Yesterday, I vented my spleen about the argument that volume leads to retention and that the volume of contact should be viewed as the lever to do so.

Now, I’d like to put my case studies where my mouth is.

Most of these are specific to mail.  Why?  Because that’s where the testing has been heretofore.  This is in large part because organizations face a greater tangible, incremental cost to mailing. It costs money to send an extra person an extra postal mail piece.  It costs no money to send an extra person an extra email.  So it’s natural to get logorrhea online and set a default of sending more to more.

But it turns out this does have a cost: $24,522.  That’s the amount that the average nonprofit lost to spam last year according to the excellent 2017 EveryAction Nonprofit Email Deliverability Study.

In fact, the study says that for every one percent of your email going to spam, you lose $1309.  And the more emails you send, the more likely you are to have undelivered emails.  More than a third of Giving Tuesday emails were routed as spam, losing the average nonprofit $6,184.

I haven’t seen the 2018 report yet, but holding the envelope up to my head like Carnac The Magnificent, I’m going to say they’ll be worse.

And you thought I was going to say that the costs of email are the time and effort you put into writing, designing, and sending them whether internal or external.  That too.

Additionally, the irritation factor is similar for online and offline, as is the drop off in marginal returns.

But if that bothers you, let’s start with one organization that cut both mail and email volume.

Catholic Relief Services.  CRS took a pilot group of 40,000 donors (against a control group of 40,000 donors of similar make-up) and tested decreased volume of both mail and emails by about 25-30%.  Long story short, that reduced volume cadence is their control this year because of its success.

In fact, with a 30% drop in email volume, their drop in online revenue was less than 2% – within the margin of error.

That last 30% of their email communication volume was giving them almost no additional value.  Imagine what you could do with the extra time you could save doing 30% fewer emails.  My guess is it’s better than “increase digital revenues by two percent.”  (And that’s with 30% less offline support that, if volume theory is correct, would also raise boats on the digital side.)

Union of Concerned Scientists.  UCS took a pilot group of 25,000 donors (against a similar control) and tested four mail appeals (plus four impact statements) per year versus 12-15 in the control condition.

Gasp! Zounds! Yes!  Four appeals per year!

Here, thanks to Blackbaud, is the video from Laurie Marden of UCS.  It’s great viewing:

But for those who don’t have the 18 minutes for the video, the test group:

  • Had $8000 more in net income
  • Came within five percent on gross revenues
  • Had $2.60 higher average gift
  • Saved $32,000 in costs
  • Halved cost per dollar raised
  • Had $9.69 higher net income per donor

Clean, clear crush.  UCS’s control is now four appeals per year and they are happy with the results.

Organization A. This international relief organization randomized their new donors to one of three conditions:

  • No additional no-ask cultivation touches
  • Six additional no-ask cultivation touches
  • 12 additional no-ask cultivation touches

Results?  No one wanted 12 additional cultivation touches – retention went down in all cases.  And there was no aggregate difference between no additional touches and six additional touches for retention rate – a nail in the coffin for the volume = retention maxim.

But wait!  When donors were broken down by commitment level, we found that highly committed donors – the ones we all really want to retain – had their retention drop by nine points when they got six additional touches.  They were already convinced and didn’t need to be sold.

BUT…Those less committed needed the extra touches – the six additional communications meant a 12-percent increase in retention.  This study in more detail here.

Clearly, this example is “cheating”, because we are breaking down donors by their commitment level.

So why don’t you “cheat”?

The central lie of the volume myth is that it is a strategy that can be applied across all donor categories. (When in fact it’s a strategy that results in hitting diminishing returns).

What this all means is that if you really want to maximize retention you’ll collect commitment information up front, and then by  customizing on it, you can decrease volume for your best donors and increase their retention.  Win-win.

Organization B. A human services organization was challenged to mail 15% less and hit the same revenue numbers.  The organization separated their donors into three tiers: one who could bear the most communications, one the least, and the remaining Goldilocks in between.  From there, they were able to send their more marginal pieces only to their best donors and only their best pieces to their most marginal donors.

Results: The organization didn’t just stay where they were; they increased net revenue by 14% and decreased their cost to raise a dollar by 17%.  Here’s the case study from our friends at DonorTrends.

Clearly, this example is “cheating”, because you are breaking down donors by their value to the organization.

So why don’t you “cheat”?

Here’s another example where “more is better thinking” ignores important subgroups who would benefit from less communication.  This type of modeling won’t help you figure out if your top-end of donors are getting too much mail, but it’s a way to start down the path of decreasing volume and increasing value.  And it will get you buy-in for more radical solutions.

National Committee to Preserve Social Security and MedicareAs reported here, The Committee coded people who requested less mail and sent them half as many appeals as those who stated no preference.  Those donors who requested – and received – half as many contacts gave more than the group that didn’t express a preference.

Clearly, this example is cheating.  You are comparing a group who, when asked, expressed a preference to those who didn’t.  Apples and oranges.

So why don’t you “cheat”?

If donor value increases when you get preferences and then and follow through on them, why isn’t that activity a central goal of your direct marketing?

This may be because better donors expressed a preference, rather than the act of adhering to the donor’s preference caused higher response and retention,  but honestly how much do you usually spend to find out who your best donors are?

So here they are – five case studies where organizations used different tactics to get off the volume hamster wheel.  All of them control for all the variables that they can.  The CRS and UCS examples, in particular, are scientific control-versus-test pilot programs.

The reality we all must face is this:   Volume testing alone only helps cleans up the mess we made.  We need to go past the issue of “volume” alone to focus on the actual needs of our donors.

We’ll talk about that later in the week, but next, in tomorrow’s post, we want to explain why volume hurts our donors.