Stop Making Stupid Email and Direct Mail Mistakes

Last week, my wife received an email appeal that demonstrates that fundraising professionals continue to make stupid email and direct mail mistakes. I’m not talking about fundraisers who have failed to use cutting-edge techniques. Instead, I’m talking about folks who have made S-T-U-P-I-D mistakes when it comes to the fundamentals of making a simple appeal.

To help you avoid some common, yet stupid, mistakes with your email and direct mail appeals, I’m going to share the email solicitation my wife received from the Rosenbach Museum and Library:

Rosenbach Email Appeal copy

Now, let’s look closely at the appeal to see where the author went wrong:

Subject Line: The subject line on the email reads, “Please support the Rosenbach!” Unless the recipient was waiting around anxiously for some way to donate to the Rosenbach, why would she even bother to open the email? The subject line tells the reader what she needs to know about the content: The Rosenbach wants money. And it either wants lots of money or needs money desperately judging from the exclamation point.

Rather than opening the email, my wife mentioned it to me because of the ridiculously bad subject line. When I asked her to open the email and read it aloud, she initially refused, saying, “We know what they want. They want money. Why bother opening it?” (By the way, we actually happen to like the Rosenbach; that’s why we’re on their email list.) I replied, “I bet the email is equally bad and that they even mention the end of their fiscal year.” So, with a sense of amusement, she opened the email.

Tip 1: Write a subject line that will entice the reader to open the email. Avoid turn-off subject lines or those that are misleading. For help writing more effective subject lines and headlines, checkout the Headline Analyzer tool.

Inappropriate Personalization: Right at the start, the author missteps. The email begins, “Dear Lisa.” Some people, particularly younger readers, might not find this problematic. However, Lisa does not know the email’s signatory, Derick Dreher. It was presumptuous of Dreher to address her by first name rather than as Mrs. Rosen or Ms. Rosen. Interestingly, adopting a less friendly and more formal style by the end of the email, Dreher signed his full name rather than just his first name.

Tip 2: When addressing people, especially strangers you want something from them, it’s generally a good idea — and always good manners — to show respect and a bit of deference. At the very least, if you’re going to use a casual salutation, be sure to match that style with a casual sign-off.

End of Fiscal Year: No one cares about the end of your fiscal year. Let me be perfectly clear: NO ONE CARES ABOUT THE END OF YOUR FISCAL YEAR! Okay, your Chief Financial Officer cares. However, your prospects and donors do not. Unfortunately, in the very first sentence of the appeal, it mentions that the Rosenbach is nearing the end of its fiscal year. If this was tied to a challenge grant that was about to expire at the end of the fiscal year, that might have been a worthwhile point to make. However, by itself, who cares?

Tip 3: Be donor centered and recognize that donors care about their own fiscal year, not yours. Unless you have a very good reason to talk about the end of your fiscal year, don’t do it.

Engagement: As if the first sentence wasn’t bad enough, the author made it even worse by referencing that Bloomsday has come to a close. There are two reasons this is a negative. First, my wife and I have no idea what “Bloomsday” is. So, why should we care about it?

Second, if Bloomsday was some sort of fun, worthwhile event, telling us about it after the fact is simply annoying and would make us feel terrible that we didn’t know about it in advance (hint, hint). Perhaps, the Rosenbach should have segmented its email list to send slightly different messages to those who did and did not participate in Bloomsday.

Tip 4: Talk about events and accomplishments, just make sure your reader knows what you’re talking about and that they will actually care. In this case, what is Bloomsday, why does it matter that it’s over, and why should the reader care?

Institutional Speak: Sadly, the message continues to slide downhill with the third sentence: “Thanks to you, our supporters, this has been an astounding year.” There are several problems with this sentence. First, the author is thanking my wife for support she did not provide.

Second, is the author writing to my wife (“you”) or to some broader group (“our supporters”)? The slip into broad, institutional-speak is a not good.

Third, use of the word “astounding” is vague; was the year astoundingly good or bad? You have to wait until the second paragraph to discover that the author probably meant astoundingly good.

Tip 5: Remember that you are one person writing to one person. Your language and tone should reflect that no matter how many email and/or direct mail appeals you send. You’re not addressing a group in each individual email or letter.

Need: If the Rosenbach did astoundingly well without my wife’s support, why does it need my wife’s support now? Here’s the case for support as presented in the email: “All of these programs, events, and exhibitions were possible because of the support of our members and donors. As the Rosenbach continues to grow and looks ahead to an exciting 2016-2017, we hope that you will continue to support us by attending lectures, tours, special events, and exhibitions and also by making a gift to the Rosenbach Fund.”

