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Mark Rovner 8 min read

Direct Mail Isn’t Dying – But Sometimes I Wish It Would

[Mark Rovner of Sea Change Strategies added his opinions to the spirited debate on the state of direct mail. Check out his thoughtful guest post below. - Allyson Kapin, Frogloop Blogger-In-Chief]

As long as I have been doing fundraising the “is direct mail dead” question has arisen with great regularity. Interestingly, the question is always raised by direct mail fundraising consultants -- and the answer is always unsurprisingly “no.”

Clouding the situation from the other side are the over-optimistic claims from the Internet world that it’ll all be online in a matter of a few years.

Full disclosure –professionally I fall on the “cyber”side of things, but I have a healthy respect for the financial importance of direct mail –for now and for the foreseeable future.

In his most recent defense of direct mail as we know it, Chuck Pruitt uses a self-serving study (sorry Chuck but it is) to claim that direct mail is a “life-cycle”thing and not a “generational thing.” He claims that eventually, we’ll age into the life stage in which we will become direct mail donors.

That’s kind of silly.

Let’s look at some reasons why:

  • Rapid and extensive adoption of online banking and bill-paying. I have no clue where my checkbook is on any given day. I am not alone. Responding to direct mail is intimately tied to bill-paying, and as the bill-paying ritual shifts online, so will a great deal of giving.
  • Online giving is for many organizations the dominant channel for acquiring new donors.
  • Online giving is already the dominant giving channel in emergency giving.

More fundamentally, the direct mail denialists overlook a genuine and powerful shift that is very much generational – a rejection of inauthentic communications.

Baby boomers are hard to fool. Gen-Ys are impossible to fool. That won’t change with age.

Why does it matter? Because in my experience there is no more inauthentic communications channel than direct mail.

  • Contrary to their public claims, direct mail fundraisers spend much more time thinking about the color or size of the envelope than they do the content. I’ve been in those meetings.
  • A huge proportion of direct mail includes mailing labels or other crap to make you feel guilty and give out of obligation – not a great way to establish a relationship. The worst manifestation of this is the mailers who tape a fifty cent piece or a quarter to a reply card.
  • Everything is an emergency – because that lifts response rates.
  • Many mailers resort to stunts like deliberately printing the address on the envelope upside down – because that lifts response rates.
  • One non-profit mailer put a variation of the US seal on the envelope and stamped it “Official Taxpayer Information.”
  • The patois of direct mail is loaded with hyperbole and stilted language – because it lifts response rates.

I’m not saying these tactics don’t work. If they didn’t work they wouldn’t be so commonplace. I am saying it’s all a little bit sleazy and dishonest, and we have three generations – boomers, Gen-X an Gen-Y who are progressively less tolerant of sleaze and manipulation than their forebears.

Is online fundraising perfect? Hell no. Do we find ourselves sometimes resorting to the same tactics? Regrettably yes. The current fascination with premiums among online fundraisers for instance is in my opinion a short-sighted mistake. Crap backpacks and other tchotchkes do not make for durable donor relationships regardless of the channel by which they are peddled.

Pruitt rightfully points out that online donors often have shorter lifespans as donors than mail-acquired donors. I would argue that is because the practice is immature and we are still learning the art of online stewardship. But that’s changing.

There’s nothing inherently “bad” about direct mail, but after three decades of hucksterish communication, the perception won’t wear off overnight. The sheer expense of mailing means that direct mail will almost certainly decline in its share of the overall communications mix.

If our direct mail brethren are smart, they’ll get beyond their denial about the world changing, and reinvent the medium to match the expectations and tastes of new generations of donors. If they don’t, then maybe it is time to be drafting the epitaph.

This article was written by Mark Rovner, the founder of the online communications firm Sea Change Strategies.

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