Direct mail readers skim your letters—you’ve got seconds to convey your message. That means repetition, pith, and repetition are paramount.
So you’ve been asked to write a direct mail letter as a part of your nonprofit’s fundraising campaign.
You’re eager to show off your beautiful prose. You’re ready to win hearts with your moving musings on your nonprofit’s mission. Your subtle and mellifluous turns of phrase will wet the eyes and awaken the generosity of even the most impassive donor. Dickens and Dostoevsky will be your muse. Right?
Well . . . no. That is not the mindset of a direct mail writer—not any successful one that is. Now is not the time for florid prose. Nor for analytical explanations, nor even nuanced arguments.
Now is the time for pith and punch.
Your hope as a direct mail writer is this: that a prospective donor spend seven seconds skimming your letter before they dump it in the wastebasket with the rest of their unsolicited mail.
Only in those seven seconds—fifteen if you’re lucky—do you have an actual shot at persuading them to donate to your cause. So write like that’s the case.
I bet you’re thinking that doesn’t sound too glamorous. Perhaps it isn’t. But direct mail is the backbone of any successful fundraising operation. Your nonprofit needs funds to do the work that you love and care about, and direct mail—however uninspiring it may seem to you—is how you fund that work.
That being said, what are the tried-and-true writing methods for direct mail?
1. SOUND LIKE A PERSON
Direct mail should sound personal. Imagine you are speaking directly to the donor and use conversational language. People give to people, we like to say, and that’s as true in direct mail as it is in meetings.
You can manipulate the text to help you convey this highly personal tone. For example, underline, boldface, and italicize those sentences that deserve emphasis. And use fragments. Don’t be beholden to grammar conventions—this is direct mail, not your dissertation.
Write paragraphs with only one sentence . . . or one word.
If you’re a writer, you might cringe at these suggestions. But these techniques bring in more dollars.
The goal here is not to make mistakes or to look uneducated. (In fact, you should hire a good editor to help you catch any errors!) But the goal is to catch your reader’s attention quickly, to convey your meaning to a skimming donor, and to connect with your donor person-to-person in a fleeting moment.
2. GET REPETITIVE
Let me make that point again: you’re trying to convey the value of your organization to a skimming donor.
Remember that most of your readers are not reading this stuff closely. You need to get a little repetitive with your main message. If you only asked for a donation once in your letter, that’s about as good as not having asked at all.
At the same time, a few donors will sit down and read your whole letter, so you want to use fresh language each time you repeat your request for donations. And don’t make your repetitions odious. This is not florid prose, but it need not be boring prose.
Find a healthy balance: don’t sound like a broken record, but make sure those skimmers get your point no matter what part of the letter they lay their eyes on.
3. INCLUDE A POSTSCRIPT
Want to know a direct mail writing secret? The postscript is your best friend. Studies show time and time again that a good portion of your readers will skip over the entire letter and only read the postscript. In other words, the postscript is prime real estate on your direct mail package. Don’t ever let it go to waste.
P.S. Can you summarize the main takeaway of the letter and what you want your donor to do in two or three sentences? Good! Now put those sentences in the postscript and you have a great start to your killer direct mail letter.
P.P.S. You can even echo the key ask or premium offer in a post-postscript!