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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

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"I'll never give you a penny again!" Music to my ears.
Tom Ahern

August, 2010

Here's a terrific direct mail concept the client refused to try. Take it if you want ... and if you dare.


When organizations who are inexperienced with direct mail ask me to write a them a fundraising appeal, I insist they agree to one thing up front: that they will mail my package verbatim.

Sure, they can correct my factual errors. But otherwise they're told: hands off.

My reason is simple. When you hire me, you're hiring a Terminator robot, dedicated to one goal: I'm going to try to make you as much money as I can.

That takes (at a minimum) boldness, imagination, revelations, flagrant displays of emotion, and a good working knowledge of best practices in sales psychology. Bland, routine, boring, me-too direct mail will not work nearly as well. Or at all.

I know that (from bitter experience). Every successful direct mail writer knows that (from bitter experience). Clients who are direct mail novices, though, often don't know that; and worse, don't accept it. Therein lies the rub.

A state university recently asked me to write their new alumni-giving appeal. They hadn't done much direct mail in the past. Alumni giving was low. I asked, "And you'll send out what I write verbatim?" They said, Yes, we will.

I decided to test that compliance and sent them this email:

Dear [contact name at the university's development office], I need this opening approved, if you will. Once that's done, we can move on.

The letter will be signed by the president. The rest of the letter, after the opening, will talk about how poorly state schools are supported -- all over the country -- by their alums. At some Ivy League schools, almost 100% of alums give every year. At most state universities, less than 10% of alums give every year. The consequences are grave.

The future excellence of [your university] depends on donor support. Here's my 1st draft opening:

Dear [alumni name],

    Pity public schools like [Our State] University.

    We can't ever get any better -- until we drum up lots more philanthropic support from you and other proud [Our State University] alums.

This approach will [probably, as much as direct mail can promise] work, my email concluded. If the school can't approve this opening, then there's no point in proceeding.

Guess what?

The school didn't approve my opening. They graciously asked me how much they owed me for my time. I told them to forget it.

Truth is, I should pay them: I eliminated with about five minutes of writing a client that was not ready, I suspect, to push hard enough to succeed at direct mail fundraising.

The point of fundraising direct mail is to raise as much money as possible. Offending as few sensibilities as possible is absolutely not the point. Of course, you can raise a ton of money without offending anyone. But being inoffensive is not your #1 priority. Raising money is.

And that sometimes means taking risks.

I learned very early in my copywriting career, probably from someone like Mal Warwick, that complaints are a form of feedback.

If you send a direct mail piece, for instance, and no one calls up to say, "How dare you! I'll never give you a penny again!", there's a real chance that your work is too bland to stimulate strong response.

Takeaway >>>>

I am not saying direct mail should set out to offend people: "Hey, moron, send us a gift!" That would be fatally stupid.

What I am saying is, you can't please everyone. And if you do please everyone, especially everyone in your office, from the president on down, then that direct mail package you've hung all your hopes (and postage and printing) on just might be born to fail.


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