Direct Mail vs. Email Marketing for Nonprofits

Louis Oh

This month is all about old school vs. new school methods when it comes fundraising, marketing, membership, events and more in the nonprofit sector. One of the most contentious marketing methods (in any sector) is direct mail. Its supporters swear that recipients love the personal touch and that mailings help increase donations. On the other hand, direct mail’s opponents scoff at how mailings are expensive, too often treated as junk, and largely ineffective.

So who’s right? Well, everybody! Direct mail done right really can help re-engage lapsed donors as well as delight current donors and prospects. So it depends, and while that may seem like a non-answer, the same goes with digital marketing. Organizations of all sectors have come to painfully realize that digital avenues such as social media are not in itself a magic cure-all. Digital may be cheaper but its effectiveness also depends on its execution. Whether your marketing communications are in print or digital, the ROI can be strong if you implement them strategically.

Is direct mail worth it?

Overall mail volume may be declining, but the Data & Marketing Association expects this to be due to data-driven targeting. Overall response rates among customers have actually been rising at an impressive 43% year-over-year. Moreover, prospect response rates more than doubled.

In fact, as opposed to a 20% open-rate for email, 77% of consumers sort physical mail immediately upon receiving it. Moreover, the average American spends a half hour reading their mail. Why in such a digital world? Well, a Rochester Institute of Technology study showed that more than half of consumers considered print marketing to be most trustworthy. Of course, trust is important to any sector but particularly so for nonprofits. Direct mail can be a strong way to communicate legitimacy and evoke confidence in old and new donors.

Moreover, the US Postal Service (USPS) reports that a majority of people simply like getting mail and look forward to it. Key is the personal aspect. According to the USPS, 67% of Americans considered physical mail as more personal than the internet. In a study measuring responses to personalized mail and email, people recognized the greater effort print media requires and responded better to it. Direct mail can be a great way to communicate sincerity and establish relationships.

When is direct mail best?

Certainly, direct mail is not the answer to every single communication. Printing is more expensive and time-consuming. Especially if you were to achieve the level of aforementioned personalization. It would be unwise to rely solely on direct mail. However, it can be very effective for the following cases:

  • Recapturing old donors

    Acquisition is costly and therefore retention is invaluable. Direct mail can be a powerful retention strategy as, according to the DMA, 70% of customers have restarted a relationship because of direct mail. Use direct mail marketing materials to not only remind them of you but show how much you’ve grown and how they helped. Take advantage of the physical nature of the materials and show, not just in words, that you’ve been working hard and could do better with their help. Through quality design, personalized messages, and powerful stories, show passion, express gratitude, invite confidence.

  • Delighting new donors

    You may have garnered enough trust to get the donation but make sure to follow through so that it can maintain interest and establish a relationship. Millward Brown, a research agency, reported that physical media leaves a deeper mental imprint than digital media. Quality correspondence expressing gratitude and illustrating the impact of the donation, coupled with a personal touch can deeply resonate and extend the good feelings from the initial engagement.

  • Standing out to young people

    Contrary to popular belief about the digital-native generation, young people appreciate physical marketing communications. Perhaps it is precisely because they are the most inundated by messaging in their digital lives but young adults under 24 were among the most responsive to direct mail. In fact USPS found that millennials are “far more likely than non-Millennials to read and engage with direct mail.” Break through the clutter of their digital lives and offer something refreshing and sincere.

So how do I get direct marketing right?

If direct mail marketing is so great, what’s the problem? Marketing Sherpa reported that people get too much mail and don’t have the time to go through all of it. Consider these 4 key factors:

  • Segment:

    The era of mass-marketing is over. Don’t try to reach anyone and everyone. Utilize digital analytics to get a solid targeting strategy. Not only is this more efficient but it will make it easier to…

  • Personalize:

    Like mentioned above, the power of physical mail over email is that it feels more personal. Take advantage of this to communicate that you sincerely care about your mission and their contribution as well as that you can be entrusted with both.

  • Stand Out:

    Don’t be the boring white envelope that people never get to. Send something eye-catching and evoke the excitement of getting something in the mail. Take advantage of the visual, tactile (and perhaps multi-sensory) aspect of mail.

  • Simplify:

    A caveat to standing out, however, is that don’t overdo it to the point of becoming clutter. Play with texture, shapes, sizes, and color but keep it simple and easy. Emphasize numbers; make the most of eye-catching graphics and limited copy.

When is email best?

Now you might be thinking, if direct mail is so great does that mean I should scrap email? Absolutely not! Direct mail can be a powerful way to reignite old relationships or attract and surprise new ones but the expense and time it requires is not suited for steady communications. First of all, email is still more effective than social media, according to McKinsey & Company. Email is also far more measurable than direct mail. Therefore, email lends to more effective strategy development based on behavioral insight.

Coupled with the affordability it offers, a robust email strategy can have a strong ROI even for smaller or newer organizations. In general, email is the best practice when communicating with a dedicated or expectant constituency. In other words, it’s the segment that you need to worry less about whether they’ll check their email because these people want to hear from you. It is your duty to oblige them! Focusing in on this segment, use email for:

  • Time Sensitive Messages

    Notices for upcoming events or special promotions simply might not make it in time through the postal service. Email is also easier to set up links to send donors and members exactly where they need to go to get involved or contribute.

  • Weekly Updates/Newsletters

    Some donors and dedicated members want to know how your organization is progressing and how else they can get involved again. Easy regular updates work well on email.

  • Immediate response

    Of course, prompt letters of gratitude and confirmation, even if not as detailed and personalized, is very important. The first round of communications should be prompt so that you can show your constituents that you are not only thankful but responsible.

Bringing it all together.

At the end of the day print or digital, marketing communications is all about the same end-goal. Therefore both should be integrated into an overarching plan (marketing pros call it integrated marketing communications) and used strategically. For any of your efforts, you should remember that direct mail or email doesn’t and shouldn’t stand alone.

Take advantage of data analytics at your disposal and be smarter about what you send and who you send it to. In order to maximize the impact of any outreach, you should craft a strategy that encourages continued engagement. So direct mail should be followed-up with a digital sequence of communication. Similarly, email should intuitively lead to actionable behaviors, set to be monitored through analytics software to track conversion.

NeonCRM can be a great way to improve your direct mail and email marketing with its donor and membership management, analytics, and marketing communications software. Learn more about how we can help your nonprofit.

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