Again, my wife did not donate to support the Rosenbach within the past 12 months nor has she attended any events or programs in that time, so she did not help make the programs possible.

Second, the author does not bother to tell the reader anything about the so-called “exciting” events that are upcoming that might actually inspire support. Also, it was a missed opportunity to re-engage my wife by encouraging her to attend a specific upcoming program.

Tip 6: Establish a case for support. You can be pithy, but you still need to explain where the donor’s money will go and why you need it now. If there’s an opportunity for engagement, seize it.

The Ask: Toward the end of the email, the author writes, “Please donate today, become a member, or join the Delancey Society, and help us continue to be a world-class literary institution.” First, there is no specific dollar amount requested. A solid appeal will almost always ask for a specific dollar amount.

For renewing or lapsed donors, the amount requested will ideally relate to that individual’s prior support. In other words, you wouldn’t want to ask a $1,000 donor to give $25, nor would you want to ask a $25 donor to give $1,000 in this context. Second, does the Rosenbach prefer that my wife donate or become a member? It’s unclear and confusing.

The message is made even more confusing by suggesting she consider becoming part of the Delancey Society; the reader has to click through to find out what on Earth that is.

Tip 7: Ask for a specific dollar amount that is appropriate given the donor’s giving history. Do not muddy the waters by asking for more than one thing.

Bogus Information: Things continue to get worse when the reader clicks through to the donation landing-page. The page reads, “Donate. Contribute to the Rosenbach Fund. A contribution to the Rosenbach Fund means 100% of your donation preserves our world-class collection, creates imaginative programs that inspire curiosity, creativity, and inquiry, and provides research services to scholars and the general public.”

Unless its fundraising costs have been completely underwritten — the author does not mention this anywhere — the Rosenbach is not using “100%” of each donation for the purposes outlined. A portion of the donations will actually go toward fundraising expenses and other overhead costs. By suggesting that the full amount of each donation goes to mission fulfillment, the Rosenbach is being misleading.

Tip 8: Always be honest. Avoid clever linguistic gymnastics that might allow you to be technically accurate while still misleading your reader. Truthfulness helps build trust, which helps build support.

For additional helpful tips, read my post “What NOT to Do in Your Email or Direct Mail Appeals.

Because we can all improve our email and direct mail skills, what are some of your favorite tips? If you’ve sent or received an excellent email appeal, please provide a link to it in the comment section.

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

UPDATE (August 29, 2016): I recently received a message from Sara Davis, the Rosenbach’s new Manager of Marketing. It’s a superb example of how to turn criticism into an opportunity. You can read her message and my comments about it by reading “Do You Know How to Take Criticism?” In addition, you can vote in a poll about whether I should continue to name names.

18 Responses to “Stop Making Stupid Email and Direct Mail Mistakes”

  1. This is one of your best posts! Thank you for saying all of this.

    I’d like to add that fundraisers need to stop looking at open rates. They don’t matter. It’s click-thru’s and (even more importantly) engagement online including donations, downloads, and time on site that really matter.

    More on that here:

  2. …or the FYE letter we got from a small organization where we are among the highest level donors (it’s a low bar at this small org)…where the letter made no mention of our more-than-most support, was not signed, no personal note (e.g., “thanks for being there for us earlier in the year”), was addressed by mailing label, and this is the best part…we received two identical generic copies of the same letter… We still love and support the organization, but really.

    • Kevin, thank you for sharing your experience. One of the things that disturbs me about charities not fundraising in a competent way is that the result is less money for mission fulfillment. As fundraisers, we might be willing to cut a fellow fundraiser some slack; unfortunately, others are less likely to do so. As for the charity in your story, they would be very wise to try to hire you as a consultant.

  3. Mrs. Rosen is exactly right. With a headline that bluntly asks for a donation, why bother to read the content of the message? We are all pressed for time. A better headline might be to mention the names of the guest speakers, or to rouse the reader’s curiosity with something more offbeat and cryptic, like “Rabbits, Ireland, and More Fun in the Year Ahead”. That would, of course, require the author to know the events for the year ahead. In that regard, fundraisers are oftentimes, frustrated by their own organization’s inability to prepare its programs in sufficient time for the fundraisers to present their organization’s story in a compelling way because they lack basic facts. Even if this appeal had a compelling story, it was still sent to a scattershot audience. Non-donors, Rosenbach Fund donors past and present, Rosenbach Members, and Delancey Society Members are all treated as the same donor. This gives the fundraiser no opportunity to say to non-donors, “Wouldn’t you want to be part of our group?” All the recipients were treated as current Rosenbach Fund donors, with no opportunity to say to lapsed donors, “We miss you!” Most important, there was no opportunity to recognize the most deeply-committed groups, the Members and Delancey Society Members, and treat them as the “insiders” who are fully aware of the connection between their donation and the health of the program and the variety and abundance of activities, and could be engaged in a deeper discussion of the organization’s longer-term plans. The appeal your wife received was a “one size fits all” shirt that doesn’t suit anybody particularly well.

