I work at the creative end of the marketing process. Many of my clients like me to be involved in creating the concept for their fundraising letter, publication, website copy or whatever piece of work they want doing. I find this very stimulating, and I enjoy coordinating with other professionals (such as designers) on making the words and visual elements fit together perfectly.
This process works best when we – the creative team – are fully aware of the target audience. This is especially true in fundraising. We need to know who they are, what they’re used to receiving and what they give in response. Once we have this data we can focus our creative energies and professional experience of ‘what works’ and come up with something really powerful. Over time, the experience of what works solidifies into our gut feeling; our conventional wisdom; our common sense.
However, there are times when the data and our experience do not agree. And when that happens, we need the courage to abandon our what our guts tell us is correct and go with what the data says.
For example: I recently wrote an direct mail appeal for a charity. Normally (and I use the word very carefully), a charity waits a minimum of six weeks from the date the appeal lands on the doormats before looking at response rates. The response time can be longer – One of my clients recently received a donation from an appeal they sent in 1988 – but six weeks is a reasonably time to get a good indication of whether or not the appeal is a success.
I was surprised, therefore, to see that a ‘follow-up letter’ was due to be sent to the same people only two weeks after the main appeal. The purpose was simple – to chase the donors and remind them that the charity needs their support.
My gut told me that this was a bad idea. It would upset the donors and put them off giving rather than encourage them to give. It would annoy donors who had just given but not had their gifts processed. It would look like the charity was wasting money on paper and postage. It would result in feelings of guilt creeping into the charity-donor relationship.
Nobody likes a begging letter, so I queried the wisdom of the follow-up letter with the client. I was greatly surprised by what I heard.
Follow-up letters work. This particular charity found that sending a two-week chaser after the main appeal typically brings in an extra £30,000 (minus costs of the second letter). For this particular charity, that was between 30% and 50% extra income per appeal letter.
The gut is built of hard-earned experience across different projects and different clients, but it can be wrong. Data, on the other hand, is there in black and white and is hard to ignore. If multiple appeals show a 30% increase in income, it is safe to say follow-up letters really do work, despite what the gut may tell you.
As somebody said to me recently: “the difference between an amateur and a professional is that a professional never stops learning.” How true.