlessly, but … no sale. As soon as we left, I asked the sales manager, “So? What did I do wrong?”

He said, “You lost that sale in the first 3 minutes. You never engaged them, never asked them about themselves. Your pitch sounded canned, because it WAS canned. They thought, ‘he doesn’t care about me, why should they buy something from him?’”

Oh. So sales isn’t a one-way street. It’s matching what the prospect needs with what you can offer.

Which brings me to this blog post. If I am going to engage you, I need to give you worthwhile information on something you care about. Unfortunately, the only thing I know about you is – well, that you’re reading this post. So I’m going to start with an assumption:

If you’re reading this, I am going to assume you fit into one of two categories: 1) you write fundraising direct mail copy, or 2) you review copy someone else has written.

Two principles to keep in mind

I have just demonstrated my first principle of DM copywriting – envision your target audience.

“But,” you say, “That may not be an accurate assumption. Anyone could be reading this blog.”

That’s true. But I still think this is the right approach. Why? Because you should write to the people who might respond, not the entire world (my second principle).

“But, but, but …”

This is painful for the person paying the bills. “I’m paying good money to reach 100% of the mailing list! I want to talk to them all!” I get that, and I sympathize. No-one likes to knowingly waste money.

But, think about the arithmetic of direct mail. What would be a great response rate for your mailing? 2%? 4%? TEN percent? If you got a 10% response rate, people would be turning backflips and swigging champagne (OK, maybe not the champagne … and, at my age, maybe not the backflips either. But you’d all be pretty happy, right?)

The flip side of response rate and why it matters

The thing is, a 10% response rate means a 90% NON response rate. The huge majority of your target audience is not going to respond. How depressing! Actually, it’s sort of liberating, because, as a writer, my advice is: forget about them. There is nothing you can do or say or show that will convince them to respond. They are “no’s.”

Conversely (and happily!), there are a small percentage of people who will respond to anything. You could scrawl “send money” on the back of an old shopping list and a check would be on its way. They’ve completely internalized your mission, they love you, and they just need a reminder to give – the idea behind “collection plate” DM. These folks are “yes’s.”

The sweet spot for the writer

But, for a writer, neither of these are your REAL audience. Instead, write to the “maybe’s.” These are the people who might respond if you say the right things to them. If I’m back selling encyclopedias, these folks haven’t slammed the door in my face, but they haven’t called in an unsolicited order either. They’ve invited me into their home, but told me they only have a few minutes.

That’s your audience.

“But,” the bill payer from a few paragraphs back protests, “What’s the HARM in creating messages for everyone? Why not at least TRY??” The answer is, it can sabotage your mailing: the less specific your message, the less it will appeal to the REAL audience, the maybes. Stated another way, you’d have to reduce the effectiveness of your message to the people who might respond, in an effort to appeal to people who won’t respond anyway. When you say it like that, it’s an easy call.

OK. What next? “What” next.

So that’s the “who.” Let’s talk about the “what.” As in, WHAT should we say in our mailing? There are, roughly, four things you have to answer for a prospect before they send you a check. I will describe them in my next post. Stay tuned!