Using premiums in direct mail can reduce or limit donor engagement—or it can boost results. Here’s how to use front-end premiums well.
You’ve likely seen them before—the direct mail solicitation packages with address labels or stickers, maybe even greeting cards, magnets, or coasters. These add-ins are known as front-end premiums, and their goal is to hook the recipient and encourage them to give a donation to the organization. Front-end premiums are unsolicited, which means you can include them in a direct mail package regardless of donor involvement. When used well, they can boost results for both acquisition and house-file mailings.
However, if front-end premiums are not used strategically, they can have their pitfalls.
DON’T MAKE PREMIUMS TRANSACTIONAL
Whether donors realize it or not, their giving is based on psychological rewards, and a smart fundraiser will take this into consideration when framing their appeal. The ideal fundraising messaging taps into the warm fuzzy feelings that come from having made a positive difference and feeling like a part of something bigger than yourself. Front-end premiums, however, can run the risk of becoming merely transactional. They can remove the deeper connection that recruits long-term donors, and invite instead donors who feel like their relationship to the organization is merely about “getting” something.
An example of this is a relief organization that regularly sends out generic greeting cards in their appeals. While that organization might see high response rates initially, their donors have been acquired through free stuff that does not connect them emotionally to the organization. This approach will likely lead to problems with retention: because the organization has not built a personal connection with the donor, the donor will eventually stop giving when the novelty of the free cards wears off or when they receive appeals that don’t include the cards. Because repeat and upgraded giving is the cornerstone of a healthy house-file, this transactional relationship will become a major problem, and the organization will simply churn through donors over time.
In other words, poor strategy with premiums introduces a “ceiling” on your direct mail program, limiting your organization’s potential revenue growth.
CONTEXTUALIZE YOUR PREMIUMS
That said, when used thoughtfully, front-end premiums can work well. If you want to test including a front-end premium in your direct mail package, make sure it has context and relevance.
Your premium should be connected somehow to your organization’s work and messaging. For example, the same organization described above could instead send out greeting cards featuring artwork by the people they serve, with text that’s tailored to their audience. These cards would serve as a reminder of the organization and what it does—and, more importantly, what the donor is doing to help serve vulnerable people. Ideally, your front-end premium will tie into the storytelling you’re using in the rest of your package—the need, its urgency, and what the donor can do about it.
Regardless of how you approach your premium, it’s important to keep in mind that you’ll retain your donors in the way that you acquired them. In other words, you’ll have to use the same methods in order to keep your donors engaged, at least at the outset of your relationship. You should continue to send front-end premiums to the responders in moderation—but set the long-term goal of weaning the donor off of them. If your original premiums were relevant to your mission and your donor is invested in what you do, this should go relatively smoothly.
YOU CAN’T REPLACE CULTIVATION
Finally, remember that premiums aren’t a substitute for genuine cultivation. Strong house-file appeals are intentional, heartfelt, and tailored to the donor’s affinity and giving history. You should thank the donor and show them what they’re accomplishing while also sharing current needs and how the donor can continue to help. Your ultimate aim should be to build an emotional connection with your reader and connect them to your mission, all in order to motivate them to give again. This is the foundation of a successful direct response program.