Tom Ahern

Tom Ahern is my go-to guy for all things direct mail. Afraid your direct mail piece goes too far and will solicit a negative response? Tom explains why that may not be a bad thing. Plus he quotes one of my other favorite fundraising bloggers, Jeff Brooks.

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Guest Post by Tom Ahern of Ahern Communications

It had arrived. And I trembled.

In my in-box was an email from a new client. The subject line: “Responses to the appeal letter.” Lily was reporting in. I’d written an appeal for her agency. She had taken a big risk on it. And we all had our fingers so tightly crossed that our nails were turning blue.

I closed my eyes … wrapped my arms around a really deep breath … and clicked the email “open.” Where I read….

“The appeal has had a huge impact!” Lily’s email began. Lily is the manager of annual fund and membership. She is gung-ho star material, ready to scale walls and shoot threads from her wrists, and totally dedicated to the organization’s success. Which is the culture at this place.

My breathing began again. Well, OK then. ‘Huge impact.’ I can cling to that. I guess I’m not a totally incompetent nincompoop.

But her next statement raised an issue. “We are starting to get in responses to the appeal – some very positive … and some very angry.”

Let me set some context.

I work under something called “the Verbatim Rule.” I ask my new direct mail clients to agree that they will send out what I write for them exactly as I write it, without fiddling. Verbatim. Not a word changed, unless I made a factual error.

The Verbatim Rule exists for one reason: to sanctify the intensity of professionally crafted direct mail.

Direct mail is not a medium that rewards meekness. Clients who want to tone it down, who judge it “too sales-y,” who second-guess the mechanics (“…a P.S. is so undignified…”) will undermine a full and healthy response.

The Verbatim Rule is good for me (less cursing under my breath). And it’s good for the client (more income).

But there is a footnote to the Verbatim Rule: Expect complaints.

Replacing inoffensive direct mail with real direct mail, filled with black arts and emotional triggers, is like replacing ordinary fences with electric fences.

Expect reactions.

Strong direct mail will touch nerves.

And not every nerve you touch will enjoy the experience.

Are complaints a problem? Not really. Unpleasant, maybe. But, handled properly, I think they’re pretty much the definition of an opportunity to have a great conversation with a supporter (first, though, see Jeff Brooks‘ note on who complainers typically are; below).

In direct mail, ALL response is indicative of something worth knowing. Complaints are as good as praise, in that regard.

Negative response means your appeal went far enough emotionally. Complaints mean your appeal was upsetting enough to get noticed. It’s a weird measure, I know. But it’s accurate to the penny.

Lily was okay with a few complaints, because we’d discussed that phenomenon in advance. Still, she was concerned. What she really wanted to know was this: How many angry responses is too many?

There’s no industry measure I’m aware of. Certainly, none is mentioned in “bibles” like Mal Warwick’s How to Write Successful Fundraising Letters or Alan Sharpe’s Mail Superiority: How to Run a Profitable Annual Direct Mail Fundraising Program (Amazon links).

Jeff Brooks knows a heck of a lot more about this stuff than I do. So I asked his opinion, and he wrote back, “I’ve never heard of a standard metric for complaints. Twenty-five per 10,000 does strike me as unusually high.” That was a number I’d suggested. “But even then, I’d hesitate to worry; that number is statistically equal to zero. And most complainers turn out to be lapsed and/or low-dollar donors. The paranoid fantasy of some orgs — that our fundraising will cause everybody to up and leave — wouldn’t be measured by complaints, but by a serious drop in retention. The only fundraising tactic I’ve seen do anything like that is rebranding. Strong fundraising, never. It increases response AND retention.”

Tom Ahern is often described as “one of the world’s leading authorities” on how to speak properly — and profitably — to donors. He’s authored four well-received how-to books on donor communications, and delivers dozens of workshops internationally on the techniques of successful fundraising communications. A constant practitioner, Tom writes fundraising materials for some of America’s leading nonprofits, constantly honing his specialties of donor newsletters, direct mail, and case statements. Get Tom’s training and advice on your next direct mail letter during the Direct Mail for Small Nonprofits e-clinic at Nonprofit Marketing Guide in May 2012.

Published On: February 6, 2012|Categories: Fundraising|