    • Gina, thank you for making an excellent point. Writing a one-size-fits-all appeal is certainly easier for a fundraiser, but it’s not nearly as effective as crafting targeted appeals for specific audiences.

      By the way, you can always feel free to call me “Michael.” You’ve probably noticed that I always refer to people by first name in my responses to comments. There are several reasons I do this. The number-one reason is that I often only see someone’s first name when they write. Also, some first names don’t make gender identification possible. In addition, it’s often impossible to know the correct pre-title (i.e., Dr., Mr., Mrs., Ms. Mx.). Finally, I want to maintain a reasonably friendly, open, welcoming environment here. So, for all of these reasons and more, I’ve opted for consistency and informality. I just thought I’d mention it since I raised the issue of forms of address in my post.

      Thanks again.

  4. Well, well done analysis, Michael! The best way to talk about how things should be done is to use real-world examples.

  5. Michael, you make excellent points. Every nonprofit should be able to write a great subject line: that costs no money at all! If the nonprofit has any kind of donor database, they should be able to segment their list: at the very least, into prospects and renewals. And appeal letters should always be written TO somebody, FROM somebody.

    About those salutations you mentioned in Tip 2: I asked a group of nonprofit consultants,”You have a donor in your database and you don’t know their gender. When you send them mail, what do you call them?

    a) Dear Friend
    b) Dear Mr. Lastname
    c) Dear Ms. Lastname
    d) Dear Firstname”

    I found that opinions differed greatly. There are some solid reasons for each, In the end, though, you have to know what the donor prefers to be called.

    • Dennis, thank you for your comment and the link to your post. You’re right; ideally, charities will use the salutation form that is preferred by the individual they are contacting. I’ll have more about that in an upcoming post. However, when a charity does not know how a donor wishes to be addressed and where there is nothing but a transactional rather than personal relationship, I continue to suggested erring on the side of more formal social convention. If a charity chooses to deviate from that form, it should do so with some consistency. For example, if a letter addresses me by first name, the signer should sign only his/her first name.

      My all-time favorite handling of salutations by one of my clients occurred years ago. A chamber orchestra’s Music Director agreed to hand-sign each of the direct mail letters. The salutations all included the person’s pre-title. The Music Director signed his name and wrote a quick P.S. such as “I hope you’re enjoying the season.” Whenever he came across a name he knew (i.e., a prominent donor, a subscriber, a patron he had met, etc.), the Music Director crossed out the formal salutation and wrote in the individual’s first name. The P.S. message was then appropriately personalized. Needless to say, the extra effort really paid off big time.

      By the way, one problem with using a first-name salutation is that it is often difficult to get it right. In the case of the Music Director I mentioned, he used a first-name form of address when he knew the person and what there first name actually was. For example, just because someone is listed on the database as “Robert” does not mean they actually go by that name; “Robert” might actually prefer to be called “Bob.” Calling him Robert in an attempt to personalize the letter might actually have the opposite impact if “Robert” is really a “Bob.” So, again as you suggested, we need to know the individual’s preference.

  6. Hello, Michael: the NFP where I work has a significant number of people in our database who are gender non-conforming. As a consequence (I’m told) we have actually had backlash when we used gender-specific titles. I’m trying to compel my colleagues to use them when the recipient is both older and the gender has been made clear, but it is an issue.

    • Lorraine, thank you for taking the time to share your own challenge. The key is to address people how THEY want to be addressed. I’m old enough to remember when “Ms.” was just beginning to gain traction. Many older women objected to being addressed as “Ms.” rather than as “Miss” or “Mrs.”; by contrast, younger women were initially more receptive to the new pre-title. Then, as now, the key was to address people as they desired. To accomplish that required organizations to ask and to give folks options. Today, many (though not enough) organizations give people the option to be addressed as Mr., Mrs., Miss, Ms., Mx., etc. The gender-neutral or non-binary form is “Mx.” (By the way, I have no idea how one is supposed to pronounce “Mx.”) If one doesn’t know the preferred pre-title, it might be a good idea not to use one and, instead, refer to folks by first name or first name and last name in a salutation.

      I’ll be writing more about this issue within the next couple of weeks.

  7. It’s pronounced like Mix, according to friends of mine who are in a position to know.


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