Direct mail fundraisers who use ‘donor fatigue’ as an excuse for frequently changing acquisition packages are in the charlatan business. Same for fundraisers who attempt to hook or trick the donor — with silly teaser copy, oversized outer envelopes, omitting the organization’s logo. They’re charlatans too.

So says Kevin Schulman, our provocative pal over at DonorVoice, who has little tolerance for some of the practices in the nonprofit direct mail world, as you’ll see from this remarkable post, Stop trying to beat the control.  Just build a better one to start with.

With 15+ years in both the consumer marketing and nonprofit worlds, Kevin is a facts and figures guy with plenty of valuable insight and a shortage of patience for business-as-usual practices when he thinks they’re misguided and sometimes even stupid.

Get the full flavor of Kevin’s take on ‘beating the control’ mentality by reading his complete post. But if you’re in a rush, here’s a summary:

  • Branded consumer products — Tide, Cheerios, Snickers to name a few — conjure up images and feelings. Their packaging IS a large part of their brand, given the reality that even if the brand name were eliminated, but the size and color maintained, it would be readily recognizable.The key is that packaging is part of the product and products have a brand. In fact, the packaging is far more important than the actual product, which is similar in so many ways to the generic version.


  • This packaging is the ‘Control Package’ in the consumer goods industry. The companies stick with it year after year — 10,20, 30 years and more.
  • They don’t waste time and money trying to beat ‘the control’. Why? They would be fighting against the very thing they intentionally set out to build and that has succeeded.
  • On the other hand, most nonprofits waste enormous time and money trying unsuccessfully for the most part to beat the brand they’ve created, because, as Kevin notes, most never set out to build a brand and therefore don’t think about their direct mail in this way.
  • The result? They resort to trickery. ‘Hooks’ — phony teaser copy, no logo, bigger or smaller envelopes, you name it — as he calls them, to trick the donor into giving. “This is not being a marketer or fundraiser”, Kevin says, “This is the approach of a charlatan.”

It’s not that direct mail fundraisers are evil and cherish misrepresentation, says Kevin. “They just don’t understand what ‘brand’ really means. In the nonprofit world, ‘brand’ too often sits in the silly world of tagline, logo and, if budget permits, an ad campaign or two. The reality of brand is that every nonprofit has an organizational and product level brand … a direct mail package is a product level brand — even if it goes unattended to, misunderstood and unappreciated.”

Fearing immediate cancellations from our paid subscribers in the direct mail field (Not!), I asked Kevin to give an example of how the herd migrates to the easy, sugar-high response rate acquisition packages.

“You know what the ‘nickel package’ is?”, he calmly explained, even as I sensed his voice was about to rise. “It’s a branded product!”

[Editor Note: The ‘nickel package' is used by many nonprofits. It shows a 5 cent piece and then the copy riffs off that as in, “If I had a nickel for”… ”Just five cents a day”… You get the drift.]

Kevin: “The nickel package is a BRANDED PRODUCT. Only problem is that the brand belongs to the vendor, not to the nonprofit who buys the concept. The individual organization buys this and stuff like it and then mails it. Sometimes commoditized, generic product becomes the default ‘control’ and the ‘branded’ thing to beat.”

Unfortunately, these ‘brands by default’ do not belong to the organization, so I’ll bet, and I’m sure Kevin would back my bet, the second gift, retention and lifetime value of these ‘nickel’ folks is going to be pretty lousy.

Nonprofits, according to Kevin and also in my experience, have not just one product. Not just one Snickers. They can do what every successful consumer product company does — extend the brand. Snickers Lite. Coca-Cola. Diet Coke. Coke Zero.

So, step out of the crowd. Get rid of your generic ‘nickel package’ and all the same-old-same-old look-alike crap that fills donors’ mailboxes. Create your own Snickers, Tide or Cheerios product level brand, rather than trying to beat your control with distracting testing of envelope colors, sizes and all the other marginal nonsense that wastes time and money.

What are your thoughts on beating the control?

Roger

P.S. I know from first-hand experience that Kevin’s thoughts represent far more than provocative theory. Serious product development (additional monthly giving programs, adopt-a-this-or-that, high value and mission-related premiums etc.) — focusing on price, product, positioning, placement, people and process — is occurring right now in the UK at a rate far, far more frequently and seriously than in the US, Canada, or elsewhere.

Please read and share Kevin’s insights with your colleagues and consultants.

 

 

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