One of the most fundamental aspects of writing successful fundraising letters is to understand your audience. You need to step into the shoes of your donors and look at it from their perspective – how do they feel about mail they are receiving?
Most people are busy. They work, they raise a family, they have community obligations, bills to pay, things to do. They don’t have a ton of time to read your letter. In fact, most people are constantly on the lookout for junk mail… meaning that when they pick up their mail, most people sort through it quickly to see what is important and what isn’t, often on their way to the trash can to throw out or recycle those items that they don’t intend to read. Sadly, most people go through their mail assuming that the vast majority of it will be junk.
What does this mean for your non-profit? It means that you need to design your fundraising letters with this fact in mind. When it comes to your direct mail, you are basically designing for three distinct audiences:
The 10 Second Club – The vast majority of readers fall into this category. These are the folks that look at your piece and walk it to the trash can – they have your piece in their hands for approximately 10 seconds.
The Skimmers – A far smaller number of readers are skimmers – people who look through your mail on the way to trash can, reading headlines and looking at pictures. They will generally have your fundraising letter in their hands for 20-30 seconds, maybe more if something catches their eye (hint!) These people are usually somewhat interested in your mission, and thus more likely to donate, or are just people who like to skim everything before they throw it out so as to not miss anything.
The Readers – Few and far between, these people actually take the time to read your fundraising letter. They generally will look through your piece for 1-2 minutes, reading the headlines and drilling down into the text. These people are either very interested in your particular issue or non-profit, or tend to be older, retired folks who enjoy receiving and reading fundraising mail.
The key is to design your direct mail with the knowledge that most people will hold it in their hands for 30 seconds or less… the key is to use tried and true methods to make your mail more successful and memorable – to design fundraising direct mail that works.
“Sell” People on Reading Your Fundraising Letter
As you sit down to write your letter, it is important to remember that most people won’t read through the entire letter. Most people will skim the letter on the way to the trash can. This means that your copy will need to be strong enough that in that short 10-second window, you draw enough people in to read the letter that the letter becomes profitable for your organization.
You’ve got a short amount of time to get people to read your letter. The only way to do that is through amazing copy.
There’s a maxim in direct mail writing that goes something like this:
The headlines you use are an advertisement for people to read the first sentence of your letter. Write great headlines and you “sell” people on reading that first sentence…
Your first sentence is an advertisement for people to read the entire first paragraph of your letter. Write a great first sentence and you “sell” people on reading the whole first paragraph of your letter.
The first paragraph of your letter is an advertisement for people to read the second paragraph of your letter. Write a great first paragraph and people will read the second paragraph of your letter. And so on…
Does this mean you should only focus on writing strong headlines and a strong first and second paragraph, but not worry about the nitty-gritty writing on page 4? Not at all! Remember… your most committed supporters and those most interested in the mission of your organization will be the ones who read all the way through. They will be interested in your headlines, interested in your first paragraph and interested in reading all the way to the end. Then, they will likely give to your organization – do you want them to lose interest 2/3 of the way through your letter? No way! Write a strong letter from beginning to end.
What People Read First & What it Means for Your Letter
Studies have shown that when scanning your letter, people will read certain key items first, and use those items as an indicator as to whether or not they should read the rest of the letter. Those items are:
- The main headline of your letter
- The sub-headlines of your letter
- The pictures / picture captions
- Pull-quotes in the letter
- The P.S. (and P.S.S., etc.) at the bottom of your letter
- Bolded, underlined and italicized words
- The first paragraph of your letter
What does this mean for you, as you write the fundraising letter? It means that, first and foremost, you need to include these items in your letter – you may not normally write P.S.’s in your personal letters, but when you are writing a fundraising letter, you absolutely have to have one. The same goes for using bolded words, headlines, etc.
Second, it means that these items – the ones people read first – need to be exceptionally strong. Remember – people are reading the headlines, the P.S., the captions, etc. to see if they want to read the rest of your letter. These items are, in a sense, “ads” for the rest of your letter. If you succeed in getting people interested they will read through more of the letter. If not, they will continue on with their day and your letter will end up in the trash can. This means that you should spend extra time to make sure that these items are exceptionally strong and well-written.
Photo Credit: Adrian Clark