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Is a four-page letter better than a two-page letter?
Tom Ahern

December, 2010

Someone attending a workshop asks from the back of the room, “I’ve just heard that a four-page fundraising letter works better than a two-page letter. Is that true?”

The question comes up a lot. The whole thing seems so bizarre to direct mail novices: How in the world could a longer letter work better? Aren’t we all begging to read less these days, not more?

Yes. And no.

Sorry. There are no easy, every-situation-fits-all, totally predictable, or inviolate answers in direct mail.

First, for instance, you might want to ask, Is it a four-page acquisition letter . . . or is it a four-page renewal letter? Those are two very different beasts.

Often, I see charities sending the same solicitation letter to everyone, whether the recipient has given previously or not.

Rookie mistake.

Acquisition letters answer one set of questions.

Renewal letters answer a different set of questions.

There is not all that much overlap.

Acquisition letters, to succeed, must at least answer these recipient questions:

  • Who the heck are you?
  • What do you want?
  • Why should I trust you?
  • Why do you matter to my world?
  • What’s the rush?

Renewal letters, to succeed, must at least answer these recipient questions:

  • What did you do with my prior gift?
  • Are you grateful?
  • What do you want now?
  • Do you have proof?
  • I forget: Who are you, again?
  • What’s the rush?

Let’s get back to our original conundrum: Why do four-page letters test better in acquisition campaigns?

The veteran direct mail writer would rumble, “In a four-page letter, you have space for twice as many points of interest as you have in a two-page letter.”

Yup, it’s that simple. A four-page letter is twice as large a canvas, where skilled hands can paint a much larger picture. It’s all about how you use the space.

If you use the additional space to bore me, then four pages are twice as excruciating as two.

If you use the additional space to entertain me, then four pages are twice as much fun as two.

Let’s take inventory: What entertains prospective donors?

Sometimes it’s the little things, like the word “you.”

Sometimes it’s emotional triggers like flattery and exclusivity . . . as in this example pulled from my broken-spined 2001 edition of Mal Warwick’s evergreen classic, How to Write Successful Fundraising Letters: “I’m writing to invite you—and a select group of other music lovers in the Bay Area—to take your seat, please.”

Sometimes it’s how you start your story: “Our doctors call it ‘Day Zero.’ It’s the day you come back from the dead.”

Sometimes it’s the enchantment of telling me something I didn’t expect.

All told, if you entertain your readers enough, they really don’t want the experience to end too soon. When I’m writing fundraising direct mail, there’s only one business I’m in, from first word to last: the entertainment business.

Now, truth be told: I, for one, almost never write anything longer than a two-page letter (for acquisition or renewal, doesn’t matter).

Yet my packages, despite the sour economy, have pulled their weight, either holding their own or setting new records.

“Really?” Don’t lie to me, your face beseeches. A two-pager is OK?

“Yes,” I reply. “Pinky swear.”

How can I get by with two-page letters when these experts you hear about say that four-page letters are better?

I love my reader. And I show that love right away and often.

Direct mail appeals aren’t about how wonderful your organization is.

Direct mail appeals are about how wonderful your reader will feel once she becomes a donor and a member of your rootin’-tootin’ family of people banded together in a fight to . . .

. . . well, you fill in the blank.

One of the great pleasures of being a donor (speaking here from experience) is getting into a fight you want to win.

Takeaway: The notion of the four-page letter always beating the two-page letter is enshrined in fundraising lore. This is a true “take it with a grain of salt” moment.

Direct mail professionals know that nothing is always true. That’s why they test.

And, yes, in well-run tests of well-written letters, four-page letters often prevail. But it’s not because of the letter’s length. It’s because of the richness and joy of the reader’s experience.

Thanks to Tom Ahern and the Ahern E-Newsletter: About Donor Communications. Copyright © 2010 by Tom Ahern.



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